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International Cultural Communities

sam hally song mau

As the last century progressed, it almost seemed as if the world were shrinking as globalization created a single international community bound together by increased telecommunications, the Internet, and a global economy. Yet, there remains a tendency to overlook important differences in culture that influence how people behave and react. Obviously, there is a great wide world beyond the United States and Britain, whose playwrights tend to be better known in the West, and this chapter can only touch on a small selection of plays that inform us of this. In an effort to be as diverse as possible, the three plays selected focus on people from China, France, South Africa, and Kenya, and each deals in part with the idea of the damage caused when differing cultures clash, to give a sense of how important a role culture plays in the lives of everyone.


The idea for M. Butterfly , a play that explores misconceptions between Eastern and Western cultures, came to David Henry Hwang when he read a newspaper story about a French diplomat, Bouriscot. Bouriscot had led a twenty-year affair with a Mr. Shi, whom he had believed to be a woman, during which time he passed secret information to the Chinese at his lover’s request. The story indicated Bouriscot’s evident lack of knowledge of the East, citing his assertion that Chinese women were very modest and shy with their lovers. Hwang knew this to be untrue, but recognized in it the Western colonial dream that stereotypes Asian women (if not all “good” natives) as submissive and respectful. Bouriscot had fallen in love with a stereotype, not a real person, and Shi must have consciously used this stereotype to trick him. Hwang adapts this story into a play, renaming the participants Gallimard and Song Liling.


The “M” of the title stands for Monsieur. The Puccini opera Madame Butterfly , in which an American naval officer, Pinkerton, buys Butterfly as a wife,   gets her pregnant, and then deserts her, after which she commits suicide, is a Western creation. It is firm evidence of the pervasive influence of the stereotype Hwang saw in the Bouriscot episode, and he decided to deconstruct this opera through the lens of Bouriscot’s experience and explore the cultural aspects of his betrayal. The play is not intended to be anti-West in the way the West stereotypes the East, since Hwang understands that the East also stereotypes Westerners. He is also not particularly interested in how Song sexually fooled Gallimard, nor in suggesting that Gallimard might be a closet homosexual. For most of the play, the audience is as seduced as Gallimard by this false image of acquiescent femininity, assisted, no doubt, by the exotic costumes in which we first see Song garbed. Hwang’s intent behind the play is to ask both East and West to set aside damaging and limiting cultural, sexual, and racial misconceptions, and seek the truer equality he believes better reflects reality.


MASTER HAROLD”… and the boys by Athol Fugard, also deals with cultural collision, but within the same society—that between blacks and whites in a South Africa divided by the bigotry of apartheid. The play is partly autobiographical, and examines some of the author’s personal experience as a white South African. He expands the shame he felt after spitting on his boyhood friend, Sam, after a rare argument, into a metaphor for the shame of the entire South African nation and its troubling apartheid system. The white superiority on which apartheid rested is exposed as a sham, and Fugard suggests that through better education and communication it could be combated. At seventeen, Hally is an intelligent and sensitive individual, which makes the fact that he reverts to a racist stance all the more disturbing in its implication of the depths to which prejudice runs in South Africa. Under stress, his racist training sadly wins out over his humanitarian instincts.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s I Will Marry When I Want offers an encapsulated history lesson on the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya, which precipitated Kenya’s independence, alongside the story of a simple family fooled by local business tycoons into losing what little they had gained from that rebellion. Although white oppression had supposedly been challenged by the Mau Mau, we soon realize that Kenya is still economically dependent on foreign money. The play also conveys the way African attitudes toward courtship, family relations, and business have been challenged by values alien to that culture. Ngugi’s overt criticism of the economic policies of Kenyan leaders in the play led to it being banned in Kenya and Ngugi imprisoned for two years. Originally written in Gikuyu, a native Kenyan language, in 1982 the play was translated into English by Ngugi and fellow writer Ngugi wa Mirii.


In M. Butterfly , René Gallimard, a French diplomat previously on duty in China but now in jail, relates how he fell in love with Song Liling, a Chinese opera star. Not realizing that Song was a man, Gallimard embarked on a relationship in which he envisioned “her” as the beautiful and submissive title character from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly , and himself in the role of the foreigner who seduces and abuses her. Song plays his game in order to get confidential information from him for her government, and feed him misinformation to give back to his. She pleasures him sexually, and even pretends to give him a son to bind him to her. After giving disastrous advice about Vietnam based on faulty information given by Song, Gallimard is returned to France and Song is punished by her own government for losing this valuable source of information, spending four years laboring on a farm. She is later sent to France to get more information, and for fifteen years Gallimard keeps her as his mistress, until their espionage, and Song’s gender, are uncovered, and Gallimard is sent to jail as a laughing stock. On reflection, he realizes that he is closer to the character of Butterfly, betrayed by her lover, and, dressing in Song’s kimono and wig, kills himself as the original Butterfly had done.


