The Breakthrough

B.D. Wong dances the role of Song down a sweeping stage as Gallimard (John Lithgow) looks on.
David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, starring B.D. Wong (left) and John Lithgow, debuted at The National Theatre in 1988 prior to a hugely successful run on Broadway. Inspired by their background in musical theatre, the creative team installed this sweeping walkway to help showcase the play’s theatrical elements, some of which were drawn from traditional Chinese opera performance. This photograph is housed in The National Theatre Archives.

The commercial American theatre has not always been an inclusive space, and there is still some way to go before true equity is achieved. Nevertheless, there have been breakthroughs worth celebrating. The National Theatre played a role in such an occasion when it hosted the pre-Broadway tryout of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. This complex exploration of “East-West” relations, inspired by an incredible true story, went on to become the first play written by an Asian American playwright to appear on Broadway.

Adaptation upon adaptation

David Henry Hwang smiles into the camera.
Since the 1988 Broadway debut of M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang has become one of the country’s leading playwrights.

By the mid-1980s, David Henry Hwang had become part of a small but influential group of artists that was gradually raising the profile of Asian American theatre.  According to historian Esther Kim Lee, theatre created by and for Asian Americans first took off in the mid-1960s with the creation of the East West Players in Los Angeles, which was quickly followed by the establishment of three other theatres dotted across the country. Each institution put its focus on different aspects of the creative process: the East West Players cultivated actors, the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco worked closely with playwrights, Northwest Asian American Theatre in Seattle created specialized work with its community, and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre sought to compete in the big leagues of New York City.  In 1972, Frank Chin (who helped establish what was then known as the Asian American Theatre Workshop), became the first Asian American playwright to enjoy a major New York production when his play The Chickencoop Chinaman was produced at The American Place Theatre. In the 1980s, Hwang started getting strong notices for his Off-Broadway work, which, along with the rising influence of Asian American artists, enabled him to make the step up with a major Broadway production.

M. Butterfly is the story of Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat who falls in love with a Beijing opera performer named Song Liling.  The tale is recounted primarily through flashback as Gallimard sits in a Paris prison.  He reminisces about falling in love with Song and later discovering that she is not who he thinks she is.  For starters, Song is actually a man (which is not surprising in Beijing opera, as it was once an exclusively male form and has a long history of cross-gender casting).  Furthermore, he is a spy for the communist Chinese government, which lands Gallimard in hot water as an unwitting accomplice.  Throughout the play, Gallimard has been entranced by Song’s performances and feminine ways, and he pleads directly to the audience for some understanding.  As Song makes clear, however, Gallimard is guilty of deceiving himself and fetishizing Song as the “ideal,” “submissive” Asian woman.  Unable to cope with Song’s true identity and his own delusion, Gallimard dons Song’s operatic garb for himself and dies by his own hand.


As unusual as it may seem, the play is actually inspired by the real-life affair between diplomat Bernard Boursicout and performer Shi Pei Pu.  After encountering their story in a newspaper article, Hwang was instantly fascinated, and set about crafting a play that would meditate on the diplomat’s state of mind and what influenced his affections.  The play also engages with the opera Madama Butterfly, one of noted composer Giacomo Puccini’s masterpieces.  Itself an adaptation of a play that was an adaptation of a memoir, Madama Butterfly is the story of a White American naval officer who travels to Japan, falls in love with a Japanese woman, and then abandons her, prompting her to take her own life.  Hwang decided to reverse the gender power dynamic by putting control in the hands of Song Liling, who appears to take advantage of Gallimard’s affection and naivete.  In the end, Song admits to deceiving Gallimard and playing upon his idealized view of women and the “feminized East.”  In this way, Hwang provides a commentary on orientalism, the pervasive, xenophobic stereotypes that characterize predominant Western views of Asia.  As Song says, maybe the two of them could have had a relationship if Gallimard had understood who he truly was, not just a man but something more than just Gallimard’s imagination. 

Despite its unusual premise, Hwang was able to find an advocate in Stuart Ostrow, a producer based in New York.  Hwang apparently pitched the idea as a commentary on Madama Butterfly, which led Ostrow to expect a musical adaptation was in the works, something suited to his own expertise.  To Ostrow’s surprise, the result was less a musical than a play with music in it.  Nevertheless, Ostrow went forward with the project, arranged the funding for the debut production, and recruited John Dexter to direct. 

Confrontation at the National

M. Butterfly arrived at The National Theatre in February of 1988 with a strong team assembled in its favor.  Award-winning actor John Lithgow took on the role of Gallimard, while newcomer and future breakout B.D. Wong took on the demanding role of Song Liling.  Having a background in musicals and recognizing the importance of music and dance to the play, Ostrow encouraged his team to essentially produce it as if it were a musical, allowing for heightened theatricality in costume and set design.  Naturally, a few kinks needed addressing.  Supporting actress Rose Gregorio apparently struggled in her role as originally written; while accepting she had been miscast, Dexter persisted with her in the part, which improved after Hwang undertook some rewrites to tailor the play more closely to Gregorio’s strengths.  There was tension between Dexter and other actors, however, particularly with B.D. Wong, whom Dexter apparently insulted with a homophobic slur immediately prior to the opening.  Apparently, Wong produced his best performance that night, though Ostrow did chastise Dexter for his abuse later.  Throughout, Hwang continued to fine tune his script, and even incorporated some advice from Ostrow by giving Gallimard a speech on his own self-deception.

