The first time I read this book was less than a year ago, and it was a very different read the second time around. First off, it wasn’t nearly as difficult to figure out what was going on — and this includes Hwang’s summary of the Madam Butterfly opera. Second, and more importantly, I knew Butterfly’s secret from the beginning, which changed everything. Instead of having thoughts about Hwang’s problematic representation of women, I was thinking a lot more about representations of race. In the class I took last summer (which is when I first read the play) we spent a lot of time talking about the problematic representation of gay men in this play — the way that (plot spoiler!!) Gallimard laughs at Song after he strips…the way Gallimard “becomes” Butterfly at the end…the way the only solution to homosexuality that Hwang presents us with is suicide/death. All of that is still really problematic (it’s not like Hwang’s play changed at all since the last time I read it), but this time around since i knew where that was going, I was thinking about how race was portrayed.
I think Song’s ironic use of the word “Oriental” and the way Gallimard is played the fool because of his presuppositions regarding Asians (men and women alike) is interesting, and the connection between Puccini’s opera and the plot of this play creates a kind of tension between (mis)conceptions about Asians. Since Gallimard is working for the French government during the Vietnam War, and since people generally have an awareness of the US’ disastrous involvement in that war, all of his suggestions seem immediately preposterous and he looks like a huge fool for believing what he says. Also, Song’s sarcastic remarks about what Asians really want (that being forceful domination by the West) are ludicrous, but Gallimard buys into them wholeheartedly…there are so many moments like this where Gallimard looks like an idiot and Song comes off looking really intelligent and clever. However, Song’s cleverness is also really closely tied to his deception, which detracts from it a bit. Also, the ending (the scene in which Song strips for Gallimard) detracts from this in general because of Gallimard’s laughter (that annoying, problematic laughter again!) and Song’s dismissal. In some ways, I guess this is my attempt to find some sort of redemptive aspect of the play because I was so disappointed by the ending the first time I read it, but I actually enjoyed the rest of the play.