David Henry Hwang grew up in Los Angeles, where his early training was in music. His first experience in theatre was as a pit musician for musicals. While a student at Stanford, he saw an ad for a playwriting workshop conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard. Incredibly, only two students signed up for it, including Hwang. Shepard became a lasting influence on Hwang’s work, as did playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornes, “one of the best playwriting teachers on earth” (as Hwang said in an interview.)
Hwang soon wrote his first play, and after directing it for his Stanford dorm, he sent it to the Eugene O’Neill Center National Playwrights Conference, where it was one of a dozen or so scripts selected from among hundreds. Hwang worked on the play with theatre professionals at the Center on Long Island Sound during the summer. Conference veterans remembered that the play was performed on Hwang’s 21st birthday.
The play now titled FOB was produced at the Public Theatre in New York. New York Times critic Frank Rich praised its “comic verve.” It’s notable for introducing Hwang, an Asian American who at that point had never been to China or Japan, to Chinese opera. “I didn’t initially intend FOB to be done in a Chinese-opera style. When I directed the original production at Stanford the ritualized part was much more an American avant-garde thing.” But directors at the O’Neill and the Public suggested Chinese opera, and Hwong credits the actor John Lone (the play’s lead, and later famous from the film The Last Emperor) with teaching him about the form.
Chinese opera would recur in several of Hwang’s later plays, including The Dance and the Railroad (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and M. Butterfly. But it’s a western opera about the East—Puccini’s Madame Butterfly—that is the chief reference in M. Butterfly.
Using a work that illustrates the myth in one culture about another in some ways came naturally to Hwang when he approached the immigrant experience of Chinese in America in his early plays. But it also came from one of his teachers, Sam Shepard. Hwang named him as a chief influence “because of the way he juxtaposes reality and myth” as well as developing character and story through “almost a collage effect.”
The particular myth represented by Madame Butterfly became central to this play. Though Hwang believes he blossomed as a playwright when he learned to access his subconscious, what that process helped him accomplish was to demonstrate and dramatize the impact of cultural myth. “What I was trying to do in ‘Butterfly’—I didn’t really know this except in retrospect—was to link imperialism, racism and sexism. It necessitates a certain historical perspective.”
Yet the play also centers on a fondly held personal myth of perfect love, which is informed by cultural myth. Another influence was Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls...” which Hwang claimed to have seen “seven or eight times,” admiring how “she gives voice to a particular concern that then becomes universal because it’s stated well and fully.”
Critics such as Frank Rich noted the many elements that Hwang connects in this play. “I’m not very interested in subtext or subtleties,” Hwang admitted, shortly before M. Butterfly opened on Broadway. “I’m more interested in creating interesting layers of a structure that have reverberations, one upon the other.”