"M. Butterfly" and Broadway's Metamorphosis

Jimmy Turrell

M. Butterfly and the return of socially conscious theater

Just a year ago, the New York stage was having a ball. In the fall of 2016, the musicals were mostly bright and brassy, and apart from Hamilton, the most “engaged” show you could find was was a jolly version of the newsroom farce The Front Page. There were certainly big emotions—like the blockbuster feelathon Dear Evan Hansen—but weepies are just another flavor of fun. Escapism was Broadway’s lane, and, baby, Broadway was staying in it.

But then it swerved. Postelection, there has been a hunger for serious-minded work. This season runs red with plays that provocatively speak to the present moment. In November, House of Cards creator Beau Willimon opens his D.C. power scrum The Parisian Woman, and all summer long Orwell’s 1984 terrified audiences with its vision of a world sunk in unthinking complicity. The Public Theater’s Julius Caesar sparked nationwide debate; Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender literally sent audience members into the streets to protest. “There’s such excitement about a theater of substance, theater you can argue about, says Rob Weiner-Kendt, editor in chief of American Theatre magazine. “The appetite is definitely there. I hear people say, ‘Where’s Tony Kushner when you need him?’ And that’s not to slight our playwrights. It’s just that till now, they weren’t getting the attention.” (As it happens, Kushner’s Angels in America is coming back to Broadway in February.)

It feels like the 1980s again, with New York theater making headlines and vice versa. It may also be because one of the fall’s most anticipated productions is a revival of the wistful masterpiece M. Butterfly. David Henry Hwang’s hit first opened on Broadway in 1988, when it scooped up the Tony Award for Best Play. Just a season earlier, remounting M. Butterfly might have seemed like visiting a period piece or handling a treasured object from the Broadway museum. But this autumn, its tale of gender confusion, misapplied power, and the costs of intercultural blindness feels suddenly very close at hand. As the show’s star, English actor Clive Owen, says, “You’ll sometimes read a play and think it’s very much of its time. This play was written 30 years ago, but the stuff that it’s mining and discussing is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.”

Hwang based M. Butterfly on a story he saw in the newspaper. Its bones are the Bernard Boursicot scandal: Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat in 1960s Beijing, falls in love with a Chinese singer named Song Liling, believing she’s his ideal Oriental woman—shy, submissive, modest. The aesthete Gallimard tells us the story of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, pinning its gigantic emotions to his own fluttering romance. In flashbacks, we see Gallimard falling for an ever more elusive Song, while in the present Gallimard paces his jail cell in Paris, awaiting trial for espionage. Song was not what she had seemed.

Hwang has been repeatedly asked to revive M. Butterfly, but he waited until now. First, of course, certain factors had to click into place. The show needed a star—so Owen returns to Broadway, after his smoldering turn in 2015’s Old Times—and a director. Hwang and his producers chose Julie Taymor, director of The Lion King, for her intense theatricality because Hwang was worried that the original production loomed too large in memory. “It requires somebody who has the strength to come up with another original vision,” he says. “Someone who makes people see it anew.”

The tricky one to convince was Taymor. “Quite honestly,” she says, “I didn’t know if I wanted to do the play.” She lists the problems, beginning with its now dated politics. “Number one, America’s not on top anymore. And the surprise when the character Song reveals...uh....” Taymor trails off. She wants to retain a bit of mystery, while admitting a 2017 audience won’t be as easily shocked as one in 1988.

“Still,” she says, describing what ultimately made her want to do it, “there’s such good anger in this play!” Luckily, Hwang wanted to revisit and reshape it, turning it from a piece he wrote in his late 20s—seduced by a young man’s idea of tragedy and romance—into a more mature work. “I have more craft at 60!” he says with a laugh. He added elements from the traditional Chinese opera The Butterfly Lovers; he interpolated more events from the original case. He may have lost a bit of the sensationalism, he admits, but the show now feels ready to address a new social and political context. How fortunate that the Broadway environment has changed just in time to welcome a new and metamorphosing Butterfly.