Authors: David Henry Hwang

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Chinese American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter

August 11, 1957

Los Angeles, California

Biography

David Henry Hwang has been a prominent playwright for the American stage since the early 1980’s. Best known for M. Butterfly, Hwang typically questions traditional racial and gender stereotypes, complicates notions of cultural identity, and chronicles the Asian American experience in the United States.

The son of banker Henry Yuan Hwang and piano professor Dorothy Yu (Huang) Hwang, Hwang grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His parents were both immigrant Chinese Americans. As a child, Hwang studied classical violin for ten years and later played jazz beginning in his college years, a musical upbringing and calling that influenced many of his dramatic works, most notably M. Butterfly, which melds Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly (1904) with a historical account of French-Chinese espionage, sexual liaison, and imprisonment. Later, Hwang would collaborate with Philip Glass, writing librettos for Glass’s musical compositions.

David Henry Hwang.

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By Lia Chang, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Hwang’s family practiced a blend of Asian and Christian fundamentalism, and he was brought up in a conservative household. His mother and father’s faith and politics influenced his dramatic works, in which the certainty of his characters’ beliefs in definable identities and absolute truths is often surprisingly and completely deconstructed. Hwang began recording stories of his family at an early age. At ten, he composed a novel about his dying grandmother’s life memories, material which would become the basis for his 1996 drama, Golden Child.

Encouraged by his family, Hwang anticipated earning a law degree but quickly abandoned that idea in favor of the theatrical arts. His first play, F.O.B. (an acronym for “fresh off the boat”), premiered at Stanford University, where English major Hwang earned a B.A. in 1979. Following his graduation, Hwang taught writing courses at Menlo Park High School but soon left teaching in order to study theatrical history at the Yale School of Drama during 1980 to 1981. Hwang left Yale before completing his degree to seek a career as a playwright in New York, a decision that, for such a young man, was presciently correct. Although he never completed graduate studies, he would later receive honorary degrees from the American Conservatory of Theatre and Columbia College in Chicago. As a novice playwright, Hwang was mentored by Sam Shepard, whose works he emulated, and he began reading works by other twentieth-century playwrights, including Bertolt Brecht.

At the age of twenty-two, Hwang first experienced theatrical success when F.O.B. was performed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 1979. Produced Off-Broadway the following year, Hwang’s drama about the awkward assimilation of two Chinese American students into mainstream American culture received the prestigious Obie Award for best new play in 1981. The issues of Chinese American life presented in F.O.B. were further developed in Hwang’s early-1980’s plays Family Devotions and The Dance and the Railroad, the latter work about Chinese immigrants whose labors constructed the American cross-continental railroad. These plays mix Eastern and Western theatrical devices, a blending of oppositional styles that comically and poignantly reinforces the tenuous cross-cultural assimilation of his characters, a tension he would continue to explore in later works.

Hwang’s next theatrical endeavors were two Japanese one-acts, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice. They were showcased together in 1983 as Sound and Beauty. They are a departure from his earlier depictions of life for Chinese American immigrants, instead focusing on tragic love stories from Japanese lore. These stage tales are populated with samurai warriors and geishas who play against type, defying both gender and cultural stereotypes in the process, reversals that become a Hwang trademark. In the mid-1980’s Hwang continued writing for the stage, supported by a number of fellowships and grants. In 1984 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and, in 1985, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. By 1986 his work was appearing on both coasts: As the Crow Flies premiered in Los Angeles, and Rich Relations, a non-Asian drama rife with familiar issues including evangelical Christianity and familial dysfunction, was produced Off-Broadway. The latter play was one of Hwang’s few critical failures, earning the scorn of some reviewers.

Hwang did not reach national prominence until M. Butterfly was produced on Broadway in 1988. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the play won the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play, the John Gassner Award, and a Tony Award, cementing Hwang’s reputation at the age of thirty as a dominant force on the American stage. M. Butterfly was inspired by newspaper accounts of an actual espionage trial involving a French diplomat and a Chinese spy. Throughout his trial, the French diplomat held to his belief that the Chinese spy, revealed to be a man, was a woman. Into this tabloid-fodder, gender-bending love story, Hwang incorporated elements of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, thereby creating a theatrical interrogation of gender, sexuality, politics, and East-West relations. He later adapted M. Butterfly for film.

In the same year, Hwang’s first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof, was produced in Vienna, an aperture to Hwang’s dawning international reputation as a playwright of note. The opera depicts a woman who believes herself to have been abducted by aliens but who is hesitant to share her story with a disbelieving press and rejecting public. In 1992 Hwang wrote the lyrics for Glass’s opera The Voyage, which celebrates discovery.

Hwang’s 1992 Bondage continues to explore human identity but moves away from the playwright’s earlier concerns about immigrant cultural integrity and toward questions about the very validity of ethnic identity. In the play, a solitary actress portrays various races, including white, Asian, and African, but because she is wearing a mask, skin tone is never an indicator of her ethnic allegiances.

