Hwang, David Henry 1957-
HWANG, David Henry 1957-
PERSONAL: Surname pronounced "Wong"; born August 11, 1957, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Henry Yuan (a banker) and Dorothy Yu (a professor of piano; maiden name, Huang) Hwang; married Ophelia Y. M. Chong (an artist), September 21, 1985 (divorced, October, 1989); married Kathryn A. Layng (an actress), December 17, 1993; children: (second marriage) Noah.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—William Craver, Authors and Artists Agency, 19 West 44th St., Suite 1000, New York, NY 10036; and Tory Metzger, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Playwright; director of plays, including A Song for a Nisei Fisherman, 1980, The Dream of Kitamura, 1982, and F.O.B., 1990; Asian American Theatre Center, San Francisco, CA, dramaturg, 1987—. Cofounder, Stanford Asian American Theatre Project; Theatre Communications Group, member of board of directors, 1987—. Menlo-Atherton High School, Menlo Park, CA, teacher of English and writing, 1980. Member of board of directors, President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, 1994—; China Institute, 1993—; and Center for Arts and Culture, 1998.
MEMBER: Writers Guild of America, Dramatists Guild (member of board of directors, 1988—), Young Playwrights, Inc., American Civil Liberties Union, PEN (member of board of directors, 1990—), Theatre Communications Group (vice president, 1999—), Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Drama-Logue award, 1980, 1986, 1997; Obie Award for best play, Village Voice, 1981, for F.O.B., and for best playwriting, 1997, for Golden Child; Drama Desk Award nomination, 1982, for Family Devotions and The Dance and the Railroad; CINE Golden Eagle, 1983, for television production The Dance and the Railroad; Rockefeller playwright-in-residence award and National Endowment for the Arts artistic associate fellowship, 1983-84; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts, and New York State Council on the Arts fellowships, both 1985; Antoinette Perry "Tony" Award for best play, Outer Critics Circle Award for best Broadway play, John Gassner Award, and Drama Desk Award, all 1988, and Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1989, all for M. Butterfly; Los Angeles Drama Critics Award, 1991; Tony Award nomination for best play, and Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for best Broadway play, both 1998, both for Golden Child; Obie Award for playwriting, 1997; honorary D.L., Columbia College, 1998.
F.O.B. (two-act; title means "Fresh off the Boat"; also see below), produced in Stanford, CA, 1978, produced off-Broadway, 1980.
The Dance and the Railroad (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1981; produced off-Broadway, 1981), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1990.
Family Devotions (also see below), produced off-Broadway, 1981.
Sound and Beauty (two one-acts; includes The House of Sleeping Beauties, based on a novella by Yasunari Kawabata, and The Sound of a Voice [also see below]), produced off-Broadway, 1983.
F.O.B. [and] The House of Sleeping Beauties, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1983.
Broken Promises: Four Plays (contains F.O.B., The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, and The House of Sleeping Beauties), Avon (New York, NY), 1983.
The Sound of a Voice, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1984.
Rich Relations (also see below), produced off-Broadway, 1986.
As the Crow Flies, produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1986.
Broken Promises (includes The Dance and the Railroad and The House of Sleeping Beauties), produced in London, England, 1987.
My American Son (television drama), Home Box Office, 1987.
M. Butterfly (produced in Washington, DC, 1988; produced on Broadway, 1988; also see below), Plume (New York, NY), 1989.
One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof (musical; produced in New York, 1988), music by Philip Glass, Gibbs-Smith, 1989.
F.O.B. and Other Plays (includes Rich Relations), Plume (New York, NY), 1990.
The Voyage (opera), music by Philip Glass, produced in New York, NY, 1992.
Bondage (one-act; produced at the Humana Theatre Festival, 1992), in The Best American Short Plays 1992-93, Applause Theatre Book (New York, NY), 1993.
Face Value, produced in Boston, MA, 1993.
M. Butterfly (screenplay; based on his play), Warner Bros., 1993.
Golden Child, produced in New York, NY, 1996, produced on Broadway, 1998.
The Silver River (musical), music by Bright Sheng, produced in Santa Fe, NM, 1998.
(Adapter) Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, produced in Providence, RI, 1998.
Trying to Find Chinatown: The Selected Plays of David Henry Hwang, Theatre Communications Group, 1999.
(Coauthor of book, with Robert Falls and Linda Woolverton) Aïda (rock musical), music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, produced on Broadway, 1999.
(Contributor) The Square, produced in New York, NY, 2001.
(Adaptor) Flower Drum Song (based on the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers; produced in Los Angeles, CA, 2001), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2003.
