In the early 1960s, a French diplomat stationed in Beijing fell in love with a Chinese actress, and they began an affair in Paris and Beijing that lasted for twenty years. They also engaged in international espionage – she was a spy to whom he passed official information. During their trial for treason in 1986, it came out that the woman was an undercover agent in more ways than one: she was a man in drag, a fact which the Frenchman (imprisoned in Paris) still refuses to accept.

Playwright David Henry Hwang read one sentence about the trial in the New Yorker and a short article in the New York Times and immediately became intrigued with the story. The result of his interest is the play M. Butterfly, which stars John Lithgow as Gallimard, the French diplomat, and B. D. Wong as the Chinese spy. The production is directed by John Dexter, perhaps best-known for staging the original production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, as well as the recent Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie starring Jessica Tandy and Amanda Plummer. But Dexter’s considerable experience directing opera – his production of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites is a staple of the Metropolitan Opera repertoire – has also been a major asset in taking on M. Butterfly. As the title suggests, Hwang’s play, besides taking its basic storyline from actual events, intimately draws on the music and the myth of Puccini’s most famous opera.

“In my version, I’ve dovetailed the true story with the plot of Madame Butterfly,” says the playwright. “The opera is the fantasy that binds together a lot of Gallimard’s perceptions of events. Although it’s a great opera, Madame Butterfly contains a lot of misperceptions about the East, particularly as they relate to Asian women. Consequently, the opera is first his ally in this romance, and by the end of the play he realizes he’s been betrayed by it. The Frenchman at the beginning perceives himself to be Pinkerton and the Chinese actress to be Butterfly. At the end, he discovers that the situation was the reverse – the Chinese spy exploited for love, and the Frenchman fell in love and therefore was sacrificed by it.

“One of the things that interests me is how the West is perceiving the East,” Hwang says. “I think in general the relationship between the West and the East is at a critical turning point because of the rise of the East as an economic power. The West has gone through a period of being economically and therefore culturally superior. Now that things are changing, it’s appropriate to reexamine things we grew up with and assumed to be true which may be faulty. The notions of paternalism and cultural superiority operate not only day-to-day in personal relationships but also extend to the point where they determine the choices we make in international relations. For me, the story provided an opportunity to look at the way the West and the East routinely misperceive one another and the way the sexes misperceive one another. It seemed an extreme example of what can go wrong.”

A much-celebrated playwright still in his early thirties, David Henry Hwang has an unusual perspective from which to view East-West relations, since he was born and raised in an upper-middle-class Chinese-American household in Los Angeles. He has quickly emerged as one of the most prominent writers articulating the contemporary Asian-American experience – the theater’s equivalent to novelist Maxine Hong Kingston (author of The Woman Warrior and China Men). “It’s odd,” says Hwang, “because my mentality and upbringing lead me to be a Westerner, but to the extent I’m able to have insights about the East that other Americans may not, my work has to do with being able to see Asians outside the stereotypical frames of reference that we get in our culture – basically, to see them as human beings. Which is not that hard, but it’s a measure of how far we have to go that it still seems somewhat rare.”

In such plays as F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions, which were all produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Hwang has dealt with the conflicts between recent immigrants and thoroughly assimilated American-born Chinese. But he has taken on a broader canvas with M. Butterfly, which he calls a revisionist version of Madame Butterfly.

“The Puccini opera is an accurate reflection of the way that the West has seen the East for many years – inscrutable, submissive, culturally inferior,” he says. “In my play, the Pinkerton character meets this perfect Oriental woman. What he’s really in love with is an illusion or a fantasy rather than an actual human being. The fantasy contains within it the seeds of his own sexism and racism. It’s interesting, of course, because in the West our perception of the East is dictated by the way the East has chosen to present itself. Again, it has to do with economics. East-West relationships have always existed in the context of colonialism, and since the Westerners have always been in the privileged position economically, it’s been advantageous for the East to present itself as submissive. We’ve rewarded them for misrepresenting themselves. The segments of the East that haven’t done so become our enemies, like the Viet Cong.”

This cultural barrier, Hwang suggests, finds a parallel in relationships between men and women. “Whenever an unequal power structure exists, it’s difficult for people to get a true understanding of one another. The underlying message of the play is that by diminishing others, you diminish yourself.”

When he began writing the play, Hwang knew very little about the actual case of the Chinese spy and the French diplomat. But one fact that he discovered and incorporated into the play is that the Chinese government apparently collaborated in the spy’s masquerade as a woman by supplying the actress with a child, which she presented to the Frenchman as their own baby. (The child, who is now 17, lives in Paris.)

Even considering the lengths the spy went through to deceive him, how could the diplomat continue to believe that he was living with a woman? “I think there’s a certain amount of mystery that has to be retained,” says the playwright with a soft chuckle, figuratively drawing a fan in front of his face. “There’s a certain amount of calculation on the part of the spy. The Chinese actress said in the trial that the Frenchman never saw her completely naked. But I, like everyone else, have to believe that after twenty years he must have known on some level and chosen the fantasy over the reality.

“But you know, it’s not that different from relationships we have with people where there’s some awful fact about them that we know but choose to conceal from ourselves,” Hwang adds. “This is more extreme and pushes the notion to its limits, but the basic notion is similar. It’s sort of like in the movie Moonstruck, when Olympia Dukakis says to her husband, ‘In this moonlight, you look 25 years old.’ Then the camera turns to him, and of course he looks like an old man. But to her, he’s still the man she married.”

Stagebill, 1988