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F.O.B. - Tips for Studying the Plays of David Henry Hwang

Updated on January 8, 2015

Migrant Worker

The Apocrypha of Theater History says that upon George Bernard Shaw’s death, artistic literati worldwide heaved a contemplative sigh of relief. Toward the gloaming of his ninety four years, Shaw had become less renowned for his landmark contributions to naturalistic drama and more renowned for not dying. His expiration marked the chance for critics, colleagues and academics to pour over his work as a single, homogenous entity rather than a conglomerate of peaks and valleys. How fortunate we are that this will never be the case for our guest faculty and McBride Lecturer David Henry Hwang for two reasons; that he is alive and producing theater today, more importantly that to crucible his past, present and future contributions to world theater would be an artificial, futile exercise. Spanning over three decades and counting, Hwang continues to reinvent the conventions of dramatic composition while deftly reinventing his relationships to those self-same conventions. Today, he will converse with us on the craft, art and, perhaps most importantly, responsibility of writing in an array of mediums.

University Lecture Series Interview: David Henry Hwang

Biography and Dramaturgy

Born to first generation immigrant parents, David Henry Hwang’s influences derive from two, distinct spheres; navigating the process of Western assimilation; interaction with avant-garde playwrights like Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard.

The former spurred Hwang to embark on a three part artistic journey. Hwang’s early life oscillated around legitimizing his status as an upwardly mobile Asian-American by rejecting his Chinese heritage. Perhaps the foremost symptom of this process was Hwang’s fundamentalist Christian upbringing, a paradigm that Hwang has since described as a schizophrenic crucible of authoritarian teachings juxtaposed against traditional evangelical values—love, grace, forgiveness. The incongruities of these metrics later caused Hwang to abandon his faith for several decades, composing plays—Family Devotions, Rich Relations, Golden Child—describing this repudiation. Abandoning his childhood faith prompted Hwang to embrace the spiritualism of his Chinese heritage, eventually evolving into his current Episcopalian affiliation.

The latter influences of Fornes and Shepard served Hwang’s attempts to reconcile the at times disparate components of his heritage (China) and nationality (United States). Hwang’s plays deliberate fantasy and naturalism to compare seemingly incomparable ideas and propositions. Hwang’s background in debate and music also play a key roles in displacing his dramas from realistic styling; characters serve as mouthpieces for sectarian values; plots vehicle the reconciliation of binary propositions; underscores transport characters to memory spaces or imaginative realities. These methods serve Hwang’s overarching dramaturge goals of using theater as a creative force whereby opposing ideas can be massaged together to evolve social, cultural and religious ideas.

Playwright David Henry Hwang in Conversation with Gregory Mosher and Jean Howard

Core Dramatic Themes:

Many of Hwang's well-known dramas feature similar themes and ideas. Many of these sentiments can be clearly discerned from the dialogue and plot of said dramas. Below are a few quintessential themes of Hwang's oeuvre:

  1. Racial Identity—Virtually all of David Henry Hwang’s dramas and films address themes of Western assimilation and ethnic loyalty. Many characters in Hwang’s plays struggle through external and psychological conflicts to re-define themselves in relation to larger cultural origins. Indeed, Hwang’s own perspective on assimilation and heritage have evolved through the compositions of his dramas.
  2. Fundamentalism—Hwang defines fundamentalism as the absence of tolerance when confronted with opposing viewpoints. While Hwang’s early works vessel these traits in Chinese Christians, the gamut of sectarian convictions—ethnicity, economics, ideology—can be encountered in his signature compositions.
  3. Delusions—Several of Hwang’s major works are devoted to exploring its central characters carefully constructed understanding of reality. Hwang’s most durable work, M. Butterfly, transparently blurs fantasy and reality to sympathize with its semi-auto-biographical leading role. However, numerous instances of “bubble bursting” populate Hwang’s dramas and touch on an array of issues—gender, class, religion.

The above ideas by no means comprise the totality of Hwang's critical and philosophical contributions to world drama. However, these ideas serve as a catalyst to better understanding the subtleties of Hwang's contributions.

Rare Import

Know any other online resources for studying modern drama? I look forward to your comments and thank you in advance for any kind words. Check out my other Hub Pages for additional suggestions for navigating college assignments by working smart instead of merely working hard.


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