Theatre / M. Butterfly

I could escape this feeling
With my China girl...
David Bowie & Iggy Pop (opening quote of script)

M. Butterfly is a play written by David Henry Hwang in the late 1980s.

It is a very loose re-telling of perhaps one of the most strange (and true) cases of mistaken identity this side of 1900. A French diplomat named Rene Gallimard works in China during the '60s as an advisor to the goings-on of the day where he meets and becomes enamoured with a Beijing Opera diva named Song Liling. The two hit it off, and Gallimard cheats on his wife with Song for the next twenty years, in which his relationship with Song has ups and downs such as the cultural revolution in China, the Vietnam War, an unexpected pregnancy on Song's part and Gallimard falling out of power in China only to regain some of his power as a spy for China, handling very sensitive documents out of France.

Naturally, they are eventually found out, arrested and put on trial and it is in this trial that Rene learns the hard way that there are no women in the Beijing Opera.

A wonderful play that discusses the nature of gender and Asian stereotypes, this play is a very well done dark comedy that ends in a way worthy of the Puccini opera the play gets its name from.

The original Broadway production starred John Lithgow as Gallimard and B.D. Wong as Song.

In the early '90s, it was made into a film by David Cronenberg, starring Jeremy Irons as Gallimard and John Lone as Song.

This play provides examples of:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love : Song plays this to full effect to get Gallimard to fall for her. Later on in the play, Gallimard returns the favor.
  • Asian Babymama: Complete with a child with blond hair. It's only another ruse by Song, of course.
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • Played around with. Both Gallimard and Song became the masks the other wore.
    • There are also hints that Song developed genuine feelings for Gallimard to some extent during their time together, especially in the film where he breaks down crying after Gallimard makes it clear that he loved only the lie, not the actual person.
  • Black and Grey Morality: The greedy French Embassy in China up against the Chinese Communists.
  • Black Comedy : The various breakings of the fourth wall add to the humourous elements that occur within the story itself, such as the name Song chooses for her son.
  • Butterfly of Death and Rebirth : In a manner of speaking. The play is based off of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and it ends on about the same sort of bitter note.
  • Compensating for Something : Song's interpretation of West-Meets-East gender and racial stereotypes.
    • Discussed in Rene's speech as well
  • Face Death with Dignity : Gallimard owns up to his mistakes before killing himself. He admits to himself that he loved "Butterfly" and embraced the racist/sexist attitudes that allowed that love to be possible. He manages to face death with dignity by realizing that he didn't love Song, thereby humiliating Song, who thought that he had complete control over Gallimard. When Song strips and Gallimard is forced to admit that he is male, Song loses all of his power, and only the imaginary Butterfly has influence over Gallimard.
  • Foreshadowing: In the opening credits of the movie, the name John Lone tells us that the female protagonist we are about to see is actually a male.
    • Averted in the play; B. D. Wong began using his first initials in order to keep the reader doubting about his gender, and other actors who played Song followed his example.
  • Genre Savvy: It takes a lot of this to woo a man by referencing an opera.
  • Love at First Sight : Played around with. Gallimard is already married when he hooks up with Song.
  • Name's the Same: Rene Gallimard and his other mistress Renee. The trope is muddled somewhat as some printings make Gallimard's name René with an "ai" sound instead of the "ee".
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film version. Because of the format, much of the Leaning on the Fourth Wall is taken out, meaning that less emphasis is placed on Gallimard's psyche. This forces the film to go in another direction entirely, focusing on how Song constructs her identity as Gallimard's ideal lover.
  • Unsettling Gender Reveal: Song Liling positively rules over this trope with an iron fist. He was Gallimard's lover for 20 years, and it is made clear that they had sex (in the dark, but still). Even though Gallimard was an ideal victim, Song had to be convincing.
  • Villain Protagonist: Gallimard. Justified because he represents the cultural indifference of the West toward the East as well as its desire to dominate the East.
    Gallimard: I asked around. No one knew anything about the Chinese opera.

Alternative Title(s): M Butterfly