Mayfest highlight 1000Airplanes 0n the Roofis the work of two of American theatre‘s brightest lights. who know all about making Broadway the hard way. Stephanie Billen asks playwright David Hwang what earthly connection there is between Communist transvestites and extraterrestrial kidnappings, while Alastair Mabbott queries composer Philip Glass as to where Egyptian pharaohs fit into it all.
Familiar with the waiter and making the most of a watery London sun. David Henry Hwang looks as if he might also be basking under his new found glory as a Broadway playwright. In fact. the American success of M. Butterfly. now making a new debut in the West End with Anthony Hopkins. is still something he is trying to work out. ‘I actually don‘t know what‘s going to be commercial. What‘s funny is I never really expected to make any money making plays and I thought of Broadway as the enemy. and to some extent I still do. because the vast majority ofwhat goes on in Broadway doesn‘t interest me that much. and the fact that we‘ve had this great success on Broadway is great and I love it and all that. but — it still weirds me out a bit. you know'." His is an energetic enthusiasm and the explanation which sounded so appealing in an outdoor cafe on a Saturday afternoon. looks unspeakany arrogant in print. Yet Hwang is not arrogant — excited. confident and curious about himself and the world - but too uncertain for arrogance. At the moment at least.
‘UFOs and tabloids” his prolific creativity seems to come out ofjust this uncertainity. Thoughts of UFOs triggered l()()(/ Airplanes ()n the Ron/receiving its British premiere at the Mayfest this year. And it was a dinner party conversation which set him offon the ‘figuring out‘ exercise which led to .11. Butterfly. his stylish reinterpretation ofthe true story of a French diplomat who had a 20-year affair with a tnale (‘ommunist spy under the misapprehension that he was a she and a star of the ('hinese opera.
More than that. Hwang suggests. M Butterﬂy included a sideways look at an issue which has interested him in all of his works — even in the apparent odd one out. [000 Airplanes. "l'he question of fluidity of identity is something which goes through my work. I mean how do we deal with a disjunction between our past. especially if there is something in our past which doesn't fit in to the present society we live in. and our
desire to fit in to that society. 'l‘hat expresses itself in my first plays which were basically about (‘hinese Americans —~ that's quite obvious. the disjunction between an Asian past and an American present « and in Butterfly you're talking about the satne issue bttt applied more sexually in terms ofgender — like if you really want to believe you're in love. how do you disavow this one particular detail which contradicts your fantasy".
And the connection with [00!) Airplanes" (HI the Roof. the story of a man who believes he has been abducted by beings from another world'.’ Hwang looks pleased to have worked out the link. “In xtt'rplanes it is a question ol a guy who is in a dilemma. in that. to the extent that the admits this thing has happened to
him. he is by definition era/y since it‘s something which makes people
chuckle there is always this
association between l ‘l‘( )s and f
tabloids. But if he denies it. he then creates this disjunction with his own past which actually makes him crazy. because it means he is unable to face something which he believes on some level to be true‘.
101)!) xtt'rp/anes' was also the brainchild of composer Philip (ilztss and designer .lerome Sirlin. Pausing only to rescue his contact lenses.
l lwang recounts: ‘( )K. let’s see.
Philip I met through -~ well. Philip had seen a couple of my early plays in New York and Stuart ()strow our producer had approached Philip
I about four or five years ago about doing a piece for B roadway based on the novel .llan's‘ Fate. Philip suggested me to do the libretto and liiko lshioka. who is the designer on Butterfly to do the design. that all fell through btit we all ended up working with each other in different ways. . . At the beginning of‘b’7 Philip asked me if I wanted to work on an adaptation of War oft/1e ll’orlils. btit we couldn't get the rights to it and the more we started talking about it the more we started feeling that it would be more interesting to do an encounter not with all mankind and a group of aliens but between one individual and a group of aliens. That led us into this whole body of popular l 7H) literature. Then there was also Jerry Sirlin who was our co-collaborator from the beginning. We talked about this project for about nine months so that before anyone went off into their separate corners to do anything. we had a very firm notion of what it was going to be like.‘
A canny mixture of artistic and practical sensibilities produced [00!) .rtt'rplanes: ‘We wanted a piece that could tour. and tour iii its original production really easily so that's why we created a piece for one actor. Philip's work is usually visually interesting so Jerry does these three-dimensional projections that are constantly changing and the actor acts within. So it‘s like putting a live actor in a movie'.
l lwang wonders whether the resultant form could be described as the original definition of melodrama: ‘ . . . a monologue which is accompanied by continuous music. Sometimes we call it an opera for an
actor. other times like a living movie.'3
For l lwang. it seems. questions don't go away the way they do with most people. When he talks about the research they did for the play. he sounds as involved as if he had been conducting interviews that morning. ‘Whether or not UH )s actually exist. the point is that the testimony of the people who believe they exist is quite moving and relatively consistent with itself — this is the weird part. People who are otherwise disconnected seem to have experiences which are fairly similar.
10The List 21 April—4 May 198‘)