David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly carefully juxtaposes politics and gender as he shifts our point of view on narrative, voice, and power in this still vibrant and remarkable play. With a revised plot for this Broadway revival, the production by director Julie Taymor unfortunately leans towards flatness and simplicity which dulls the power of the play and muddies the play’s intentions. But M. Butterfly returns at a propitious moment–the intersectionality of race and gender and the consideration of rape culture in the play strongly resonates today.
In the play, Hwang addresses the politics of “Western” men asserting themselves over “Eastern” nations only to be defeated by their own arrogance and their willful ignorance of reality and history. These imperialists think the West is the aggressive, confident man and the East is the submissive, beckoning woman. This is further accentuated by the misogynistic and racist stereotypes embraced by the Western diplomats portrayed. For Hwang’s protagonist, Rene Gallimard, this attitude is not just present in his politics but his relationships as well.
Gallimard (Clive Owen), our unreliable narrator, is trying to tell us his story—he’s in jail for treason. Working backwards we learn why. Gallimard was a French diplomat sent to Beijing in the 1960’s where he was involved in intelligence related to the wars in Indochina. Bumbling with women, Gallimard marries an older woman and tries to avoid all other contact with them. But he finds himself drawn to an opera singer, Song Liling (Jin Ha) who performs at an embassy party. Song is dressed as the leading lady from Gallimard’s favorite opera Madama Butterfly. Gallimard approaches Song after the performance mistaking Song for a woman. Song corrects this misapprehension and Gallimard begins a tentative friendship with Song believing that Song is a man. Eventually Song reveals he is not a man, but a woman and she wants to give herself to Gallimard.
Gallimard’s prepubescent dream comes true—this delicate “butterfly” needs his protection and throws herself into his arms just like the fictional opera Butterfly. Vomit. But as Hwang makes clear, blinded by his cultural and colonial mindset, Gallimard is wrong about a great many things.
Turning white savior tropes on their head, flipping melodramatic female suffering at the hand of cruel men, undermining the white narrator with the competing voice of his beloved “Butterfly,” Hwang twists the storytelling and with it forces us to recognize the orientalist tales we’ve long just accepted in Western art.
Each time Gallimard thinks he is leading, Hwang pivots the narrative and the truth just out of Gallimard’s sole control. It’s a pleasure to watch Hwang disassemble and disabuse the audience of archaic orientalist, colonialist notions of Chinese womanhood and Western virility.
If only this production were worthy of Hwang’s creativity. Taymor’s stark, severe approach chills the dream-like elements of the play. Taymor’s directorial vision frequently utilizes flattened graphic images on moving panels which simply illustrate where we are, not what to feel. The piece is far too slippery for this kind of didactic treatment. Sumptuous moments of Chinese opera (including homages to Cultural Revolution works such as the Red Detachment of Women) are the most vivid of the staging but that gives us no insight into the characters.
Owen is too handsome and suave to be fully believable as a fumbling, socially-inept fool. He may deliver lovesick and desperate but he never appears truly comfortable in the skin of Gallimard. Jin Ha admirably fulfills the role of Song shifting between male and female personas. Ha expresses both Song’s false modesty and fragility when it serves the character and Song’s later caustic sharpness when the truth is out.
Though the play may be best known for the unexpected sexual relationship at its core Hwang delves far deeper into these characters. Hwang made some changes to this revival. It now tracks more of the true story behind the play (the tale of diplomatic attaché Bernard Boursicot). In a post-Crying Game (and post-M. Butterfly) world, the play does not lean on the “shock” factor of Song’s gender reveal in the same way it did in 1988. Hwang reduces some of the characters’ homophobia that was expressed in the original play.
We know earlier in the play that Song is lying about his/her gender. By removing this mystery for us (but not Gallimard), our fixation morphs from sex to power and politics. The intrigue is concentrated more on the machinations behind the subterfuge. We watch Song work on Gallimard, rather than get swept up in their relationship. Song has more agency and a greater presence. It also magnifies not just Gallimard being helplessly lost in the delusion of his relationship with Song but his professional blindspots in China and Vietnam as well.
Perhaps this was an apt month to appreciate Hwang’s critical gaze at white Western men in M. Butterfly. Song uses the phrase “Her mouth says no, her eyes say yes,” to describe the ideology of Western men who see themselves as dominating their Eastern conquests–political and personal. This stinging recognition of rape culture is a scarily familiar one. After the myriad sexual harassment, abuse, and rape allegations that came out this month against powerful men in media, a play where a white man in power falls at the hands of his fantasy woman is oddly satisfying. The play is adroitly more nuanced than that. But as Gallimard begs the audience for an understanding of his toxic vision of the world, we watch him suffer in our repeated denials of that validation. This was cathartic for reasons beyond Hwang’s text.