#CBR7 Review #78: M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang

I’ve been looking for a play to teach in my fall class, and I wanted something that wasn’t merely a classic Greek or Roman play or a very western-European-focused play such as an Ibsen. A little digging led me to David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. While Hwang is an American playright, he purposefully focuses on deconstructing myths of the “Orient,” using Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, a true story of a disgraced French diplomat, and turning those myths on their head through a discussion of gender and sexuality in his fluid movements in space and time.

M. Butterfly focuses on the relationship between French diplomat Rene Gallimard and the actress Song Liling, whose fragility and sexual power seduced him into giving away state secrets. Yet Song Liling is actual a spy–and a man. The play turns not on dramatic reveals of plot, but on understanding of character and fantasy. The play itself is short but dark, powerful, evocative, and also rather funny.

To say that I liked this play was an understatement. It made a powerful statement about “Oriental” fantasies and myths and unmade them efficiently and ruthlessly. Gallimard’s own naivete and sexism are laid bare before the audience, just as our perceptions of both men and women are interrogated and re-examined. I would love to see this play performed, as it is both short and powerful, but makes use of the past and of fantasy very effectively. I understand that David Cronenberg made the play into a film–I’ll be interested to see how he makes use of the source material. Either way, this was one of the best contemporary plays I’ve read to date.

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