(Adaptor with Neil LaBute) Possession (screenplay; based on the novel by A. S. Byatt), Warner Bros., 2002.
Also author, with Frederic Kimball, of teleplay Blind Alleys, 1985. Plays represented in anthologies, including Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-AmericanPlays, New Plays USA 1, Best Plays of 1981-1982, Best Short Plays of 1982, and Best Plays of 1987-1988.
SIDELIGHTS: Enjoying an unusually swift ascent to prominence on the American stage, David Henry Hwang gained widespread praise for his very first play in 1980 and went on to earn a Antoinette Perry—"Tony"—Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Many of Hwang's plays refer to the experiences of Asian immigrants living in the United States and to East-West relations, leading some reviewers to pigeonhole him as an Asian author. Yet he has also written a science-fiction libretto, a cable television program on Middle East/Central American politics, and several non-Asian-themed plays. Hwang's Chinese-American heritage has been both "a minor detail, like having red hair," as he remarked in a New York Times Magazine interview, and the inspiration for most of his successful plays. Mingling Chinese influences with those of his birth country and in the process addressing wider concerns of race, gender, and culture, Hwang is "the first U.S. playwright to become an international phenomenon in a generation," according to William A. Henry III, writing in Time.
Hwang had just graduated from Stanford University when his first play, F.O.B., was accepted for production at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut's O'Neill Theater Center in 1979; the following year producer Joseph Papp brought the play to New York's off-Broadway circuit where it won an Obie Award as the best new play of the season. First performed at Stanford, the drama focuses on Steve, a young Chinese immigrant "fresh off the boat," and the two Chinese-American students he meets in Los Angeles. The male student scorns Steve, preferring to renounce Steve's Chinese heritage; the woman tries to accommodate both traditions and becomes a pivot between the two men. Wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, "The subject of the evening is a very old one: the price that minorities pay to assimilate in mainstream America. But David Henry Hwang . . . is too rambunctious to tell a familiar story in a tired way." One unusual aspect of F.O.B., Rich noted, is a technical innovation: in the second act Hwang employs Chinese theatrical techniques to present his characters as figures from Chinese mythology. Rich also enjoyed the "comic verve" Hwang displays throughout and, while recognizing some flaws of construction and characterization in the work, asserted that the playwright "hits home far more often than he misses. . . . If West and East don't precisely meet in F.O.B., they certainly fight each other to a fascinating standoff."
Hwang's next two plays, The Dance and the Railroad and Family Devotions, also focus on Chinese Americans. The first examines two nineteenth-century Chinese men working on the transcontinental railroad; the second looks at a well-established Chinese-American family of the twentieth century. Rich deemed Railroad "leaner" and "more accomplished" than F.O.B., though similar to the earlier play in its mixture of American comedy and oriental technique and its interest in immigrant concerns. The play explores the confrontation between Ma, a new arrival to the United States, and Lone, who has been in America for two years. Sold into servitude by his parents after studying Chinese opera, Lone is a cynic who distances himself from the other laborers with daily dance sessions away from camp. Ma persuades Lone to teach him to dance, and during their workouts the two men explore their pasts and share their thoughts on the future. Judging the play "witty, poetic and affecting," Rich described Hwang as "a true original" with a "startling and far-ranging theatrical voice." Family Devotions also earned Rich's admiration, though the critic suggested that Hwang loses control of his plot near the play's end. The farcical drama hinges on the conflict between a wealthy, Americanized Chinese family of fanatical born-again Christians and an austere, atheist uncle from Communist China who comes to visit. Rich and New Yorker critic Edith Oliver both judged Family Devotions among Hwang's funniest plays.
Departing from the Chinese-American angle, Hwang followed Family Devotions with a pair of stylized one-act plays set in Japan and jointly titled Sound and Beauty. The House of Sleeping Beauties reinvents a novella by Yasunari Kawabata, making Kawabata a character in a variation of his own story about a brothel of comatose virgins wherein elderly men sleep beside the drugged women as a means of accepting their own mortality. In Hwang's version, Kawabata visits the brothel to research a book, but becomes increasingly involved in the place and thoughts of his own mortality despite himself. The second play, The Sound of a Voice, pits a samurai warrior against a bewitching female hermit. Thinking she has the power to destroy men, the warrior plans to kill the hermit, but several weeks as her guest in the forest change his heart, with unexpected results. Writing in the Los Angeles Times,Dan Sullivan judged The Sound of a Voice "a skillfully ordered and beautifully written play" that combines the simplicity and mystery of folk tales with an insightful look at male and female psychology. Rich, reviewing both one-acts in the New York Times, found The Sound of a Voice flawed by overemphasized symbolism and both plays hobbled by Hwang's "efforts to duplicate the mood of Japanese literature and theater." Even so, admitted Rich, Hwang "is not standing still." The critic deemed Sound and Beauty "an earnest, considered experiment furthering an exceptional young writer's process of growth."
