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"M. Butterfly" by David Henry Hwang

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M. Butterfly is a play written by David Henry Hwang. The drama won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988.

The Setting:

The play is set in a prison in "present day" France. (Note: The play was written in the late 1980s.) The audience travels back to 1960s and 1970s Beijing, via the memories and dreams of the main character.

The Basic Plot:

Shamed and imprisoned, 65-year-old Rene Gallimard contemplates the events that led to a shocking and embarrassing international scandal. While working for the French embassy in China, Rene fell in love with a beautiful Chinese performer. For over twenty years, they carried on a sexual relationship, and over the decades the performer stole secrets on behalf of the Chinese communist party. But here's the shocking part: the performer was a female impersonator, and Gallimard claimed that he never knew he had been living with a man all those years. How could the Frenchman maintain a sexual relationship for over two decades without learning the truth?

Based on a True Story?

In the playwright notes at the beginning of the published edition of M. Butterfly, it explains that the story was initially inspired by real events: a French diplomat named Bernard Bouriscot fell in love with an opera singer "whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman" (qtd. in Hwang). Both men were convicted of espionage. In Hwang's afterward he explains that the news article sparked an idea for a story, and from that point the playwright stopped doing research on the actual events, wanting to create his own answers to the questions many had about the diplomat and his lover.

In addition to its non-fictional roots, the play is also a clever deconstruction of the Puccini opera, Madam Butterfly.

Fast Track to Broadway:

Most shows make it to Broadway after a long period of development. M. Butterfly had the good fortune of having a true believer and benefactor from the beginning. Producer Stuart Ostrow funded the project early on; he admired the finished process so much that he launched a production in Washington D.C., followed by a Broadway premiere weeks later in March of 1988 - less than two years after Hwang first discovered the international story.

When I watched this play on Broadway I was fortunate enough to witness the incredible performance of BD Wong starring as Song Liling, the seductive opera singer. I was captivated by the production, but for very shallow reasons. "Wow!" I thought. "That guy is really good at playing a woman, but that French diplomat sure is a fool!" (Sadly, this was my level of critical thinking at age 16.) Today, when I read M. Butterfly, the political commentary fascinates me more than the sexual idiosyncrasies of the characters.

Themes of M. Butterfly:

Hwang's play says much about humanity's propensity for desire, self-deception, betrayal and regret. According to the playwright, the drama also penetrates the common myths of eastern and western civilization, as well as the myths about gender identity.

Myths About the East:

The character of Song knows that France and the rest of the Western world perceive Asian cultures as submissive, wanting - even hoping - to be dominated by a powerful foreign nation. Gallimard and his superiors grossly underestimate China and Vietnam's ability to adapt, defend, and counterattack in the face of adversity. When Song is brought forth to explain his actions to a French judge, the opera singer implies that Gallimard deceived himself about his lover's true sex because Asia is not considered a masculine culture in comparison to Western Civilization. These false beliefs prove detrimental to both the protagonist and the nations he represents.

Myths About the West:

Song is a reluctant member of China's communist revolutionaries, who see the westerners as domineering imperialists bent on the moral corruption of the East. However, if Monsieur Gallimard is emblematic of Western Civilization, his despotic tendencies are tempered with a desire to be accepted, even at the cost of supplication. Another myth of the west is that nations in Europe and North America thrive by generating conflict in other countries. Yet, throughout the play, the French characters (and their government) constantly wish to avoid conflict, even if it means they must deny reality in order to attain a facade of peace.

Myths About Men and Women:

Breaking the fourth wall, Gallimard frequently reminds the audience that he has been loved by the "perfect woman." Yet, the so-called prefect female turns out to be very male. Song is a clever actor who knows the exact qualities most men desire in an ideal woman. Here are some of the characteristics Song exhibits to ensnare Gallimard:

  • Physical beauty
  • Shrewdness which gives way to submissiveness
  • Self-sacrifice
  • A combination of modesty and sexiness
  • The ability to produce offspring (specifically a son)

By the end of the play, Gallimard comes to terms with the truth. He realizes that Song is just a man, and a cold, mentally abusive one at that. Once he identifies the difference between fantasy and reality, the protagonist chooses fantasy, entering into his own private little world where he becomes the tragic Madam Butterfly.

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