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In 1988, playwright David Henry Hwang became the leading theatrical voice of the Asian American community and one of the leading Asian American voices in the United States. Hwang previously had modest success with several Off-Broadway productions, but his M. Butterfly (1988), the first Asian American play to be performed on Broadway and win a Tony Award for best play, brought him national renown. His body of work since 1988 includes plays, opera librettos, books for musicals, and motion picture and television screenplays.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Self-Made Education in Theater
Hwang was born on August 11, 1957, in San Gabriel, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Hwang enrolled at Stanford University in 1975 with the intention of studying law. As a freshman, Hwang saw Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1954) at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He told Jackson R. Bryer, ”I thought, ‘I think I can do that,’ so I started trying to write.” He showed his early attempts to a Stanford professor, the novelist John L’Heureux, who described them as ”horrible.” This criticism led Hwang to begin a process that he still continues: when he does not know enough about a topic, he educates himself on it. ”So I spent the next two or three years trying to read as many plays and see as many plays as I could,” he told Bryer. ”I’d go up to San Francisco to the Magic and see all the Sam Shepard premieres that were going on at the time.” Among the playwrights whose works he read were Tom Stoppard, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Anton Chekhov, Peter Shaffer, and Ntozake Shange. He also changed his major to English.
In the summer of 1977, Hwang interned at East/West Players, performing odd jobs around the theater. The next summer, he attended the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, where Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes taught him about incorporating ritual into drama. While Hwang has called Fornes the best playwriting teacher in the world, Shepard’s influence is more apparent in his early plays. Maxine Hong Kingston was another early influence. Hwang read her play The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) at Stanford. He told Lyons that while Shepard and Fornes provided the structure for his plays, Kingston’s was the first ”that made me feel that I could find my own voice. As an Asian-American, she was the first author who spoke in a voice that seemed special, directly related to me.”
East Versus West
Shortly after the festival, Hwang began writing his first play, FOB (1979). FOB—the title refers to Chinese immigrants who are ”fresh off the boat”—is based on a double date Hwang went on with his cousin. As he attempted to transcribe the evening into a play, two legendary characters continually materialized in his mind: Fa Mu Lan, who poses as a man and takes her father’s place in the military in Kingston’s play, and Gwan Gung, the god of fighters and writers in Frank Chin’s play Gee, Pop! (1974). Blending the double date and the two mythic figures, Hwang discovered a thematic technique that has served him throughout his career: the juxtaposition of two contrasting and seemingly ill-fitting concepts, usually one Eastern and one Western. One year after Hwang graduated from Stanford in 1979, FOB received an Obie Award as best Off-Broadway play. The play also received the Drama-Logue Playwriting Award and the U.S.-Asia Institute Award. Kingston writes in her preface to FOB and Other Plays: ”To have a fellow writer who works an ocean and a continent away meet me at an intersection reassures me that there is a place called Chinese America and that I am seeing it with an authentic vision.”
Hwang taught writing for a year at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, near Stanford. In 1980, he enrolled in the Yale University School of Drama, where he began writing The Dance and the Railroad (1981). He left Yale in 1981, because the last two years of the program involved workshop productions of the students’ plays; by that time Hwang was already having his plays produced Off-Broadway.
Spy and Butterfly
Hwang first encountered the material for his next play, M. Butterfly (1988), during a dinner conversation in which a friend related a story in The New York Times about a French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, who had had a twenty-year-long romantic relationship with Shi Peipu, a Beijing Opera performer and Chinese government spy, without realizing that Shi was actually a man. Their affair, and Shi Peipu’s spying and true sex, were discovered after the couple returned to France. Bouriscot was sentenced to six years in prison, and Shi was expelled from the country. The international incident provided Wang with the chance to address issues of imperialism, racism, and sexism through one unbelievable love affair. To augment his thematic interests, Hwang added the iconography of the title character of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera Madame Butterfly (1904), about a Japanese woman who sacrifices herself for her caddish American husband. Using the story and music of Madame Butterfly as a counterpoint to the stage action, Hwang transforms the relationship between his two lovers from a quirky news article to an indicting subversion of stereotypical expectations between East and West.
With M. Butterfly, Hwang evolved from a respected Off-Broadway dramatist to one of the top playwrights in the country, as well as the first Asian American to have a play produced on Broadway. The play received seven Tony nominations, winning the award for best play; John Dexter won for best director, and B. D. Wong, who played Song, was named best featured actor. The play received Drama Desk Awards in the same categories. M. Butterfly was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
A constant component of Hwang’s work has been the tweaking, reinvigorating, or subverting of myths and stories, whether Eastern as in The Dance and the Railroad, or Western as in M. Butterfly. His twenty years of experience in such undertakings prepared him for one of his most difficult tasks, updating the 1958 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical Flower Drum Song, based on the 1957 novel by C. Y. Lee. The musical premiered in Los Angeles and was a box office success. It then moved to Broadway, where the reviews were, for the most part, strong.
