For many New Yorkers in 1988, the experience of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly began with hearing the show’s radio ads, which mysteriously began, “M. Butterfly! … M. Butterfly … How could he not have known?” The ads encouraged listeners to misunderstand the story-to assume that the play was a new version of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly plot, and that the crucial lack of knowledge was Pinkerton’s failure to guess that he had become a father. The radio spot transferred the French diplomat Gallimard’s ignorance to the listener. As they were set right by the first playgoers, listeners flocked to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see the full story. Listening to a snippet from M. Butterfly, a play about bodies, is paradoxical:

on the radio, the body of the actor is absent and the audience member is present in a defamiliarized context-defamiliarized, at least, as long as the auditor assumes that the proper context for this play is a theater. This initial experience of the play resonates with the lacks at the center of the play: the lack of an Asian female body as the focus of the action, the lack of a “Butterfly” figure (a submissive and self-sacrificing “Oriental” woman) in Gallimard’s 1960s Beijing. These lacks-and that confusion-were, I believe, intentional on the author’s part: for Hwang, the actual plot of Puccini’s opera was less important than the slang meaning of the term “pulling a Butterfly” within the Asian-American community.1 Hwang’s play also uses continual displacement as a feature of its plot-a feature used quite consciously, just as the ads attempted to instantiate the displacement that listeners experienced. The displacement of the play’s setting occurs in three contexts: though M. Butterfly is set largely in 1960s Beijing, its shadow location is Viet Nam, where US military buildup was occurring during that period; despite a plot about a Frenchman and a Chinese man, the play repeatedly reverts to snippets of an Italian opera about a Yankee sailor and a geisha girl in Yokohama; and finally, the framing sequences set in France seem, to anyone with some knowledge of the playwright’s biography, to substitute France for its true cultural referent, the United States. Those involved in creating the original production of M. Butterfly-play-

wright David Henry Hwang, producer Stuart Ostrow, director John Dexter, and designer Eiko Ishioka-had no particular revolutionary program. The play

was presented in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, part of the Shubert group, built in 1925 and designed by Herbert J. Krapp, one of the premier theater architects of the time. (Previews were performed in Washington, DC’s National Theater, a nineteenth-century structure that had undergone extensive renovation in the 1920s.) Such sites as these might create the expectation that theater attendees merely look on the drama passively: the prosceniums are elaborate; the theaters vast (holding 1,000 and 1,700 spectators respectively). Audience members at the Eugene O’Neill sit in an auditorium curved in a gentle fan-shape; two aisles divide the orchestra, with three boxes on each side. There is a mezzanine, divided into front and rear sections; this structure overhangs about the last ten rows of the orchestra section. The Eugene O’Neill typifies standard Broadway theaters, designed in the Adamesque style that might be characterized as palatial. Designed by Krapp with excellent acoustics and sightlines, the theater sports elaborate painted plasterwork with arches, egg-and-dart moldings, and rope-patterned pillars. Even in this setting, however, the audience members are far from passive. In

the case of this production, the seating location altered the experience of the spectator. M. Butterfly can be either a classic memory play in the tradition of Tennessee Williams or Brechtian epic theater, depending on where one’s seat is located-or both at once, if one can hold two mutually exclusive possibilities in mind simultaneously. Seating location is crucial, for the set designs and staging manipulated audience perceptions with a constant play of visuals that directed the audience to “read” the stage either as two-dimensional-painterly-representation or as three-dimensional-dramatic-representation.2 What Dexter, Ishioka, and Hwang produced was a scenography of whirligigs-of incompatible images, in the terminology of Jean-Paul Sartre.3 In the case of M. Butterfly, an audience member seated close to the stage was more likely to see the stage in three dimensions presenting Gallimard’s memory play. Within this vision of the action is contained another whirligig, in which the stage represents the body of the title character-initially Song Liling, but eventually the European, Rene Gallimard. But for the audience member seated toward the back of the theater, M. Butterfly was more likely to be Brechtian theater in which changing political and cultural tides carried hapless characters back and forth as Western power was challenged in Asia and western Orientalism began to be scrutinized and sometimes repudiated. Thus, where you sat, and perhaps what you were already inclined to see, affected how you perceived the actors-whether they represented individuals or economic and political forces-and, accordingly, how you perceived the stage as well. In saying this, I do not wish to imply that gender and sexuality were not part

of the text of M. Butterfly-far from it-but that the play’s concern with bodies and meaning was presented in two different frameworks: one, the framework of Marxist challenges to capitalist assumptions about economics and class; the other, the framework of individualism that makes the assumptions of Freudian psychology possible. These ideological frameworks were brought into M. Butterfly through the use of staging and set design that encouraged

these interpretive approaches with the manipulation of representations and visual cues.