Gallimard (John Lithgow) sits and holds hands with Song (B.D. Wong) as Song kneels at his feet.
Gallimard’s love affair with Song Liling is destroyed by the revelation of Song’s true identity, which shocked many Washington theatre-goers. This photograph is held by the National Theatre Archives.

The play opened in Washington with high expectations but was not met with positive reviews.  David Richards, writing this time for the Washington Post, lamented the confusing nature of the play, particularly with regard to whether or not Gallimard knew who he was falling in love with.  These sentiments seemed to echo those of the audience, who, according to Hwang, gasped during the climactic reveal of Song Liling’s sex.  Some of the audience members apparently confused the play with the opera Madame Butterfly and left the theatre confused as to why there was no singing!  Fortunately, the play’s lukewarm reception at The National did not stop it from moving to Broadway, where it enjoyed a far more positive reception.  According to historian Esther Kim Lee, this is in part because New York audiences were considerably more accustomed to shocking and unconventional plays than their counterparts in Washington.  It helps, too, that Frank Rich, the celebrated critic for the New York Times, praised the play and dismissed the idea that it suffered from a lack of clarity.

Throughout the process, Ostrow had a number of disagreements with his producing partner.  According to Ostrow’s memoir Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain, trouble started with the the bad reviews started coming in, which prompted some objections to the play’s political content and theatrical devices.  Ostrow and his team refused to make changes, and the production moved on to Broadway as it was – but only after Ostrow took out a mortgage on his home (unbeknownst to his wife) to help finance it.  The play was a smash in New York.  It went on to win several Tony Awards, including Best Play for Hwang and Best Featured Actor for B.D. Wong, making them the first Asian Americans to win in their categories.  For all its controversial elements and behind-the-scenes issues, the play turned out to be a breakthrough and a triumph.

Still changing today

“Tonight, I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.

Rene Gallimard in M. Butterfly

While M. Butterfly is a significant touchstone in mainstream American theatre, it is important to recognize that it is not the final word from Asian American artists – no play can be that. Since its debut, playwrights such as Young Jean Lee, Dipika Guha, Qui Nguyen, Lauren Yee, and many others have gone on to write great plays that speak to a diverse array of Asian American experiences. It is worth noting, too, that what it means to be Asian American is a complex subject, one that Hwang, who is of Chinese descent, has continued to explore in such plays as Yellow Face and ChinglishM. Butterfly may represent a breakthrough, but it is not an end in and of itself.


Today, M. Butterfly remains a vital commentary on the historically problematic view of Asia within the Western world.  Orientalism is still a force that makes stereotypes out of Asian cultures and peoples.  Furthermore, blatant racism, evidenced in the attacks on Asian Americans after the outbreak of COVID-19, are still an unhappy feature of our modern world.  What M. Butterfly still offers is a critique of the way one’s own desire, fear, and ignorance can blind them to the truth.  In fact, the script itself has been updated in recent years to reflect important social developments.  Ahead of its Broadway revival in 2017, Hwang adjusted the portrayal of Song by making the fact that he is male clear to the audience from the beginning, rather than through a climactic reveal.  Overall, Song’s gender is more fluid than in the original version, which reflects a greater recognition of non-binary and nontraditional gender expression in wider society.  Changes for subsequent productions are not uncommon for major plays, including plays that have won Tony Awards and inhabit a special place in the canon.  Theatre is, after all a living thing, and living things adapt to their new surroundings.


Consider This…

Throughout this site, we have explored how three major productions dealt with some very complex themes, particularly race/ethnicity and politics. In every case, there has been a question of power. In Fiddler on the Roof, the people of Anatevka are subject to the power of the Russian Empire. In 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Black servants in the White House are significantly disenfranchised in comparison to their White counterparts. In M. Butterfly, Rene Gallimard, a European man, appears to have the power in his relationship, but it is really Song Liling who is manipulating him with help from his own racist delusions. This goes to show that Broadway-caliber theatre can be insightful and even controversial, even if it ultimately depends on entertainment for good sales.

Bearing that in mind, what other plays have you encountered that deal with similar issues? Take a moment to think of something that really registered with you. Maybe you saw John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons at The National in the fall of 2019? Whatever it is, ruminate on it a little bit and then respond with a comment on what it made you think about.

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Bibliography

Evans, Megan. “Cross-Gender Playing Techniques: Actresses and Innovation in the Portrayal of ‘Jingju’ (Beijing/Peking Opera) Roles.” Australasian Drama Studies, no. 75 (2019): 233-258.

“Frank Chin #LegacyLeaders Video.” TCG.org. Theatre Communications Group, accessed December 10, 2020. https://circle.tcg.org/resources/edi/legacy-leaders-of-color-video-project/frank-chin?ssopc=1

Gushie, Jen. “M. Butterfly from 1988 to 2017: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” Howlround online. Howlround Theatre Commons, November 28, 2017. https://howlround.com/m-butterfly-1988-2017

Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

—. The Theatre of David Henry Hwang. New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Ostrow, Stuart. Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain: 1776, Pippin, M. Butterfly, La Bete, and Other Broadway Adventures. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006.

Peitzman, Louis. “This 30-Year-Old Play About Gender and Asian Identity is More Relevant than Ever.” Buzzfeed, November 10, 2017. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/louispeitzman/this-30-year-old-play-about-gender-and-asian-identity-is


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