DRAMATIST'S BUTTERFLY EXISTENCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

David Henry Hwang is a busy man. Even his hair looks busy; it stands up in prickly bristles as if it could conduct electricity.

Yet, like his plays, Mr. Hwang gives off contradictory signals.

This is the man Time magazine described as having "the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller, and maybe the best of them all." But there's nothing pretentious about him.

In the lounge at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- where his Tony Award-winning play, "M. Butterfly," begins a one-month run Tuesday -- he sits with a leg casually draped over a neighboring chair. Though Mr. Hwang lives in New York, his body language betrays his California upbringing.

Laid-back as he may seem, however, Mr. Hwang leads a jampacked bicoastal existence. He scheduled the interviews for "M. Butterfly" over the summer -- well before the start of the national tour. The day before he arrived in Baltimore, he finished the screenplay of "M. Butterfly" for Warner Brothers.

After completing the circuit of interviews for the tour -- which stars Philip Anglim and A. Mappa -- he headed to California, where he is in preproduction on an original screenplay, tentatively titled "Golden Gate," a joint production of PBS' "American Playhouse" and a British motion picture company.

Then there's the adaptation he's doing for Martin Scorsese of Dostoevski's "The Idiot," set in contemporary New York. He'd like to finish the first draft before the end of the year.

And he's still involved in activities stemming from the controversy that arose last August over the casting of a Caucasian actor in a leading Eurasian role in the coming Broadway musical, "Miss Saigon." Mr. Hwang is generally credited with having spurred that controversy by writing a letter of protest to Actors' Equity.

Last month in New York he chaired a panel discussion on related issues sponsored by the Asian Pacific Alliance for Creative Equality, and he's "trying to be helpful" in the New York Commission on Human Rights' hearings on discrimination in the acting profession.

A fortnight ago, reflecting on the "Miss Saigon" brouhaha, the 33-year-old playwright admitted he was surprised at the way the dispute escalated. But he said he feels "pretty good" about the outcome, which allows the Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce, to play the Eurasian role and calls for increased efforts to cast minority actors. However, he acknowledged, "Asking me to choose between artistic freedom and equal employment for minorities is sort of like asking me to choose between my mother and my father."

Personally, Mr. Hwang said, "The net effect is that it's encouraged me to speak out. . . . I may have had some reluctance to take on an unpopular position in the past. But having done it, I think a lot of good has come out of it in terms of

stimulating debate."

The news item that sparked his interest in writing "M. Butterfly" was also the type of story that stimulates debate. Mr. Hwang was at a dinner party in 1986 when he heard the incredible but true account of a French diplomat who conducted a 20-year love affair with a Chinese actress and subsequently discovered that his lover was not only a spy, but a man.

He had conflicting reactions to the story. "On the one hand, I felt like most people do -- how can this be? And on the other hand, part of me felt that I intuitively understood it," he said.

"A lot of times when I write plays it's because I don't understand something in myself and I work it out through the writing of the play. So in some sense the writing of 'M. Butterfly' was a way for me to reconcile these competing feelings."

The story was also rife with themes that characterize Mr. Hwang's work, particularly the emphasis on opposites: the conflict between East and West, between male and female -- in this case, within the same person -- and between dominant and submissive personalities and cultures.

The news item gave him a factual foundation on which to build -- another common trait of his scripts. "Each of my plays, I think, has some sort of either autobiographical or historical or mythical root," he said, referring to such seemingly wide-ranging examples as "The Dance and the Railroad," based on the Chinese workers' strike during the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1867, and "Rich Relations," loosely based on his family.

The idea of linking the news report about the French diplomat with the opera "Madame Butterfly" arose from his attempts to understand the diplomat. "I was driving around one day, and I thought, well, what did this diplomat think he was getting? He probably thought he had found Madame Butterfly," he explained. "Maybe he had fallen in love not with an actual person, but with sort of a fantasy stereotype of the Orient." Although Mr. Hwang had never seen a production of the Puccini opera, he immediately pulled into a record store and bought a recording.