Hwang suffered his first critical failure with the 1986 play Rich Relations, characterized by Rich as "tired." Although not about Asian Americans, the play includes several elements characteristic of Hwang's earlier works: materialism and wealth, evangelical Christianity, and a family at odds. Noted Jeremy Gerard in the New York Times Magazine, "The playwright didn't disagree with the charge" that he was treading familiar ground."Rich Relations was another attempt to write a spiritual farce," Hwang told Gerard."It's about my family—except that they're not Asians." Ultimately the playwright found the flop liberating. As he related in a Los Angeles Times article, "I felt I'd done something I was pleased with and proud of—and everybody spat on it and I was still happy I did it. That gives you tremendous exhilaration, because the next time you want to pursue whatever it is you really want, it's not going to hurt that much if people don't like it."
Hwang bounced back from failure in 1988 with the popular M. Butterfly, based on a true story of a French diplomat and his Chinese lover, who turned out to be not only a spy but a man. Debuting in Washington, D.C., and quickly moving on to Broadway, the play pleased audiences and many critics, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a Tony Award. Surprised by such success, Hwang told Los Angeles Times interviewer Sylvie Drake that some of his play's appeal may derive from its use of Italian and Chinese opera music. Also, he said, "People associate a certain level of exoticism with the East; therefore they'll come to the theater to see this." Hwang decided to give audiences what they expected, "in spades, and at the same time try to subvert it by talking about exactly why it is that audiences are attracted to this material at the time that they are being attracted to it."
Hwang's strategy was to exploit parallels between the espionage incident and the Giacomo Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, which tells of a Japanese woman who falls in love with an European, is spurned, and commits suicide. In Hwang's play, the diplomat, Gallimard, represents Puccini's Westerner, Pinkerton; Gallimard's Butterfly is Song Liling, a Chinese opera diva/spy in drag who appears to fall in love with Gallimard. To Hwang, explained Rich, "a cultural icon like Madama Butterfly bequeaths the sexist and racist roles that burden Western men: Gallimard believes he can become 'a real man' only if he can exercise power over a beautiful and submissive woman, which is why he's so ripe to be duped by Song Liling's impersonation of a shrinking butterfly." Hwang's parallel includes a crucial twist: "At the beginning of the play," he asserted in a Washington Post interview, "the Frenchman sees himself as Pinkerton—he's found this beautiful Madame Butterfly in China. And by the end of the play he kind of realizes that it is he, the Frenchman, that has been sacrificed for love, that the spy was actually the Pinkerton who preyed on his love."
M. Butterfly drew both acclaim and criticism. Several reviewers applauded its ambition, richness, and drama, while others found its characterizations and plot twists unbelievable. Contrasting the work with other American plays, Rich observed that "instead of reducing the world to an easily digested cluster of sexual or familial relationships, Mr. Hwang cracks open a liaison to reveal a sweeping, universal meditation on two of the most heated conflicts—men versus women, East versus West—of this or any other time." In another New York Times review, however, John Gross judged M. Butterfly better as a personal tragedy than a wide-ranging play of ideas: calling it "a mess, intellectually speaking," Gross nonetheless admitted that "at its best it sweeps one up in a tense emotional drama." In the New Yorker, Edith Oliver described the play as "funny, mysterious, and often beautiful" and labeled Hwang the most "audacious, imaginative, [and] gifted" young playwright in America.
Hwang's Golden Child, produced at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in 1996 and directed by James Lapine, begins in the back seat of a taxi when Andrew Kwong, a young Chinese American about to become a father, receives a visit from the ghost of his grandmother, Eng Ahn, who urges him to honor his ancestors and his origins. In a clever bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand, Kwong transforms into his grandfather, Eng Tieng-Bin, as Eng Ahn simultaneously becomes the child she once was. Most of the play takes place in a small Chinese village at the turn of the twentieth century. Within this milieu Hwang explores the disruption of feudal traditions as Tieng-Bin returns from abroad to his three wives with new ideas about marriage, education, and religion. Tieng-Bin sees Christianity as a route to a more modern world. His religious conversion has startling effects on the members of his household as each of his three wives struggles to come to terms with his spiritual and social reawakening. Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times, found Golden Child less caustic than earlier plays like Family Devotions, writing that it "has the evenhandedness of a debate moderator who wants, above all, to be fair." Calling the play "likable, educational and, at times, very poignant," Brantley also added that "it's never able to generate much urgency." On the other hand, David Sterritt noted in the Christian Science Monitor that "while Golden Child is not likely to cause as much stir as Hwang's controversial M. Butterfly did . . . he [still] thoughtfully probes the topics he raises, weaving them into a domestic story that is increasingly melodramatic until enough destructive and self-destructive acts have occurred to match the music from La Traviata that provides the play's motifs." Sterritt also noted that the "play's most involving material clusters around issues of what it means to be born again in a spiritual sense . . . and a historical sense, as forward-thinking Chinese people look for ways of entering a new era dominated by Western values."