David Henry Hwang has amassed a body of work that is impressive, unpredictable, diverse, and controversial in terms of scope, depth, and versatility. Clearly, one of the impacts of his career has been his success in subverting Asian American stereotypes in American culture. Perhaps the most telling stereotype he has destroyed is the one mentioned by Williamson B. C. Chang in analyzing M. Butterfly, with his success, longevity, and versatility, Hwang is most certainly not an “invisible” Asian male.
Works in Literary Context
At the heart of Hwang’s works is his struggle to confront and conquer a stigma that Asian Americans face in the United States. In his introduction to FOB and Other Plays (1990) he writes, ”One of the particular burdens of my minority is that we are never completely accepted as Americans; we are perpetual foreigners.” That nagging feeling of not being accepted has inspired him to challenge what he considers the shallow American concept of identity and to subvert the stereotypes that accompany ethnicity, gender, and religion. Looking back on his career in an October 13, 2002 article in The New York Times, he writes,
As a playwright, I find that much of my work has involved a search for authenticity; if I could discover more truthful images to replace the stereotypical ones of my youth, perhaps I could also begin to understand my own identity.
The East/West Conflict
Hwang has explored the social and cultural conflict between the East and the West in many of his plays. Often, his work is criticized for relying too heavily on Asian stereotypes. To critics who found the characters in M. Butterfly too pat, Hwang declared that debate over his plays was useful, answering, ”It allows Asian-American audiences to define themselves in relation to a particular artist by either rejecting or accepting that person’s vision.” When given the opportunity to update the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, Hwang was particularly interested in using an all-Asian cast and to present a romance between an Asian man and woman—an image absent from popular American culture and one he rarely examined in his own work. He reincorporates Rodgers and Hammer-stein’s songs into the story but also juxtaposes the Western songwriters’ work with Chinese opera. Like his other plays, Flower Drum Song addresses issues of identity, assimilation, and the Asian American experience.
Works in Critical Context
Widely recognized as the leading theatrical voice of the Asian American community, Hwang has received his share of rave reviews and awards. M. Butterfly, his best known work, has garnered a variety of responses, including divided reactions from the academic community. Golden Child, despite largely positive reviews, also had its share of detractors.
After its debut in 1988, M. Butterfly received three Tony Awards. Academics, though, took issue with some of the play’s themes. While Suzanne Kehde notes that Hwang gives the female characters in the play sexually, intellectually, and politically dominant roles, other scholars claim that M. Butterfly merely reinforces Asian stereotypes. Williamson B. C. Chang states that the play ”was written for white men and Asian women….As has become the standard framework for dramas about East meets West, Asian males are again simply not there, they are invisible.” He continues,
Asians, particularly Asian women, are portrayed as cunning, shrewd, manipulative, and deceptive. Westerners are trusting, idealistic, misinformed, and generous, but simply short-sighted in their dealings with the East.
Hwang’s Golden Child, commissioned by South Coast Repertory, opened Off-Broadway in 1996. Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, called the play an ”earnest, sweet-tempered work by a dramatist who is teaching himself to look back not in anger but in forgiveness”; but, Brantley continued, though ”likable, educational and, at times, very poignant . . . it’s never able to generate much urgency.” One of the reasons for this absence of urgency, according to Brantley, is that ”there’s little sense of the emotional link between the generations.” Nevertheless, Golden Child received a 1997 Obie Award as best play. A revised version of Golden Child opened on Broadway in 1998. Matt Wolf noted in his Daily Variety review that the play still had the same problems Brantley had identified two years earlier: the play never fully came to life, and never met its obligation to be a dramatic piece of work onstage. Nevertheless, the Broadway version received three Tony nominations, including one for Best Play.
- Bryer, Jackson R. ”David Henry Hwang,” in his The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 123-146.
- Cooperman, Robert. ”Across the Boundaries of Cultural Identity: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort. New York: Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 365-373.
- DiGaetani, John Louis. ”David Henry Hwang,” in his A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 161-174.
- Moss-Coane, Marty and John Timpane. ”David Henry Hwang.” Speakingon Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 277-290.
- Revilla, Linda A. and others, ed. ”A Conversation with David Henry Hwang.” Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives.Pullman,Wash.: Washington State University Press, 1993, pp. 185-191.
- Savran, David. ”David Henry Hwang,” in his In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights.New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 117-131.
- Berson, Misha. ”The Demon in David Henry Hwang.” American Theatre 15 (April 1998): 14-18, 50-52.
- Lyons, Bonnie. ”’Making His Muscles Work for Himself’: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” Literary Review 42 (Winter 1999): 230-244.
- Marx, Robert. ”Hwang’s World.” Opera News 57 (October 1992): 14-17.
- Steven Barclay Agency Web site. David Henry Hwang. Retrieved October 3, 2008, from http://www. barclayagency.com/hwang.html.
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