Wearing a blazer, jeans, and a boy¬ish smile, David Henry Hwang had the energy of a man in his early twenties as he spoke to a small group of Wesleyan students on March 4 in Memorial Chapel about his career, the writing process, and his perspective on present¬ing Asian and Asian-American themes to the non-Asian. He is the first Asian American to receive a Tony Award and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 play “M. Butterfly,” a drama based on the true story of a French dip¬lomat who has a twenty-year affair with a male Chinese spy pretending to be a woman, with allusions to the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly.” Hwang has received numerous other awards, such as the Obie for his play “FOB,” a play that examines the tensions be¬tween recent Asian immigrants and the established Asian American com¬munities. He has collaborated with composer Phillip Glass on numerous musical theater projects, most recently, a complete reworking of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Flower Drum Song.”
Hwang’s lecture was informal and filled with ironic self-aware humor, as he connected his personal anecdotes to the larger theme of how he has devel¬oped his writing process throughout his long and prolific career. He began writing plays (which by his own admis¬sion were not very good) in college, and struck gold the summer of his junior year at Stanford when he came across an ad in a newspaper for playwriting classes that included celebrated play¬wrights such as Sam Shepard acting as mentors. Most of Hwang’s playwriting education came from prodigious read¬ing and watching of plays in order to understand the mechanics of how the characters communicated with the au¬dience and with each other. After about a year, Hwang was standing in the of¬fice of producer Joe Papp (founder of The Public Theater, which sponsors Shakespeare in the Park) with a rough draft of a play on his desk, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hwang has spent much of his career wrestling with the idea of Asian and Asian-American identity, and how Asians are perceived by non-Asians. He vividly remembers his transformation from an artistic icon to a token Asian playwright after his first few successes.
“I became the official Asian American,” he said, never losing his youthful smirk. “As a result of a cul¬ture unrepresented in the media or cul¬ture, if one person gains promise, he is sort of expected to speak for the entire group.”
But this spotlight produced some self-doubt.
“Am I producing Orientalia for the intelligentsia?” he recollected ask¬ing himself.
These questions helped Hwang develop a process for writing his plays. He begins with a question that he wants to address, finds a beginning and end¬ing, and then strikes a balance between form and content by implementing variations on a theme as the scenes un¬fold. For example, in “M. Butterfly,” Hwang chose to examine how the Westerners viewed Eastern culture in both the Puccini opera and his own play by having the imprisoned French diplomat begin by telling the story, and then gradually lose control of the nar¬rative as his obsessive illusion that he is still the “Pinkerton” to his male lover’s “Butterfly” consumes him. By the end of the play, the French diplomat real¬izes he has been fooled: he himself is the Butterfly waiting for his loved one to return to him.
Hwang’s exploration of Asian identity has formed the basis for the conflict (internal and external) in his plots. His characters attempt to resolve these conflicts, and often fail, some¬times humorously, sometimes tragi¬cally. Hwang’s works have made ethnic writing far more accessible to main¬stream American audiences.
“All American literature is ethnic literature,” Hwang said. “You didn’t have to be an American to wonder about Westernization and how it affects root culture.”
“I always try to write what I don’t know about what I know,” Hwang concluded. “This for me is the writer’s journey. This is why I do it.”