Hwang captivated stage audiences in 2001 with his updated adaptation of the 1958 Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields text of Flower Drum Song. C. Y. Lee, author of the novel, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization gave Hwang permission to use his full artistic creativity in the reworking of this musical. "My original idea was to show both the cultural conflict and the closeness of the Chinese family. [That's hard to do] on stage, but David managed to simplify it. You really see the relationships and the love between these characters," praised Lee in a USAToday.com interview with Elysa Gardner. In the same interview, Hwang remembered how some Asian Americans—himself included—were offended by certain stereotypes that appeared in the original libretto. He began to rethink his negative opinion after seeing a revival of The King and I on Broadway when he realized that "Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are . . . more complex" than they might seem on first viewing.
In Hwang's adaptation he strengthens the female protagonist, Mei-Li, from a shy, mail-order bride to a feisty young woman fleeing China due to her father's problems with the Maoist regime. He changes the musical's setting to an old-style Chinese opera house in 1960's San Francisco that is run by a man whose son, Ta, transforms it into a Western-style nightclub when no opera is playing. Another alteration by Hwang is that some of the musical pieces appear at different points in the action than they did in the original musical.
The modernization of a classic musical earned a somewhat mixed response from theatre critics. "Hwang has made the show a richer, more nuanced exploration of the immigrant experience," asserted Time critic Richard Zoglin of Flower Drum Song, adding that "the show works because it doesn't condescend." "While it contains a workable premise and more assertive characters, the new book's themes are both clichéd and not terribly compelling," remarked Hollywood Reporter writer Frank Scheck. In a contrasting Hollywood Reporter review, Jay Reiner praised Hwang for his ability to revive "a flawed musical" from its "near-dead" status. Reiner admitted, however, that "there is a price to be paid for telling the story in this new way" with the consequence that Mei-Li and Ta's love story "sometimes gets lost in the shuffle and it's not always convincing." Judith Newmark noted in a review for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service: "Hwang emphasizes respect for Chinese artistic tradition while [taking] a lighthearted, romantic look at assimilationist issues." In his Variety piece, Steven Oxman noted that Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, felt that "the tension between the old and new is better realized . . . and therefore more affecting and more universal."
Hwang took the mixed critical response in stride. In a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article by Karen D'Souza he was quoted as saying: "I'm sure there will be extremists on both ends who will never like this project. There will be the Asian Americans who say that Flower Drum shouldn't be revived under any circumstances, and there will be the musical theater lovers who will dismiss this as a politically correct exercise. But you can't worry about expectations. You have to just do your work and roll the dice."
In a reflection of his versatility and willingness to overstep traditional boundaries, Hwang exercised his imagination in a different genre with his 1988 science-fiction collaboration with composer Philip Glass and scene designer Jerome Sirlin. Conceived and directed by Glass, One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof is a multimedia project in which Hwang's text served as a narrative framework for Glass's music and Sirlin's set and projection images. The play concerns a character who may have been kidnaped by visiting aliens. "She longs to discuss her experience, but knows her tale will be dismissed," explained Allan Kozinn in a New York Times review. "To appear sane, she has to deny it happened; but she fears that repressing this momentous experience will drive her crazy." The character's confusion and distress are illumined by ever-changing images of cities, grids, and stars projected on the set by Sirlin, whose work, according to Washington Post contributor Pamela Sommers, "steals the show." Sommers criticized Hwang's narrative as uneven, summarizing the evening as "intermittently compelling and disappointing . . . intriguing if perplexing." Kozinn, however, praised Hwang for his "rich, gripping monologue."
In another break from traditional theatre, in 1999 Hwang turned his considerable talents toward writing the book for the Disney-produced rock musical Aïda, in collaboration with Robert Falls and Linda Woolverton. With new music by Elton John and Tim Rice, the multi-award-winning musical retells the love story of Radames and Aïda. "Falls and Hwang have accented some universal resonance in the tale which gives the show necessary weight," wrote Variety reviewer Chris Jones of the 2000 Broadway production.
