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Comparing David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Aime Cesaire's A Tempest

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M. Butterfly and A Tempest as Examples of Postcolonial Drama

 
In the closing lines of M. Butterfly, Gallimard, the hapless French diplomat/accountant turned spy, says, "I have a vision. Of the Orient" (92). At the moment he is speaking of his remaining belief that there are beautiful women, as he thought his "Butterfly" was, but it is indicative of the colonial impulse. Colonization becomes possible because a society can characterize another society in ways that make colonization seem like a positive endeavor. As Said notes, the characterization of other cultures, such as the Orient or Africa, is carried out in the popular realm through works of art, literature and drama. Indeed, books, plays, poems and stories are just a few of the forms used to indoctrinate the masses of a colonizing nation with the rationale and impulse to colonize.

As if to underscore this point, one way to rebel against colonization is to warp the tools of the colonizer to support the cause of liberation. The strategy seems to be especially popular in drama, where there are two stellar examples of postcolonial literature, A Tempest by Aime Cesaire and M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. These plays are rewritten versions of Shakespeare's The Tempest and Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, respectively, and retain the same characters and basic plot elements. Both Shakespeare's and Puccini's works helped create symbols of other cultures - Caliban is a black devil, and Cio-Cio San is the meek and beautiful "Butterfly." These characterizations have become stereotypes in Western culture, and formed, or at least mirrored, the rationale for colonization.

To make these pieces work against the notion of colonization, Cesaire and Hwang must significantly alter the content. They do so, and they also eschew mimicking the styles of the original versions. A Tempest is written in much more modern English, and Shakespeare's songs are replaced with slave and working-class tunes. Hwang discards the operatic form and changes the setting from 19th Century Nagasaki to late 20th Century Beijing. The changes are to be expected, after all they are rewrites of the former pieces, but what is shocking about Postcolonial drama is the overtness with which the message is delivered. At one point in A Tempest, Caliban declares, "Call me X" (14). His former name was a slave name, and, as so many decided during the civil rights movement, another name was more appropriate. It's impossible not to draw connections between Caliban and Malcolm X, or any number of other Black radicals in many countries who assumed the role of revolutionaries. The line draws the audience out of the play and asserts the contemporary ramifications of the performance, and the effect is repeated throughout. The same strategy can be seen at work in M. Butterfly. In an even more didactic move, Song explains the colonial ramifications of Madame Butterfly, and asks Gallimard if he would think it was as beautiful an opera if it were a "blonde homecoming queen" who fell in love with and married a Japanese man who left her, passed up marriage to a Kennedy, and then committed suicide upon learning her husband no longer wanted her (17). Not only is the scene a blatant outline of the goals of Hwang's play, but it also exposes the secondary role that details play. Hwang and Cesaire both privilege the idea, the concept they are promoting, over the content of the work, and they take pains to make clear to the audience what they are trying to say: Colonization is bad, creates problems and hurts people. Likewise, they both seem to suggest that the struggle against colonization is a difficult, confusing and painful process.

Both Cesaire and Hwang represent the colonizer as insulting and ignorant. The underlying explanation is that all of the colonizers notions about the colonized are based on stereotype and fabrication. The colonizer doesn't really know the people he is dominating, and he doesn't really care, because that would make the domination more difficult. It is easier to carry on and make sure to belittle the colonized so things like conscience don't begin to act up. Cesaire makes this obvious in his characterization of Prospero, ruler of an island with only one native inhabitant, Caliban. Prospero calls Caliban an "ugly ape" (11), and another time comments to his servant, Arial, that Caliban is "getting a little too emancipated" (10). Prospero has no patience or sympathy for Caliban, and insults his mother, his island, his native language and his hopes and dreams. Prospero is in a position of power, but it is obvious that he knows that position is tenuous. Caliban is a threat. Similarly, Gallimard wishes to attain and maintain a position of power. Gallimard is not terribly respected, and he is somewhat bungling and foolish. His co-workers don't really like him at first, he obviously isn't truly in love with his wife, and he desires power. Hwang creates the connection between Gallimard and Pinkerton by having Gallimard relate his affection for Madame Butterfly early in the play. Much of Gallimard's conception of Oriental women, and I use the term "Oriental" in the same way as Hwang and Said to represent the notions of the colonizer, is based on an opera. Even the opera is not based on any fact as it was originally adapted from an American novel by the same title that was a rewritten version of a French book called Madame Chrysanthemum. Regardless, when Gallimard begins his affair with Song, he is already thinking of her as "Butterfly," and it isn't long before he begins calling her that and openly discussing his desire for the stereotype of the Oriental woman. Even at the end of the play, after all that has happened, he holds onto the belief that somewhere there are real Oriental women who "want to be treated bad" (6).