In 1996, Hwang’s juvenile novel was finally realized as a stage drama in Golden Child, a play narrated by a ten-year-old ghost. Focusing again on the chasm between Eastern and Western religious and political practices, the play features as its lead character a recent immigrant torn between his Chinese devotion to his three wives and his desire to embrace American Christianity, which mandates that he divorce two of them. The story won that year's Obie Award for outstanding play and was nominated for a Tony Award.

In the late 1990’s, Hwang began to adapt other writers’ works for the stage. His 1998 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) is equal parts folktale and social commentary, employing Freudian psychology to reinterpret the sundry dark creatures, including trolls, of the original. Like other Hwang works, it questions the indeterminate nature of human identity. Next Hwang approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 1996 to request permission, which he was granted, to re-adapt Flower Drum Song, based on the 1957 novel by C. Y. Lee. Intrigued since his teen years by the musical’s Asian love story, he was simultaneously troubled by racial stereotypes in the production. One of the changes Hwang made to the script, which he entirely rewrote, was to enhance and empower the role of the character Mei-Li, whom he believed was underdeveloped in the earlier adaptation. In his version, the mail-order bride who journeys to the United States to meet her groom is transformed into a political refugee escaping Communist China. Again, Hwang seeks to explore and explode racial mythologies, this time those inherited from the popular theatricals of his youth. For his efforts, the musical's book received a Tony nod.

In 2006, Tibet through the Red Box, his stage adaptation of Peter Sís's children's book, debuted. In producing the story for a live, young audience, Hwang amplified the political contexts of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia and Chinese-occupied Tibet and brought the narrator to life.

Shortly after Tibet, Hwang crafted a couple of comedies. The semiautobiographical Yellow Face (2008), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Obie Award winner, examines issues of political correctness and identity in art. Chinglish, which was set in China, earned a Drama Desk Award nomination. He also adapted the latter into a screenplay.

In the 2000s and 2010s, Hwang collaborated on several more operas and pieces of musical theater. He adapted the story of the Disney animated feature Tarzan into a 2006 Broadway musical. He wrote the libretto for composer Osvaldo Golijov's 2012 opera Ainandmar. A few years later he collaborated with composer Bright Sheng on Dream of the Red Chamber, basing the libretto on an eighteenth-century Chinese story. It premiered in San Francisco in 2016.

Hwang's biographical Kung Fu, which opened in February 2014, takes as its subject the renowned martial artist Bruce Lee living in the United States.

In 1987 Hwang cofounded both the Theatre Communications Group and the Stanford Asian American Theatre Group. He was named head of the playwriting program at the Columbia University School of the Arts in 2014. He has sat on the board of directors for the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America. In 2016, he became chair of the board of trustees of the American Theater Wing. He is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and Phi Beta Kappa. In 1994 he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and served through Clinton's second term in office.

In addition to awards for individual works, Hwang's decades of contribution to the theater world were recognized through the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist and the 2012 William Inge Inge Festival Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre Award.

Hwang’s four-year marriage to artist Ophelia Y. M. Chong ended in divorce in 1989. He married actress Kathryn Layng in 1993. The couple reside with their two children in New York City, where Hwang continues to write for the stage and screen.