Moving from stage to screen, Hwang joined forces with Neil LaBute and Laura Jones to adapt Possession, a novel by A. S. Byatt that was awarded the Booker Prize, into a film. The storyline focuses upon romances occurring in parallel times and worlds: the Victorian Era and the present day. Two modern academics (portrayed by Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) strive together to find a connection between the romantic lives of two Victorian poets, as unlikely as that connection might seem at first glance. Possession is a "witty, literate . . . mesmerizing . . . [and] devilishly clever screenplay," said Kirk Honeycutt in a Hollywood Reporter review.
"Hwang is a very clever and gifted playwright," acknowledged Jack Kroll of the playwright's career in Newsweek. Successful and praised at age twenty-three and the recipient of a coveted Tony award by age thirty, through his work for both stage and screen he continues to address universal issues through his imagination and vision, and has justifiably won a wide audience. "The main weakness of his writing," assessed Henry in Time, "is that its purpose often seems more political than literary, more attuned to social issues than to the private struggles of the human heart. The final scene of M. Butterfly, when the agony of one soul finally takes precedence over broad-ranging commentary, is among the most forceful in the history of the American theater. . . . If Hwang can again fuse politics and humanity, he has the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller, and maybe the best of them all."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asian-American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 55, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999.
Street, Douglas, David Henry Hwang, Boise State University Press, 1989.
Amerasia Journal, winter, 1994, p. 93.
Back Stage West, January 25, 2001, Charlene Baldridge, review of F.O.B., p. 19.
Christian Science Monitor, November 29, 1996, p. 15.
Daily Variety, October 21, 2002, Robert Hofler, review of Flower Drum Song, pp. 1-2.
Hollywood Reporter, October 15, 2001, Jay Reiner, review of Flower Drum Song, pp. 6-7; August 9, 2002, Kirk Honeycutt, review of Possession, pp. 11-12; October 18, 2002, Frank Scheck, review of Flower Drum Song, pp. 15-16.
House and Garden, September, 1991, p. 72.
Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, spring, 1991; fall, 1992.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, October 12, 2001, Karen D'Souza, interview with Hwang, p. K7128; October 16, 2002, Judith Newmark, review of Flower Drum Song, p. K5257.
Literary Review, winter, 1999, Bonnie Lyons, interview with David Hwang, p. 230.
Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1986; March 26, 1988; June 7, 1988; October 30, 1988.
Modern Drama, March, 1990, pp. 59-66.
Nation, April 23, 1988, pp. 577-578.
New Republic, April 25, 1988, pp. 28-29; November 1, 1993, p. 72.
Newsweek, April 4, 1988, p. 75; October 26, 1992, p. 62.
New York, April 11, 1988, pp. 117-19; October 24, 1988, p. 145; October 26, 1992, p. 91; December 9, 1996, p. 76.
New Yorker, November 2, 1981; April 4, 1988, p. 72; October 11, 1993, p. 123; December 2, 1996, p. 121.
New York Times, June 10, 1980; March 31, 1981; July 12, 1981; October 19, 1981; November 7, 1983; April 22, 1986; February 25, 1988; March 21, 1988; March 25, 1988; April 10, 1988; May 22, 1988; June 5, 1988; September 24, 1988; November 23, 1988; December 11, 1988; December 16, 1988; May 20, 1990; November 10, 1996, p. H5; November 20, 1996, p. C20; November 21, 1996, p. B2; December 5, 1997, p. E2; March 24, 2000, Ben Brantley, review of Aïda, p. B26; October 14, 2001, Bernard Weinraub, review of Flower Drum Song, p. AR7.
New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988.
People, January 9, 1984.
Rolling Stone, February 10, 1994, p. 52.
Theater, spring-summer, 1989, pp. 24-27.
Theatre Journal, March, 1990; December, 2002, Sun Hee Teresa Lee, review of Flower Drum Song, pp. 640-642.
Time, April 4, 1988, p. 74; August 14, 1989; October 26, 1992, p. 80; October 4, 1993, p. 85; October 28, 2002, Richard Zoglin, review of Flower Drum Song, p. 63.
Times (London, England), March 17, 1989; April 22, 1989.
Variety, December 13, 1999, Chris Jones, review of Aïda, p. 117; October 8, 2001, Steven Oxman, review of Flower Drum Song, p. 27; June 3, 2002, Robert Hofler, review of Flower Drum Song, p. A8.
Washington Post, February 10, 1988; December 10, 1988.
USAToday,http://www.usatoday.com/ (May 12, 2003), Elysa Gardner, interview with Hwang and C. Y. Lee.*