The Spying Game

Occasionally I'll have a few nighttime beers in a bar on South Beach. It's a place filled mostly with locals and European tourists, the large majority of them men. Every once in a while a tall, Spandex-wrapped blonde will jiggle her way through the crowd, and all eyes turn toward her in hope and extreme need. The men will talk to each other hoarsely. "You know what I'd do," they'll boast. "She'll be crying for mercy." Then they will invariably discuss how they would dominate her, control her, make her fulfill their desires. For a moment in their minds, she becomes a passive plaything, craving what they have to offer, willing to tolerate drunkenness, abuse, anything A just because they are men and she is a woman.

Yet if you look closely, you can see it is she who holds her head high and aloof. She who brushes off their offers and leaves alone. The only thing the men own after she exits is this unrelenting fantasy of a beautiful woman who comes into their lives and turns out to be a happy, horny slave.

No type of female seems to inspire this type of fantasy more in Western men than an Asian, and playwright David Henry Hwang uses that phenomenon brilliantly and sharply in his Tony Award-winning work about East versus West and man versus woman, M. Butterfly, currently enjoying a stunning production by Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre, starring Smith himself. Hwang's basic contention is that the only perfect woman for a man has to be a woman created by a man. No true, breathing, living lady could be the total geisha for the primal male wet dream of control.

Hwang began his great drama after reading the true story of a French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, jailed for espionage after carrying on a twenty-year affair with a beautiful Communist Chinese actress and providing her with classified information. The story would not have been exceptional but for one twist. The actress was in fact an actor, and Bouriscot continued to deny he ever knew that fact because he never saw her naked. "I thought she was very modest," he said, quoted by Hwang in the playbill. "I thought it was a Chinese custom." But Hwang points out in his author's notes that Asian men know this is not true, that Asian women are "no more shy of their lovers than women from the West." Therefore, he hypothesizes that the diplomat embraced the stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, pliant flowers who are prone to fall in love not with a person but an ideal archetype.

In Hwang's play, Bouriscot's name has been changed to Rene Gallimard so the author can take some liberties and build a fictional character to fit the tragedy. Gallimard starts out as a passive, ugly man, overshadowed in school by his suave best friend Marc, marrying an unattractive older woman because she has good connections and he doesn't believe he can do any better. Yet his private vision of a perfect relationship stems from his favorite opera, Madame Butterfly, in which a delectable Japanese blossom sacrifices everything for the Western male devil who has stolen her heart and cruelly abused her.

When Gallimard is posted to China, his secret dreams come true one night in the person of Song Liling, a petite Oriental doll who sings an aria from Madame Butterfly at a diplomatic party. Song seems to be smitten by Gallimard, and the Frenchman can't believe his good fortune. They embark on an odd affair, in which Song first teases him, then submits inch by inch, but ultimately refuses to remove her clothes and for a long while prefers to "pleasure him" with her mouth and hands. The once-wimpy diplomat undergoes dramatic changes. His newly found masculinity even impresses his boss, who promotes him. Gallimard's testosterone climbs to such a level that he almost gleefully tortures Song by giving and then withdrawing his love. He indulges in an "extra-extramarital" affair with a young Western nymph also named Renee, but in the end drops her because she is too aggressive about sex. Gallimard wants submission, not easy access. And the more pain Song feels, the larger his ego grows.

Of course, we eventually discover that Song, like the sexy blonde in the Beach bar, is simply playing to a male illusion and is actually pulling all the strings. Gallimard also discovers A too late A that he is the butterfly, not she. But still he longs for the past, even when he knows the truth. He prefers to live with the dream of a perfect woman rather than face the reality of his humiliating downfall.

Hwang also uses the plot as a metaphor for how the West views Asia, and why, for example, America was so shocked that the Vietnamese fought with such ardor instead of simply giving in. According to the author, Western nations see themselves as masculine, while Eastern societies are feminine and desirous of being subdued and controlled. Not so, says Hwang (and a host of Far East countries who snicker behind our beefy backs as their trade surpluses skyrocket).

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