The intertextual web that acts as the starting point for David Henry Hwang’s 2007 play, the inaugural production for Special Relationship, first seen at the Park Theatre, is as delightful as it is mind-boggling.
In 1898, the American John Luther Long writes a short story called ‘Madame Butterfly’ about an American naval officer called Pinkerton who marries a geisha who he calls “butterfly”, while stationed in Nagasaki. The story is likely to have been substantially based on Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthme from 1887. Long’s story was adapted into a play by David Belasco. After a successful run in New York, it transferred to London where it was seen by none other than Giacomo Puccini in 1900, who decided it would make a pretty good opera. Probably needless to say that the first productions of Madame Butterfly didn’t cast East Asian performers as CioCio San (Butterfly) or any of the other Japanese characters. They were however, for the Brescia production of 1904 (the first production was a flop so there were rewrites), Ukrainian singers playing both Butterfly and Suzuki, marking them out from the otherwise entirely Italian cast.
Fast forward to the 1960s and in China a French diplomat called Bernard Boursicot begins an affair with a Chinese opera singer called Shi Pei Pu. Boursicot believes (wrongly) that Shi is a woman but this minor misunderstanding doesn’t prevent him from continuing an affair with him whereby he eventually become embroiled in an espionage scandal. In 1986, Shi and Bourscicot were convicted of spying against the French government. Hwang based his 1988 play M. Butterfly on this case but also used the similarities to dissect the orientalism of the Madame Butterfly narrative.
Still there? Great. So the year after M. Butterfly opens on Broadway and wins all the awards comes Miss Saigon by Claud Michel Schnberg and Alain Boubil. It opens in the West End, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and it’s basically a version of Madame Butterfly set in Vietnam. In the role of French-Vietnamese pimp Tran Van Dinh was Jonathan Pryce. Not a problem in London apparently but a bit of an issue when the following year the show transfers to Broadway. The musical is accused of engaging in a kind of “minstrel show”.
It’s at this point that Yellow Face begins with David Henry Hwang as one of the most vocal spokespeople against what he sees as Pryce “yellowing up”. Hwang (played by Kevin Shen) narrates the episode and how the whole thing starts to get out of control as Cameron Mackintosh threatens to pull the show entirely. Hwang wants to stick by his principles but also doesn’t want to be held responsible for cancelling what would have been a hugely successful show. Eventually it goes ahead anyway without a casting change but Hwang gets an idea from the whole debacle for a new play. It will be called Face Value and it will be about the casting of a white actor in an Asian part on a new musical where two Asian actors turn up in “white face” as a form of protest.
It’s really here that fact and fiction start to diverge and I won’t go further for fear of giving away the most intriguing elements of the piece. I came to it from a position of total ignorance so enjoyed trying to pull apart the truth from the fiction. I often wondered if the whole thing was based on real events and the degree to which things had been altered and I think that’s one of the playful pleasures of Hwang’s layering.
While the storytelling is ingenious, the production slips into a bizarrely broad register throughout, the tone set by Shen’s narrator (also the show’s producer) providing the beat everyone else must step to. It doesn’t help that almost none of Hwang’s text consists of presenttense live interaction. Almost everything is narration, a quote or a telephone call. This, of course, does reflect how we interact in modern fractured urban lifestyles but I soon started to feel that the play was working against the uniqueness of live experience rather than within it.
Even when characters do interact in the same room, they seemed to be pretending to be in some kind of daytime soap opera and I couldn’t understand why that was. The arch, broad, almost cartoonlike tone of the piece was hardly ever punctured by a moment of pathos or directness. I felt like the entire thing was in quotation marks, like a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. I longed for something real.