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M. Butterfly Essay

1779 words - 7 pages


At the end of the play M. Butterfly, a jailed French diplomat turned spy named Gallimard says, "There is a vision of the Orient that I have" (Hwang 3.3.7). In that moment he is implying that there are still beautiful women, as he thought his "Butterfly" was. This is suggestive of the colonial appeal. Colonization is made possible by one society characterizing another in a way that makes it seem like a good idea. The characterization of these cultures, such as the Orient or Africa, is carried out through literature, works of art, and drama. Certainly, plays, poems, books, and stories are only a few of the ways used to convince the masses of a modern nation of the justification to colonize. If one wants to rebel against colonization, one would need to place corruption upon the colonizer so to support the liberation. This approach looks to be accepted in drama, where there are two excellent illustrations of postcolonial literature, M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, and A Tempest by Aime Cesaire. Both plays are re-worked versions of and Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly and Shakespeare's The Tempest, and retain similar characters and basic plots. Shakespeare's and Puccini's works created symbols of other cultures. Caliban is the black devil, and Cio-Cio San is the timid and beautiful "Butterfly." These symbols have become stereotypes in Western culture, and formed, the justification for colonization.

To pin these works against the idea of colonization, Cesaire and Hwang must greatly alter the content. They do so, but they also mimic the styles of the original versions. A Tempest is written in modern English, and Shakespeare's songs are substituted with slave tunes. Hwang drops the operatic form and moves the setting to late 20th century Beijing from 19th Century Nagasaki. We should expect these changes, after all they are new versions of old pieces. What stands out in postcolonial drama is the overt way that the idea is delivered to the audience.

In A Tempest, Caliban says, "Call me X" (Cesaire 1.2.55). This is because his previous name was a slave name, and, like many others decided during the civil rights movement, a different name was more appropriate. It's hard not to see a connection between Caliban and Malcolm X, or any other of the black radicals who took the role of revolutionary. When he says this the audience is pulled out of the play allowing them to see the modern connection of the performance. This effect is repeated throughout the play. The same can be seen in M. Butterfly when Song explains the colonial ramifications of Madame Butterfly, and asks Gallimard,

“Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she...

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