M. Butterfly is the first American play written by an Asian American to reach universal acclaim. The play also makes references as well as parodies Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" (hence the title). The main character, Rene likens himself to be like the unworthy Pinkerton in Puccini's opera. A man undeserving of the total devotion of the beautiful and exotic Butterfly.
The play is inspired by the true affair between a a Chinese opera singer and a French diplomat that lasted for 21 years. The diplomat was made ware of the deception only after he was charged for treason and discovered his partner to be a man acting as a spy for the government. Hwang became inspired by the sheer unbelivability of this event and wrote this play exploring the role of racial stereotypes and the relationship between East and West and Feminity and Masculinity.
The play won the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year, the New York Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Broadway play, and the John Gassner Award. The play was performed on Broadway and then the London’s Shaftsbury Theatre in 1989. The play was a smashing success and broke all previous records. It is the first play written by an Asian American to achieve such universality. The play was adapted into a film directed by David Croneberg in 1993.