M. Butterfly: Marxism: The State’s Stage Directions

The opening stage directions of the play M. Butterfly are a microcosm of the Marxist power-dynamic. In just these few opening paragraphs we are not only presented with the individual’s powerlessness within the State as a being coerced by the repressive state apparatus, but also as an interpolated subject of the ideological state apparatus. In this essay I will examine only the initial stage directions on page 1 of the play as it relates to the central concepts of Marxist criticism.

The play’s first line presents us with the power the state holds over the individual, “M. Gallimard’s prison cell. Paris,” (Hwang, 1). We do not yet know who this individual is, only that the state has imprisoned them. For all we know this “M. Gallimard” is a sort of everyman, a representation of our own powerless against the power of the state. The stage directions go on to further enforce the power of the state, “Lights fade up,” (Hwang, 1) as if the unseen hand of the all-powerful state is in complete control of every facet of this individual’s life. And we the audience who are viewing this individual on stage are mimicking one of the roles of the state, that of a prison guard much like was found in the Panopticon where the individual is continually on display and, “Inspection function[s] ceaselessly,” (Foucault, 551). The play is giving us a representation of the repressive state apparatus, the force the state holds to coerce and exert power upon the individual as well as the inability of the individual to hide from or escape this power.

As the lights rise and reveal in detail who this Gallimard is, we are presented with a critique of not just the repressive state apparatus, but also of the ideological state apparatus. Whereas the former is involved in power and coercion over the individual, the later is involved with how that individual operates within the state and what is expected of that individual. Though Gallimard’s situation is humble, he nevertheless is in possession of a “comfortable bathrobe,” (Hwang, 1), and two pieces of technology. For comparison sake, upstage we can see a Chinese woman in “traditional Chinese garb,” (Hwang, 1) dancing to Chinese music. This comparison is important in that it reinforces the expected norms (as seen through Western eyes) of the two cultures and what the state expects from each individual on stage. Gallimard is presented as a man of leisure, albeit imprisoned, and he has the comforts of his culture’s technology while the indistinct Chinese dancer wears what a Westerner would assume is appropriate Chinese attire.  If we look deeper, we are presented with the image of a Western man who has (a few) creature comforts, but is ultimately imprisoned by his own culture’s ideology. Unlike the dancer who is (seemingly) at least more free than Gallimard to move about and dance, Gallimard wears “a sad smile on his face,” (Hwang, 1). There is no joy for Gallimard as he is imprisoned not only by the state but also by his state’s ideology. The focus on the objects that surround these individuals – his bathrobe, her traditional dress, the music – make up the materialism that defines these characters consciousness.

In the third paragraph of the opening stage directions of the play, we are shown how Gallimard’s cultural ideology attempts to override that of the dancer’s, “the Chinese opera music dissolves into a Western opera,” (Hwang, 1). Gallimard’s ideology, that which is the norm of his oppressive culture, bleeds over and attempts to take control of a whole other culture. And so we are presented not just with a representation of colonialism, but with the power of cultural ideology over the individual. And if we take a step even further back, the stage directions themselves are acting both as a repressive state apparatus by controlling every minute action of all the individuals on stage, as well as an ideological state apparatus by defining what the proper “roles” are for each actor on stage. In other words, we could interpret the stage directions as being a representation of the state’s power over the individual.

At this point in the play the actors have not acted and we, the audience, can only watch and interpret the images on the stage. And while we do not know anything personal about Gallimard, such as his class, we can interpret his imprisonment as not just someone who has succumbed to the power of the state, but who is an alienated being. In fact our not knowing the circumstances of Gallimard’s imprisonment heightens the alienated individuals lack of understanding as to what his place is in society. All the actor knows is that he is on stage (being observed and examined by a shadowy audience / prison guard), that some unseen force has complete power over him (the lights coming on mysteriously), and that he is trapped by a system (his prison cell) that provides for him some creature comforts, but how exactly these comforts come into existence is unknown. Gallimard’s body language – he looks tired and sits on  a crate – coupled with his apparent sadness seems to be saying that while Gallimard has accepted his condition as subservient to the state power, he is not made happy by the circumstances. Marx describes the condition of the worker in a capitalist state as being like a machine, the “capitalist goals and questions of profit and loss are paramount, workers are bereft of their full humanity and are thought of as ‘hands’ or ‘the labour force’”, and that, “People, in a word, become things,” (Barry 157). Gallimard then is not all that different than the contents of his cell, he is no more or less distinguished from the the bathrobe which cloths him, the crate on which he sits his weary body, the hot plate which cooks his meals, or the tape recorder which provides his entertainment.