Author Works Drama: F.O.B., pr. 1978 The Dance and the Railroad, pr. 1981 Family Devotions, pr. 1981 Broken Promises: Four Plays, pb. 1983 Sound and Beauty, pr. 1983 (two one-acts, The House of Sleeping Beauties, pb. 1983, and The Sound of a Voice, pb. 1984) As the Crow Flies, pr. 1986 Rich Relations, pr. 1986 Broken Promises, pr. 1987 (includes The Dance and the Railroad and The House of Sleeping Beauties) M. Butterfly, pr., pb. 1988 One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof: A Science-Fiction Music-Drama, pr. 1988 (libretto; music by Phillip Glass) F.O.B., and Other Plays, pb. 1990 Bondage, pr. 1992 The Voyage, pr. 1992 (libretto; music by Glass) Face Value, pr. 1993 Trying to Find Chinatown, pr., pb. 1996 Golden Child, pr. 1996 The Silver River, pr. 1997 (music by Bright Sheng) Peer Gynt, pr. 1998 (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play, with Stephan Mueller) Aida, pr. 2000 (adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera with Linda Wolverton and Robert Falls; music by Elton John; lyrics by Tim Rice) Flower Drum Song, pr. 2001 (adaptation of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical) Tibet through the Red Box: A Drama for Young People , 2006 (adaptation of Peter Sís's book) Yellow Face, 2008 Chinglish, 2012 Ainandmar, 2012 (libretto; music by Osvaldo Golijov) Kung Fu, 2014 Screenplays: M. Butterfly, 1993 (adaptation of his play) Golden Gate, 1994 Possession, 2001 (with Neil La Bute and Laura Jones adaptation of A. S. Byatt’s novel) Teleplays: My American Son, 1987 The Lost Empire, 2001 (miniseries) Bibliography Als, Hilton. "Double-Talk." The New Yorker, vol. 87, no. 35, 07 Nov. 2011, pp. 86–87. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=67079979&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017. Review of Chinglish that focuses on the autobiographical elements of the play. Bernstein, Richard. “France Jails Two in Odd Case of Espionage.” The New York Times, May 11, 1986, p. K7. The original news account on which M. Butterfly is based. It recounts the sentencing for espionage of Bernard Bouriscot, a forty-one-year-old French diplomat, and Chinese opera singer Shi Peipeu. During their twenty-year relationship, Bouriscot mistakenly believed Peipeu was a woman. He also believed they had a son, Shi Dudu. Chen, Tina. “Betrayed into Motion: The Seduction of Narrative Desire in M. Butterfly.” Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 1, no. 2 (Spring, 1994): 129-154. Analyzes M. Butterfly as postmodern drama, focusing on its relationship with the audience. Gerard, Jeremy. “David Hwang: Riding on the Hyphen.” The New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, pp. 44, 88-89. This biographical profile, preceding the Broadway debut of M. Butterfly, focuses on Hwang’s crossover from ethnic to mainstream commercial theater with a play that violates conventions of commercial theater in its treatment of sexism, racism, and imperialism, plus its inclusion of Chinese opera, its scandalous plot, and its brief nudity. Hwang comments on the self-doubt that accompanied his sudden fame. Hwang, David Henry. “The Demon in David Henry Hwang.” Interview by Misha Berson. American Theatre 15, no. 4 (April, 1998): 14-18. In this interview, Hwang comments on his theatrical successes and failures, explains the impact of his family’s religious fundamentalism on his work, and reveals the reactions of some Asians and Asian Americans to their stage counterparts. Hwang, David Henry. “Interview with Marty Moss-Coane. Edited with an Introduction by John Timpane.” In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996. Edited transcript of an interview broadcast on National Public Radio in 1993. Hwang discusses the process of adapting M. Butterfly for the screen and discusses his family and childhood in more detail than typically found elsewhere. Hwang, David Henry. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” Interview by John Lewis DiGaetani. The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies 33, no. 3 (Fall, 1989): 141-153. In this extensive interview, Hwang discusses M. Butterfly, Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1978), the mutual misperceptions of West and East embodied in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and his play’s implications about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and fantasy in love. He also suggests that René Gallimard knew—at some level—that his lover was a man. Photographs. Kondo, Dorinne K. About Face. New York: Routledge, 1997. A feminist anthropologist, Kondo examines the procedures by which Asian American identities are produced and disseminated in Western culture. She explores Hwang’s M. Butterfly in terms of its theatrical presentation of constructed ethnic identities. Morris, Rosalind. “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross Dressing in the Critique of Empire.” In Gender and Culture in Literature and Film East and West: Issues of Perception and Interpretation, edited by Nitaya Masavisut et al. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. Discussion of gender issues and the theme of imperialism in Hwang’s best-known play. Moy, James S. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. Moy explores issues surrounding the embodiment of a marginalized ethnic group on the American stage. Hwang’s works, in particular M. Butterfly, are examined in this context. Shin, Andrew. “Projected Bodies in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Golden Child.” MELUS 27, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 177-197. Shin chronicles Hwang’s condemnation of Western masculinity in these two plays and notes that Hwang utilizes the theatrical tradition of masquerade, with its emphasis on imposture and acting, as a way to subvert cultural hegemony. Shinakawa, Karen. “Who’s to Say? Or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in M. Butterfly.” Theatre Journal 45 (October, 1993): 349-362. Examines Hwang’s use of gender and ethnicity in terms of constructed binaries: East and West, public and private, gay and straight, man and woman. Proposes that Gallimard’s metamorphosis into Butterfly occurs as a result of Song’s total destruction of these artificial divisions. Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33, no. 1 (March, 1990): 59-66. Skloot discusses the ways in which M. Butterfly brings its audience “into complicity with the discovery, dismantling, and re-establishment of theatrical illusion.” Though within the limits of “old-fashioned playwriting,” it also challenges traditional assumptions about gender politics, cultural politics, and theatrical politics, which are discussed in separate sections of the article. Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989. This fifty-two-page study, the first book to have been written on Hwang’s work, provides a useful introductory overview of his plays through M. Butterfly and contains a concise but detailed biography of the playwright. Bibliography. Weinraub, Bernard. “Fleshing Out Chinatown Stereotypes.” New York Times, October 14, 2000, section 2, pp. 7, 27. Lengthy interview-based profile of Hwang, emphasizing his reworking of Flower Drum Song and its preproduction history.

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