Initially, Mr. Hwang envisioned his work as a musical, a concept for which he received moral -- as well as some financial -- support from producer Stuart Ostrow, whose musical credits include "Pippin" and "1776." But then, Mr. Ostrow recalls, "halfway through it, he said, 'Oh, Stuart, you're going to hate me. It's a play, it's not a musical.' "

The change came about in part because the incorporation of "Madame Butterfly" -- as well as some new incidental music -- satisfied Mr. Hwang's musical inclination. In addition, once he had drawn the parallel with the opera, he explained, "I just felt the need to strike when that idea was hot." Finding a composer seemed too time-consuming.

He sent Mr. Ostrow the script, although he doubted the producer would be interested in a non-musical. "It jumped off the page," said Mr. Ostrow, who not only produced the play, but has re-created the late John Dexter's direction for the tour. "It represented a crossover form. It was an epic play which had musical qualities."

The musical influence is not surprising. Mr. Hwang -- the oldest child of a Shanghai-born banker and a Chinese pianist who was raised in the Philippines -- received his introduction to theater playing violin in pit orchestras for amateur musicals in and around his hometown of San Gabriel, Calif. However, he didn't try his hand at play writing until he was a student at Stanford University.

"I just sort of started seeing plays in college and thinking that I could probably do this," he said. The summer between his junior and senior years he enrolled in a play writing workshop led by Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes in Claremont, Calif.

Returning to Stanford, Mr. Hwang wrote "FOB," which interweaves mythical Chinese warrior gods with a modern-day story about the clash between a "fresh-off-the-boat" Chinese immigrant and his Chinese-American cousins. After debuting in his dorm, "FOB" received a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference and then was picked up by the New York Shakespeare Festival, which went on to produce his next four plays.

Mr. Hwang has known only one dry spell in his seemingly meteoric career. Following the 1983 production of his two one-act plays, jointly titled "Sound and Beauty," he experienced writer's block. Three years later he was back with a new play, "Rich Relations." It was his first play exclusively about Caucasian characters, and it was his first flop.

"I don't feel that I really became a writer until the failure of 'Rich Relations,' because up until then I'd had a fair amount of success unusually early, and when we did 'Rich Relations' and it flopped, it was important to me that I still found myself feeling that I was glad that I wrote it," he explained. "And then just months later I heard the story for 'M. Butterfly.' "

He returned to non-Asian subject matter -- science fiction, in fact -- following the success of "M. Butterfly." This time he met with more positive response. "1000 Airplanes on the Roof" -- a monologue about alien abduction set against music by Philip Glass, with sets and projections by Jerome Sirlin -- debuted in an airplane hangar in Vienna in July 1988 and subsequently toured venues ranging from theaters to rock concert arenas.

Currently, the playwright is collaborating with Mr. Glass again -- writing the libretto for an opera titled "The Voyage." Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, "The Voyage" is scheduled to premiere in October 1992.

In addition, Mr. Hwang is writing an as-yet-untitled play commissioned by the American Playwrights Project, a group of Broadway producers that awarded $20,000 to each of 10 playwrights in 1988. He describes this work-in-progress as a romantic comedy "using as a backdrop the changing social pressures deriving from the big demographics change in this country. Caucasians are becoming a plurality rather than a majority."

In contrast to the doomed love affairs in some of his other writing, in the new play, "I would really very much like to find a way to write a love story with a happy ending," he said last summer. Two weeks ago, however, when he was further into it, he admitted, "It's not looking that happy."

So, for the time being, doomed love affairs seem to be a specialty of Mr. Hwang's, whose own marriage broke up under the strain of the success of "M. Butterfly." "Golden Gate," the original screenplay which he will also direct, "is another tragic love story," he said. "It's about an FBI agent who falls in love with the daughter of a guy that he'd hounded to death 10 years previously."

The former French diplomat and Chinese opera singer who inspired Mr. Hwang's most famous tragic romance, "M. Butterfly," have both served time in French prisons for espionage and subsequently been pardoned. Although the playwright has never met either one, he did receive word that the diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, saw the play in London.

"I've heard that after seeing the show he felt that the psychology was basically correct, which pleases me because I didn't do that much research on it," Mr. Hwang said. "It was basically a thesis that I had about what this situation could represent."

'M. Butterfly'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

When: Tuesday through Dec. 30.

Tickets: $27 to $37.50.

Call: 625-1400.

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