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What is the relationship between art and life, theatre and history? Two contemporary works, David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly and Chen Kaige’s film Farewell My Concubine, raise this question with men’s cross-dressing performances of tragic heroines, which complicate different theatrical aesthetics and intertwine theater with fictionalized reality based on actual historical events. By presenting twists of characters’ real-life relationships entwined with Western and Eastern operatic fantasies, Hwang and Chen complicate the 19th-century European romantic opera cliché of “tragic women dying for love” and classical Chinese theatrical aesthetics of presentational performances. The intertwining of art and life, in evolving theatrical performances contextualized in the 20th-century history, reveals situations of irony in the lives of minor characters caught in grand historical movements. The cultural figures of tragic heroines allegorized by histories channel East and West in characters’ suspected betrayals and deaths, offering cultural translation and historical allegories. This paper examines how male characters perform tragic female roles to mediate their relationships to others and respond to given realities. Whereas previous discussions focus on general gender politics, my approach to the East-West tension through comparing aesthetic traditions and histories evolved in performances will offer the subtlety previously neglected. Reading through the lens of various crossings redefines the dichotomous East-West tension as a relationship of mutual inclusion and reveals the West’s underestimation of the East in the past decades. The undervalued theatrical power to replace reality at the end of both works enables us to read individuals’ operatic suicides as self-salvation and Hwang’s character Song’s survival, ironically, as a tragedy.
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