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Adaptation as Deconstruction

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 Avery Larson

Adaptation as Deconstruction

David Henry Hwang’s drama M. Butterfly is the third work in a short series of adaptations of a similar plot; M. Butterfly was adapted from the Giacomo Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, which in turn was adapted from the short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long. In each incarnation of the work, a well-to-do Western man believes himself in love with a delicate Eastern woman, but though these superficial elements of the story are readily recognizable in each adaptation, little else remains. In Hwang’s adaptation in particular, fundamental aspects of the story – the titular Butterfly’s gender and motivation – are altered and the entire purpose of the play is turned back upon itself. The plot is essentially the same as the plot in Madame Butterfly, yet now, instead of being a celebration of Western Orientalist fantasy, Butterfly’s story is a subversion of Orientalism and a sharp critique of stereotypes of gender, race, and the intersection of the two. The differences between Madame Butterfly and M. Butterfly provide an excellent example of the unexpected ways in which a piece can be adapted (repeatedly) in different forms to create different, or even opposing, meanings; an adaptation is not simply a slight tweaking of an older work, but can instead be a complete reimagining of the work’s presentation and meaning. Adaptation, then, is a form of literary evolution. As seen in M. Butterfly, a simple, well-known plot can evolve in response to changing social issues and its author’s desires until the story, while essentially the same, has taken on new facets and an entirely different meaning.

Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly follows Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton’s affair with a young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio San. He falls in love with Cio-Cio San because he believes her to be an innocent, delicate “butterfly” that he can either treasure or crush. Cio-Cio San falls in love with Pinkerton, but he soon abandons her to return to America, where he marries an American woman. The opera ends with Pinkerton returning to retrieve the child Cio-Cio-San has born, and she kills herself to preserve her honor (The Metropolitan Opera). Throughout the opera, themes of Western strength and domination and Eastern fragility and submission are clear; moreover, strength and the West are equated with masculinity, and the East and fragility with femininity (Yoshihara). Many of the arias in the opera exemplify these power differences, in both music and lyrics, and the most tragic moments in the opera – Cio-Cio-San’s suicide – are accompanied by the most beautiful music. The entire opera rests on the (arguably antiquated, arguably not) Western fascination with their conceptions of the East, and further exoticizes those conceptions until the tragedy of the story becomes an exaggerated Orientalist fantasy.

Many of the racial issues present in Madame Butterfly are romanticized – or hidden altogether – by the technical brilliance of the music of the work; one can persuade oneself to ignore uncomfortable elements, even today, because the opera itself may sound beautiful. In David Hwang’s adaptation, however, distraction is not an option, because Hwang’s M. Butterfly does away with the operatic elements (with the exception of one play-within-a-play scene) and is instead a stage drama. A French civil service officer, Renee Gallimard, witnesses Song Liling performing a scene from Madame Butterfly, and, being unfamiliar with the Peking Opera, assumes that Song must be a woman because Song portrays the female Cio-Cio-San. After several meetings between the two, Gallimard decides himself in love with Song (he begins to call Song “Butterfly”, drawing a romantic parallel between his own life and that of the characters in Madame Butterfly), and believes Song to be delicate and helpless against his advances. Not until the end of the play does Gallimard realize that Song is a man, has been playing the part of the “weak Oriental” so that Song could gather information for his home country of China, and that the dynamics of their relationship had all been delusion. Gallimard, unable to accept this, convinces himself that it is untrue, comes to compare himself to Cio-Cio-San, and commits suicide while in a jail cell, on trial for treason.

As can be seen, the similarities between the two versions of the story are great; in Hwang’s version, the characters even consciously compare themselves to the characters of Madame Butterfly, quote lines from the opera, and their lives much in the same way. That M. Butterfly is an adaptation – an evolution – of Madame Butterfly is therefore inarguable. The purpose of M. Butterfly, however, is almost exactly the opposite of the purpose of Madame Butterfly. Hwang’s changes create an opposing meaning to that of the original. Gallimard’s assumptions about Western supremacy and Eastern submissiveness guide his interactions with Song, yet in the end, Song is the person who holds more power and who has been benefiting most from the relationship; moreover, Song is conscious of Gallimard’s prejudices and manipulates them to Song’s own advantage. The play itself is a careful, thoughtful deconstruction of the fantasy both Gallimard and Madame Butterfly hold so dear; from Song’s true sex to actual power dynamics in Song’s relationship with Gallimard, everything in the play suggests that the fantasy is a lie. That so much of the story can remain the same, yet so much can simultaneously be changed is impressive, and shows that stories can evolve in unexpected directions.

The model of literary evolution revealed by works such as Madame Butterfly and M. Butterfly is not perfectly alike biological evolution, of course. Hwang’s adaptation of the opera was done knowingly, with both agency and a purpose, but when considered within the social context of its construction, that M. Butterfly is an evolution of Madame Butterfly becomes clearer. M. Butterfly could not have been written without the author’s awareness of racial issues – awareness bred of his own temperament, yes, but to an even greater degree his environment – and the works that predated it. The deconstructive adaptation as a literary form had first to be developed, and a receptive audience had to exist for his play to become successful enough to be featured in student critiques years later. Literary evolution, therefore, is not as random and dependent on chance as biological evolution, but it still depends somewhat on the environmental context in which it exists. M. Butterfly is of course not the only example of literary evolution, or even the evolution of literature into a deconstructive version of itself, but it is a particularly effective one.

Works Cited
Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1988.
“Madama Butterfly”. The Metropolitan Opera. 15 April 2010.
Yoshihara, Mari. “The Flight of the Japanese Butterfly: Orientalism, Nationalism, and Performances of Japanese Womanhood”. American Quarterly 56.4 (2004) 975-1001.