Even after knowing how he has been betrayed, Gallimard still longs for his Butterfly and the way things were, indicating that he has never truly seen Song, but only the fantasy of “her” he has created in his imagination. Neither strong nor good-looking, Gallimard has always felt inadequate with women. He loves Madame Butterfly because it tells the story of a brave and beautiful woman who will give everything to a mediocre man, like himself. Stuck in a passionless marriage, undertaken as a career move, he seeks sexual thrills elsewhere and Song fulfills his every desire. It is unsurprising that he refuses to look any deeper to see her for what she truly is. Like the women in pornography, Butterfly appears utterly compliant, holding herself as worthless, willing to be degraded, and allowing the man to completely dominate her.


Gallimard snobbishly insists that he is not like the crass American, Pinkerton, but his treatment of Song is only marginally better. He does all he can to torment and humiliate Song by ignoring her for weeks to see how desperate he can make her become and even conducting an affair he finds personally distasteful, solely because it upsets her. He enjoys the rush of power such deceits give him and the approbation he receives at work for having a foreign mistress. He feels himself superior because he is a Westerner and, although there is no evidence to support this belief, he refuses to accept that it could be otherwise. His own society supports his view, rewarding him with a promotion on witnessing his new aggressiveness, self-confidence, and apparent understanding of China. Yet, unlike Pinkerton, Gallimard does offer Song a real marriage, although she refuses, and later takes her in and provides for her back in France. Such actions allow him to be more sympathetic than his operatic prototype, though little less patronizing.


Despite playing the role of Butterfly to Gallimard’s Pinkerton, Song is not entirely submissive at the start, and even warns Gallimard of his limited understanding of the Chinese. She is self-assured, mocking, often taking the lead, and politically astute. When Gallimard speaks about Butterfly’s suicide as an act of beauty, Song quickly points out that if positions were reversed and this were a relationship in which a homecoming queen had been ditched by a Japanese businessman, no one would be calling her suicide beautiful, but rather  an act of insanity. Yet Gallimard insists that she become his Butterfly and, to win his confidence, Song accepts the challenge. In his assumed cultural superiority and misunderstanding, Gallimard interprets her earlier actions as bold and outspoken on the surface to hide a shy and fearful heart. No wonder it is so easy to fool him into giving away state secrets just to show off and to trick him into believing that Asians really admire Westerners, want to be like them, and will always bow to what they see as a greater power, offering no resistance, when, in reality, the opposite is closer to truth.


Gallimard is utterly unaware of how Eastern society works. He allows Song to entertain him in her apartment, not realizing how scandalous that would seem to her society. On his return to France, he still holds this false image of China as more civilized, even while his wife points out how similar France and China are, as the French riot in the streets in Paris. This scene also comes shortly after we have just witnessed the inherently uncivilized treatment that Song’s fellow citizens have put her through after Gallimard’s departure. As Song explains as a witness at the reenactment of Gallimard’s trial in Paris, Western men see themselves as masculine and powerful with their weapons, industry, and wealth. By contrast, they view the East as feminine and weak, full of poverty, and delicate, artistic sensibilities, just waiting to be dominated by the stronger West. Song suggests that, given this biased cultural background, Gallimard could not but view any Easterner as female, regardless of the individual’s true gender.


China is not pictured as blameless or even the victim in this cultural impasse. Song may play the role of Butterfly, but it is one she knows to be false and it is she who takes on the role of the betrayer Pinkerton by the close, calling out “Butterfly” over Gallimard’s corpse. She also tells us much about the negative aspects of Chinese society since the Revolution. China has become very restricted, with little room for freedom of expression or action. For all the talk of equality, men still dominate and people are generally kept oppressively cowed by authority. We see the uncomfortable contradictions within the new order as Chin instructs Song, insisting that Song not indulge in any homosexual practices, while also demanding that she play the role of concubine to Gallimard in exchange for state secrets. Later we see Song beaten and publicly humiliated, and forced to give up her craft as an opera singer to work at manual labor, despite all she has done for the cause with her spying, as the country becomes xenophobic and antagonistic to its own cultural past.