Because the colonizers construct the dominated culture incorrectly, they often end up romanticizing the colonized. If the colonizer holds drama and fiction as the basis of their notion of the colonized, it only makes sense that the passions and romance, sometimes melodrama, embedded in narrative art would work into the colonizer's beliefs. Cesaire illustrates this when Gonzalo is speaking of the natives they might find on the island. He says, "They must stay as they are: savages, noble and good savages..."(25). In his colonial thinking, he believes he can colonize the island, but keep the natives living as they did before to preserve the, presumed, beauty and romance of their simple ways. It's an idyllic dream of colonization. Hwang shows the same thing happening to Gallimard in M. Butterfly. His affair does bring him power in the French embassy, and his commander, Toulon, compliments him on his success. He notes that, "Some of us have to be content with the wives of the expatriate community" (45), implying that it would be more desirable to have an Oriental mistress. And again, when Gallimard is being shipped home, but before Song's secret is revealed, Toulon asks, jokingly, for her phone number (69). All of this back-patting because of sexual proclivities suggests that there is something attractive about the Oriental. Indeed, Gallimard's willingness to go along with Song's "mysterious Oriental ways," which allows him to overlook the fact that she is a man, suggests a fascination and romanticization, on his part, of the Orient.

But neither of these plays are all about conflict, and the colonized are not relegated to passive roles. Both plays have colonized characters who do not hate the colonizer. Arial, in A Tempest, dreams of a "wonderful world" where everyone can live peacefully (22-3), and she never turns as bitter toward Prospero as Caliban. Song, in M. Butterfly, is also attracted to Gallimard. She tells him of her "fascination" with Western men (22), and, while it isn't explicitly stated, it can be inferred that she at least begins the relationship with Gallimard because of some affection for him. At the end of the play, when Song strips and reveals himself as a man, it is hard to not see the emotions he holds for Gallimard. He affirms that he is the same "Butterfly," and that the two of them could go away to be happy together (88-90).

In the end, neither A Tempest nor M. Butterfly demonstrate a complete victory over colonial oppression. Rather, they present some significant changes, and an unclear path ahead. Prospero sets Arial free, showing the best possible result of working within the colonial framework, and Caliban runs away, declaring his own freedom. Before he goes, Prospero admits that he hates Caliban, "For it is you who have made me / doubt myself for the first time" (66). There is some victory for the colonized islanders, and it is not insignificant, but the way ahead is still unknown. The conclusion of M. Butterfly is similarly ambiguous. At the play's conclusion, Gallimard says, "Tonight I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality" (90). He implies that he realizes his misperceptions about the Chinese and Oriental women, but a couple of pages later he reiterates that he has a vision of the Orient, and that vision includes his fantastic Oriental woman. Song ends up dominating Gallimard, reversing the roles and possessing the power, but the only tangible effect of the victory is Gallimard's suicide. The ambiguities in both of these conclusions could result from the unknown quality of the postcolonial world. Colonization forces a culture to endure and incorporate another, and what follows the period of colonization cannot be a simple return to native roots. The society that rises from the ashes of colonization will be a hybrid, as Fanon suggests, and the victories represented in these plays are not large scale liberation, so it is even more difficult to see the correct path.

The stories we tell each other make up our world. Just as the Nick Redstocking stories created a Native American dialect that never existed, The Tempest and Madame Butterfly fabricated characters that came to stand as symbols of entire cultures. The power of stories is especially evident when we look at the role our art and literature has played in imperialism. Fanon would say the way to overthrow a physically present governing force is through violence. Hwang and Cesaire do a similar violence to the pieces that keep us imprisoned in false notions of the other. It is only through taking over these works, appropriating and reconstructing them, that we can be psychologically liberated from the rationale and impulses of the colonizer.

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"Comparing David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Aime Cesaire's A Tempest." 123HelpMe.com. 23 Oct 2014
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