Dramatist's Butterfly Existence

December 02, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

David Henry Hwang is a busy man. Even his hair looks busy; it stands up in prickly bristles as if it could conduct electricity.

Yet, like his plays, Mr. Hwang gives off contradictory signals.

This is the man Time magazine described as having "the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller, and maybe the best of them all." But there's nothing pretentious about him.

In the lounge at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- where his Tony Award-winning play, "M. Butterfly," begins a one-month run Tuesday -- he sits with a leg casually draped over a neighboring chair. Though Mr. Hwang lives in New York, his body language betrays his California upbringing.

Laid-back as he may seem, however, Mr. Hwang leads a jampacked bicoastal existence. He scheduled the interviews for "M. Butterfly" over the summer -- well before the start of the national tour. The day before he arrived in Baltimore, he finished the screenplay of "M. Butterfly" for Warner Brothers.

After completing the circuit of interviews for the tour -- which stars Philip Anglim and A. Mappa -- he headed to California, where he is in preproduction on an original screenplay, tentatively titled "Golden Gate," a joint production of PBS' "American Playhouse" and a British motion picture company.

Then there's the adaptation he's doing for Martin Scorsese of Dostoevski's "The Idiot," set in contemporary New York. He'd like to finish the first draft before the end of the year.

And he's still involved in activities stemming from the controversy that arose last August over the casting of a Caucasian actor in a leading Eurasian role in the coming Broadway musical, "Miss Saigon." Mr. Hwang is generally credited with having spurred that controversy by writing a letter of protest to Actors' Equity.

Last month in New York he chaired a panel discussion on related issues sponsored by the Asian Pacific Alliance for Creative Equality, and he's "trying to be helpful" in the New York Commission on Human Rights' hearings on discrimination in the acting profession.

A fortnight ago, reflecting on the "Miss Saigon" brouhaha, the 33-year-old playwright admitted he was surprised at the way the dispute escalated. But he said he feels "pretty good" about the outcome, which allows the Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce, to play the Eurasian role and calls for increased efforts to cast minority actors. However, he acknowledged, "Asking me to choose between artistic freedom and equal employment for minorities is sort of like asking me to choose between my mother and my father."

Personally, Mr. Hwang said, "The net effect is that it's encouraged me to speak out. . . . I may have had some reluctance to take on an unpopular position in the past. But having done it, I think a lot of good has come out of it in terms of

stimulating debate."

The news item that sparked his interest in writing "M. Butterfly" was also the type of story that stimulates debate. Mr. Hwang was at a dinner party in 1986 when he heard the incredible but true account of a French diplomat who conducted a 20-year love affair with a Chinese actress and subsequently discovered that his lover was not only a spy, but a man.

He had conflicting reactions to the story. "On the one hand, I felt like most people do -- how can this be? And on the other hand, part of me felt that I intuitively understood it," he said.

"A lot of times when I write plays it's because I don't understand something in myself and I work it out through the writing of the play. So in some sense the writing of 'M. Butterfly' was a way for me to reconcile these competing feelings."

The story was also rife with themes that characterize Mr. Hwang's work, particularly the emphasis on opposites: the conflict between East and West, between male and female -- in this case, within the same person -- and between dominant and submissive personalities and cultures.

The news item gave him a factual foundation on which to build -- another common trait of his scripts. "Each of my plays, I think, has some sort of either autobiographical or historical or mythical root," he said, referring to such seemingly wide-ranging examples as "The Dance and the Railroad," based on the Chinese workers' strike during the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1867, and "Rich Relations," loosely based on his family.

The idea of linking the news report about the French diplomat with the opera "Madame Butterfly" arose from his attempts to understand the diplomat. "I was driving around one day, and I thought, well, what did this diplomat think he was getting? He probably thought he had found Madame Butterfly," he explained. "Maybe he had fallen in love not with an actual person, but with sort of a fantasy stereotype of the Orient." Although Mr. Hwang had never seen a production of the Puccini opera, he immediately pulled into a record store and bought a recording.

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