Set in South Africa in 1950, MASTER HAROLD”… and the boys introduces us to Sam and Willie, two black men who work in the tearooms belonging to white, seventeen-year-old Harold’s parents. Harold, called Hally to those close to him, is friendly with both men, and has shared his school lessons with Sam to have someone with whom he can talk on an intellectual level. He feels uncomfortable with his disabled, belligerent father, so Sam takes on a fatherly role and Willie that of an older brother. After work, Sam is helping Willie  prepare for a dance contest and Hally arrives from school to do his homework. He and Sam talk, recalling a time when they flew a kite together, and comment on various political and social issues. All is friendly until, shortly after Hally has heard the troubling news that his father is on his way home, Sam crosses a line by chastising Hally for not showing his father enough respect. Hally takes out the fear and anger he feels toward his father on Sam, insisting that he call him “Master Harold,” and tells a racist joke to belittle him. In response, Sam shows him his bare behind, at which point Hally spits in his face. The more mature of the two, Sam backs down and offers Hally another chance at friendship, but the boy is too ashamed and leaves. The play closes as Willie dances with Sam to distract him from Hally’s behavior.


Hally’s disabled father embodies the whole apartheid system, his debilitating illness a metaphor for the racism that held South Africa back for so many years. Yet he is afflicted by more than a bad leg: he is also a drunkard, prone to borderline psychotic ranting against blacks and insistent that Hally accept his racist outlook without question. His attitudes have emotionally influenced his son, even as Hally intellectually recognizes them to be false and prefers the more educated, nonprejudiced ideology of Sam. When frustrated by his father’s limitations, the son behaves with the same prejudice, using Sam as a scapegoat to draw attention away from his own insecurities. This, Fugard suggests, is the central impulse behind apartheid: aside from the economic advantages of keeping blacks poor so they can be better exploited, it allows whites to cover up their own shortcomings by a pretense that they are superior just because they are white. Hally can either follow his parents’ lead or try to right the wrong, but if he chooses the former he will end up as bitter and twisted as his father.


The confrontation between Sam and Hally is sparked by the conflict within Hally between the corrupt legacy of apartheid he has inherited from his birth father and the more humane education and moral guidance he has received from Sam, his preferred father figure. The conflict between the two begins verbally, but escalates to such outlandish gestures between them as spitting from Hally and Sam baring his buttocks. It becomes uncertain where they can go next. Sam’s decision to eschew violence and attempt to renew their relationship is a positive one, but it is one for which Hally is evidently not yet ready, as Willie suggests by emphasizing Hally’s youth.


The “boys” of the title, refers to the adult males, Sam and Willie, as they are disparagingly called by many whites. But Sam, especially, despite the evident limitations of his life (he works in a tearoom), has a composure and intellect that belie the white assessment of blacks as inferior. Although the seven-year friendship between Sam and Hally may seem incongruous, given their backgrounds (and the fact that the play dared to depict black and white actors on the same stage was considered revolutionary in South Africa), this is overshadowed by the delight both gain from their interplay. For the most part, these two display both affection and respect for each other. Sam is more   aware of the fragility of their relationship than Hally, but he maintains a faith that it can survive, which is supported by his evident love for the boy.


Willie is less intellectual than Sam, but full of enthusiasm, and he is equally likable. He exhibits a physical exuberance to balance the mental exuberance of his friend. He treats Hally as one would a younger brother and Sam as an older brother, to whom he, too, looks for guidance and advice. When Sam, in his disappointment over Hally’s behavior toward him, considers hitting the boy, it is Willie who breaks the tension by reminding Sam of Hally’s youth. It is also Willie who tries to cheer Sam up after Hally has walked out. But Willie can be overbearing, as he has been with his submissive girlfriend Hilda, an ironic echo of the relationship between Hally’s parents, showing how similar these racial groups really can be.


Two central metaphors used by Fugard are the kite and the dance (which will be picked up in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa ). The kite represents the hope of racial cooperation. Sam designs, builds, and flies the kite, despite young Hally’s doubts and embarrassment over the project. Its flight marks a positive moment for Hally, who expects to be “perpetually disappointed.” Yet the young Hally misses the significance of the memory. Sam had made the kite to cheer up Hally after they had been to a bar to carry home his drunken father. The kite was meant to teach Hally to look up, rather than down in shame. But Sam now reveals something of which Hally had been unaware; the bench to which Sam had tied the kite was “Whites Only,” and only Hally could sit on it. Sam insists Hally is now old enough to open his eyes, stand up, and walk away from such benches, and thereby discard any tolerance of racial prejudice.


Sam’s engaging and subtle analysis of the dance contest for which Willie practices as a symbol of a harmonious world where no one “bumps” into anyone else, not only tells us that Sam is intelligent and perceptive, but also helps Hally to realize that black South African culture is not as primitive or empty as he has been told. For Sam, the dance represents the possibility of integration, just as he, the expert dancer, has integrated white education with black know-how. Yet Hally refuses to learn to dance. Our only hope is that this is a result of his evident immaturity, indicated by his frequent inability to see the implications behind what is said and done, and not a sign of an irredeemable adherence to racist ideology.


