Opens on Broadway

Based on a true story, David Henry Hwang’s play about a male Chinese agent who dupes a French diplomat into believing he is a woman won three Tony Awards for theatrical excellence. Also, M. Butterfly is the first universally acclaimed Asian American play.

Summary of Event

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is loosely based on the true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, who carried on a twenty-year relationship with a Chinese man, Shi Pei Pu, all the while believing that the Communist agent was really a female opera singer. When Boursicot was charged with treason in 1986, he claimed that only then was he aware of the truth. [kw]M. Butterfly Opens on Broadway (Mar. 20, 1988)
[kw]Broadway, M. Butterfly Opens on (Mar. 20, 1988)
M. Butterfly (Hwang)[M Butterfly]
Drama and theater;M. Butterfly[M Butterfly]
[c]Arts;Mar. 20, 1988: M. Butterfly Opens on Broadway[1830]
[c]Literature;Mar. 20, 1988: M. Butterfly Opens on Broadway[1830]
[c]Race and ethnicity;Mar. 20, 1988: M. Butterfly Opens on Broadway[1830]
Hwang, David Henry
Wong, B. D.
Lithgow, John

David Henry Hwang.

Hwang, fascinated with this story, proceeded to write a play based on it. Seeing parallels to Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly (1904, 1907), Hwang incorporated elements from the opera into M. Butterfly to create a piece that explores both the cultural stereotypes of East versus West and concepts of gender and sexuality.

In Hwang’s play, René Gallimard is a French civil servant working at the embassy in China. He meets Song Liling, whom he believes to be female, and falls in love. Gallimard finds himself trapped in a sort of fantasy world, reinforced by Song, who actually is a man but relishes being treated as a woman. Their relationship is rooted in Gallimard’s inherent prejudice, which allows him to see Song as a subservient and pleasing geisha; all the while, Song plays into this stereotype in order to solicit governmental secrets, which he then passes on to the Chinese government. Eventually, all is revealed and the Chinese spy is sentenced to a labor camp for sexual deviancy, while Galliard commits suicide, echoing the ending of Madama Butterfly, rather than face the truth that his relationship was a homosexual one.

M. Butterfly opened on March 20, 1988, to rave reviews. The original cast featured John Lithgow as Gallimard and B. D. Wong as Song Liling. Previously known as Bradley Darryl Wong, Wong changed his name to B. D. at the request of the producers so that when his name appeared in publicity and playbills, the secret about Song Liling would remain intact. Wong won universal praise in his gender-bending Gender-bending[gender bending];in film[film] role, garnering numerous awards, including a Tony Award for supporting actor. He went on to work in both film and television, notably as a priest in Oz (Home Box Office), but is still perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in M. Butterfly.

M. Butterfly is largely considered to be the first universally acclaimed Asian American play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1989, the Tony Award for Best Play and Best Director, New York Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and the John Gassner Award for the season’s outstanding new playwright. It ran for 777 performances on Broadway, and broke box-office records when it transferred to London’s Shaftsbury Theatre. In 1993, the play was made into a feature film directed by David Cronenberg.


The impact of M. Butterfly lies in its exposé of biases against not only Asians but also gays and lesbians and those who are transgender. Historically, Asian Americans have been largely unrepresented in American media, except for culturally insensitive stereotypes. This, combined with mistrust due to Japan’s involvement in World War II and the tendency for Asian Americans to live in culturally homogenous neighborhoods, meant that Asians were “invisible” to most Americans. This started to change in the 1960’s, when ethnic and cultural groups began asserting their voices and when the first Asian American theater, East West Players, opened in Los Angeles in 1965. East West Players is still a leader in Asian American theater and houses the David Henry Hwang Theatre.

When Hwang began writing, he was one of a small handful of Asian American playwrights. His work dealt largely with the Asian American experience, and with M. Butterfly he was able to blend the styles of Japanese Kabuki theater and Chinese opera with Western opera and realism. Artistically, his play excited audiences by synthesizing disparate theatrical elements with an examination of prejudices about gender and sexuality.

In Hwang’s play, Song Liling comments wryly on sexual Stereotyping. She says, “Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” This sense of irony is presented throughout the piece, as the audience sees how Gallimard fetishizes both Song’s Asian-ness and her gender. It is not biology but social predispositions that lead Gallimard to believe Song is a woman. Indeed, Hwang asserts, imperialism exists not just geographically but socially, and M. Butterfly challenges the audience, who for the first three-quarters of the play does not learn that Song is a man, to investigate their own biases regarding gender and sexuality. Hwang drives home the point that the root of all prejudices is the same, and that the eradication of one prejudice holds promise for the eradication of all prejudices.

Perhaps because he is heterosexual, Hwang has not been applauded by the gay community as much as he deserves. Although his theories against prejudice strongly support gay and lesbian rights, he is rarely identified first as an important contributor to GLBT literature and drama. B. D. Wong, on the other hand, wrote and published a book in 2003, Following Foo (The Electronic Adventures of the Chestnut Man): A Memoir, based on his experiences adopting a child while in a gay relationship. His memoir brought him national attention and recognition by the GLBT community, though it did little to break down cultural prejudices.

Hwang will likely be remembered solely for his work advancing Asian American dramatic literature rather than as an important proponent of gender and sexual equality. However, his play M. Butterfly remains an important and highly honored play in the canon of gay-themed work. M. Butterfly (Hwang)[M Butterfly]
Drama and theater;M. Butterfly[M Butterfly]

Further Reading

  • “David Henry Hwang.” Video recording, ABC News Productions. Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2004.
  • DiGaetani, John Louis. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” TDR 33 (1989): 141-153.
  • Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: New American Library, 1988.
  • Savran, David. “David Hwang.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, by David Savran. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
  • Shimakawa, Karen. “’Who’s to Say?’ Or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in M. Butterfly.” Theatre Journal 45 (1993): 349-361.
  • Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33 (1990): 59-66.
  • Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1989.
  • Watt, Stephen, and Gary A. Richardson, comps. “Mr. Butterfly.” In American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace College, 1995.
  • Wiegmann, Mira. The Staging and Transformation of Gender Archetypes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “M. Butterfly,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.

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