Now that we, the audience / prison guard have defined this Gallimard as nothing more than a thing, a function of the state of which we keep an eye on, we get a glimpse of how this actor’s society, as well as our own, is structured. At the base is the physical objects themselves, and though we don’t understand how these objects came into existence – after all we too as the audience / prison guard are alienated beings who take part in, “repetitive tasks in a sequence of whose nature and purpose he or she has no overall grasp,” (Barry, 157) – we understand their significance as being those objects which determine everything that rests upon this base. Marx defines this relationship as the superstructure. Gallimard is acting out this relationship as he is literally resting upon one of the objects created and provided by the state: the “wooden crate,” (Hwang, 1). Gallimard’s state is defined by and supported by the State and the objects that are produced by the State. His comfort yet also his unhappiness is, “‘determined’ (or shaped) by the nature of the economic base,” (Barry, 158).

Gallimard’s state as we have defined it as it pertains to the individual may seem bleak and dehumanizing, yet from the point of view of the State, specifically as influenced by Lenin, it is necessary for the individual, here represented in the art of a stage performance, to “become part of the organized, methodical, and unified labours of the social-democratic party,” (Barry 160). Self expression is seen as detrimental to the overall health and prosperity of the State and art itself should, “be explicitly committed to the political cause of the Left,” (Barry, 160). Notice he does not say it is committed to the cause of the individual, but to a specific political ideology. Art is a function and product of the State just like the hot plate, the bathrobe, the crate, and the tape recorder. Art’s role, such as this play, is to encourage behavior in the individual that is beneficial to the State. True, the individual may be unhappy in their emotional life, as Gallimard appears to be, but their physical needs are being met by the State and so the State is able to maintain its power to continue to provide these basic needs. Thus the stage directions are akin to the State party’s orders, they tell the individual how they should behave within the State while also providing for the individual’s basic needs.

Not all of the State’s power manifests itself through outright force. Althusser refines Marx by suggesting that there is a, “much more subtle view of how society works,” (Barry, 165). Elements of society, such as art, play just as an important role in shaping us as ideological beings as do the physical objects of a capitalist society. This function of art can be heard in how the music in the stage directions has a noticeable effect on the individual. The initial piece of music is described as a “percussive clatter,” (Hwang, 1), however when the music of Gallimard’s culture is cross-faded over the traditional Chinese music, “the difference in music now gives [her movements] a balletic quality,” (Hwang, 1). Though the dancer’s culture has not changed, the way we interpret the dancer’s movement within the State is altered. What was before an undefined series of movements, the dancer’s movements now have meaning, an ideology, in relation to the music being played. The dancer takes on western, balletic qualities where before the dancer was only someone wearing “traditional Chinese garb,” (Hwang, 1) and thus the dancer is absorbed into the dominant culture’s ideology, which is “a system of representations at the heart of a given society,” (Barry, 163), in this case, Western ballet.

Also coded here is the distinction between genders in that the hegemony, Gallimard, is imposing his cultural norm upon the “other” individual. Though he is a prisoner, Gallimard is still able to exercise his power as the dominant cultural influence, a white male over a non-white female.

However, the power of hegemony Gallimard is expressing is not a free choice. Gallimard is a interpellated individual, meaning that he really only has one choice of music (art) with which to express himself. As a prisoner of the State, he’s been given a piece of music by the State (as the stage directions describe) with which he can express his culture / ideology “freely” with, or use to impose his own culture / ideology over another with. Yet Gallimard has no choice in what piece of music to express himself with nor does he even attempt to appropriate the initial Chinese music, but rather the State imposes Puccini’s Love Duet over everyone. Gallimard may think his ideology is a choice that he made or at least consciously agreed to, when, in fact, he really has no choice at all. The dancer’s movements may now have “a balletic quality,” (Hwang, 1) but that is only because that is his ideology interpreting the dance “correctly”, or to put it another way, the State is telling him how he should be interpreting the dancer. All other interpretations would then be other and “wrong” and not an accepted part of the power dynamic of his dominant culture. Gallimard’s cultural ideology is that which says one piece of music (his State’s art) is more beautiful and makes the world more beautiful (balletic) than any other. The possibility that perhaps the Chinese dancer believed the initial piece of music was more beautiful, or at least equal to the West’s never enters into Gallimard’s, let alone the stage direction’s (the State’s) consciousness.

In only a few lines of text at the beginning of the play we can see the power dynamic of a Marxist system being acted out. The power of the State is all-encompassing, like the rounded Panopticon which sees in all directions at once, it is also all-powerful in that it provides everything for the individual, whether or not they want it. In this system the individual is reduced to a product that can be moulded into whatever the State requires while at the same time allowing the individual to believe they have free choice in this process. However, the power of the State is complete and we, like Gallimard, are a prisoner to it. The State, like the play, provides the stage directions for our life and our ideology with which we then must act out.

 

Works Cited

 

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press. 2002.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Discipline and Punish – Foucault. https://writing.colostate.edu/files/classes/11609/File_F116078B-E65C-4A17-313CFBBB77C9A128.pdf. Accessed 07 December 2017.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus-Althusser. https://writing.colostate.edu/files/classes/11609/File_F11207FD-B8A7-0B23-BEB71E6781C76D72.pdf. Accessed 07 December 2017.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly: with an afterword by the playwright. Plume, 2006.