“How Could He Not Know?”
When David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly bowed on Broadway in 1988, it ran for 777 performances and vacuumed up three Drama Desk Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, and three Tonys, one being Best New Play. Hwang’s drama is now back on Broadway, with British film star Clive Owen as French diplomat René Gallimard, originally played by John Lithgow, and Jin Ha as Chinese actor Song Liling, the role that brought B.D. Wong to prominence.
M. Butterfly winds a silken cocoon of espionage, sexual, gender, racial, and international political threads around a chrysalis of romance between a diplomat and an actor who passes himself off as a woman. Intriguing as the story remains, even amid today’s maelstrom of gender-related plays, TV shows, and movies, the play has been considerably revised; despite direction by the redoubtable Julie Taymor, though, this butterfly doesn’t soar. It attempts to clarify the play’s eternal question, “How could he not know?,” but it’s likely you’ll still be wondering after the curtain falls.
The play, as is well known, was inspired by the true love affair of Foreign Service civil servant Bernard Boursicot and French-speaking Chinese classical theatre actor Shi Pei Pu, who played female roles (a tradition now nearly dead). Shi first met Boursicot at Beijing’s French Embassy in 1964, when the Frenchman was 20-years-old. After having had only homosexual relationships, the young man was seeking to break the pattern by finding a woman to love.
Shi, dressed as a man when they met, convinced Boursicot that he was actually a woman being forced to pass as a man by a father who wanted a son. The pair became lovers, their sex being conducted in the dark, the naïve Boursicot convinced by the resourceful Shi that he was having intercourse with a woman. Their affair being discovered by the Chinese authorities, Boursicot was pressured into providing secret documents to Shi.
Shi even convinced the Frenchman that they’d had a child together, which allowed “mother” and child to move to France, where, in 1983, Boursicot and Shi were arrested. The diplomat, discovering the hoax, slit his throat but survived. The couple was convicted in 1986 but pardoned not long after.
These are the wings of Hwang’s M. Butterfly, whose characters’ names are among various changes from the record, such as the provision of a wife for Gallimard, Agnes (Enid Graham); perhaps this is to complicate the sexual identity issues by revealing he’s actually heterosexual but subject to the fluidity of sexual attraction.
Structurally, the play is the acting out of a narrative delivered by the confused Gallimard, remembering in his cell the events of the past 20 years that have culminated in his imprisonment; a number of changes, however, have been added. Among these is Song’s speech when a judge (Michael Countryman) demands that he offer a detailed description of how he manipulated his genitals to fool Gallimard. Too much information, perhaps?
Hwang insists over and over on the political implications of Western aggressiveness and dominance over Eastern submissiveness and passivity in Gallimard’s relationship with Song, particularly in the frequent use of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as a metaphoric subtext. Gallimard, likened to Puccini’s chauvinistic Pinkerton, first meets Song after seeing him dressed as Cho-Cho-san singing an aria at an embassy reception. He becomes increasingly infatuated by someone he takes as a “perfect,” i.e. submissive, woman. Eventually, when the truth about Song comes out two decades into their relationship, the lovers exchange roles during the tragic—if, under the circumstances, bizarre—conclusion.
The look of director John Dexter’s 1988 production was a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. Designer Eiko Ishioka provided a huge, white, swirling, runway-like platform against a red background that abandoned realistic detail; it served, with minor decorative flourishes, for all the scenes.
Taymor and designer Paul Steinberg perhaps have been reading about Gordon Craig’s early 20th-century experiments with movable screens; their concept is to have a variety of towering screen-like flats slide into position in differing configurations; some are neutral, some location specific (like Song’s wallpapered apartment), and some symbolic, like the elaborate, two-sided ones adorned with poster images sponsoring the Cultural Revolution. It’s all dramatically lit by Donald Holder but the overall effect—supplemented by actors dressed in black Mao-type caps, shirts, and pants serving as visibly invisible Asian theatre-style stagehands—is busy and distracting.
One of M. Butterfly’s best-known features—preventing it, I imagine, from frequent productions—are its three scenes of Chinese theatre, which require not just gorgeous costumes but dancers who can execute the complex moves; one shows Song as the White Snake battling a band of four elaborately made-up attackers (wearing masks, actually, makeup being impractical here), with spears; another, from The Butterfly Lovers, illustrates a Chinese take on a butterfly fable; and, finally, there’s a propagandistic ballet in modern, military-type costumes like those that replaced traditional Chinese theatre during the aforesaid Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, herself an actress, allowed only politically appropriate material to be staged.
Ma Cong’s choreography and the costumes of Constance Hoffman go a long way toward making these scenes exciting, although Chinese theatre experts may find them a tad lacking when compared to the real thing.
It’s increasingly clear that the gifted Taymor’s strengths are mainly visual and rhythmical; the acting in her work is too often geared toward the theatrical, which is fine for some shows but not for all. The performances in M. Butterfly tend to be colorful but overripe and lacking in subtlety. Too many speeches, especially in the play’s closing moments, have the feel of message-laden rhetoric, not natural dialogue. Clive Owen, a fine realistic actor, conveys Gallimard’s naivety, ambition, and shallowness nicely but occasionally seems ill at ease in this world of high theatrics.
Jin Ha capably captures the technical demands of his very difficult role but isn’t always able to convert its staginess into the image of a real person. If you close your eyes you’ll hear a reasonably feminine voice, but his stagy, British-inflected accent only deepens questions about Gallimard’s blindness. And, for all his slender litheness, his masculine features—especially when wigless and wearing little makeup—make him far from anyone’s “perfect woman.” (And must Taymor subject him to the lengthy full-frontal exposure he bravely endures?) A casting problem, perhaps, but a problem nonetheless.
Without a believable, much less moving, connection between Gallimard of the West and Song of the East I doubt that ever the twain shall meet.
138 W. 48th St., NYC
February 25, 2018