I Will Marry When I Want tells the story of a poor Kenyan laborer, Kiguunda, his wife, Wangeci, and their teenage daughter, Gathoni. Initially content with his small plot of land, Kiguunda naively mortgages his land to pay for a ceremony to consecrate his own marriage in the Christian church to please his prospective in-laws, believing that John Muhuuni, the son of local magnate, Ahab Kioi wa Kanora, intends to marry his daughter. Meanwhile, Muhunni impregnates Gathoni and casts her off. Gathoni’s parents try to coerce Kioi into  offering restitution, but Kioi is rescued by his wife, Jezebel, and Kiguunda’s family loses their land to the bank. It appears that the whole thing was an elaborate and ruthless plot by Kioi to gain Kiguunda’s land for development.


The play is largely concerned with the betrayal of the common people in Kenya by their postindependence leadership. The expectation was that, in the aftermath of colonial rule as Kenya declared her independence, the land would be restored to the Kenyan people. However, it seemed as if Kenyan independence only exacerbated the desire of a wealthy, Kenyan few to attract European investment, as they took land away from the indigenous population to build factories specializing in exported goods that offered little benefit to any but these wealthy few. This is what happens to Kiguunda as Kioi plans to build an insecticide factory on his land.


The wealth of men like Kioi depends on European connections; he acts as a figurehead for foreign industrial investments. His presence as director of banks and other companies provides a façade that such businesses are owned by Kenyans. His reward is a sizable chunk of the profits for very little risk or work. This betrayal of the Kenyan people by the ruling elite is further highlighted by Ngugi’s negative association of Christian names with his villains, which he sees as running against African culture. Kioi’s wife is called Jezebel, and like her biblical counterpart, she assists her husband in forcibly appropriating the land of another. While the Bible’s Jezebel assists King Ahab in acquiring the vineyards of Naboth by having him stoned to death, the Jezebel in I Will Marry When I Want helps her husband, also named Ahab, to avoid recrimination by pulling a gun on Kiguunda when he threatens Kioi’s life, and thereby allowing Kioi to keep the land out of which he has tricked Kiguunda. Her Western gun against Kiguunda’s Mau Mau sword further emphasizes their differing allegiances, who is in control, and how they plan, through a superior technology, to stay in control.


Ngugi sees the conversion of African peoples to Christianity as another way the Western world has sought to dominate and subvert African culture. He depicts this cultural treason when he shows Kiguunda forced to take the name of Winston Smith and Wangeci that of Rosemary Magdalene on exchanging wedding vows in the Christian consecration of their marriage. This forcible change of identity illustrates just one way in which the roots of cultural imperialism remain to flourish in Kenya and detract from traditional Kenyan customs. Kiguunda and Wangeci become perverted by Western materialism in their social aspirations through the marriage of their daughter into wealth; this makes their loss of land a suitable punishment. At the play’s start they had been happy with what little they had and had betrayed that contentment by striving for something more and, more importantly, something tainted by Western influence.


The fact that Gathoni defied her parents in traveling to Mombasa with Muhuuni is another way in which Western values have brought misfortune to  this family. Traditionally, a daughter would do whatever her parents wished. Gathoni is as naive as her parents when it comes to dealing with the Kioi family. She believes Muhuuni when he says he will not marry a girl who has not conceived, so she gets pregnant, expecting him to then marry her. He casts her off in the same way his parents cast off her parents once they get what they want from them. In the same way, Ngugi sees the Mau Mau as having been betrayed by the postindependence Kenyan government.


Kiguunda becomes a drunk, a sad contrast to the proud landowner from the play’s start, and Gathoni becomes a barmaid, but despite this regression the play ends on a determinedly hopeful note. The family’s neighbor, Gicaamba, a former member of the Mau Mau revolutionary army, joins with Kiguunda and others in renewing their Mau Mau oaths to reclaim the land from foreign ownership, thus showing they have not yet been defeated, even if progress is slower than they had expected.


There have been references throughout the play to the oaths taken by Mau Mau not to betray one another to the British authorities or to sell land to the Europeans, and these serve to convey the nobility of the Mau Mau cause against the deceit and violence of the Homeguard, whose ascendancy to power is described as achieved through crooked means. The Homeguard was a quasi-military branch of the British police force made up of African loyalists who were supposed to restore calm after the disruptions of the Mau Mau attacks. What they did instead was help identify and detain Mau Mau members, which Ngugi views as the worst kind of treachery. The martyred Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimaathi, is held in contrast to the Homeguard as a man of honor. Ngugi sees men like him as being the true progenitors of Kenya’s freedom, and the rightful heirs to political leadership in Kenya.

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