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Theatre / M. Butterfly

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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 René 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 by 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.

Not to be confused with Madame Butterfly.


This play provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Inverted in the play. After Gallimard loses Song during the Cultural Revolution, he goes back to live with his wife in Paris until she leaves him as well.
  • 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.
  • Arc Words: Echoing the original Puccini opera; “Death with honor is better than life with dishonor.”
  • 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.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Song presents herself as a submissive and devoted lover to Gallimard, but in fact has a very sinister agenda behind their love affair.
  • 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 on 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 dialogue as well.
  • Death by Adaptation: Bernard Boursicot, Gallimard's real-life counterpart, survived his suicide attempt and was released from prison after only serving a year. As of 2020, he is still alive and residing in Paris.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gallimard, in the ending.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome : Gallimard's extravagant final monologue, followed by a dramatic seppuku.
  • 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.
  • Fatal Attraction: Gallimard's affair with Song proves to be his undoing.
  • 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.
    • In the film, shortly after Song's performance of Madame Butterfly at the embassy ball, one of the women attending says "Mademoiselle Song is very striking, but she simply has no voice," which subtly informs the viewer that there is something not quite right about Song portraying Madame Butterfly.
  • Gender Lift: The real Song Lilling's Communist Party controller was a man named Kang Sheng, but in the play and film, the character is a woman named Chin.
  • Genre Savvy: It takes a lot of this to woo a man by referencing an opera.
    • Subverted with Gallimard, who thinks he knows all about Oriental men and women based on silly stereotypes he has seen in the western media, such as their fetishistic desire to be controlled and exploited by the West, which is only encouraged by Song's manipulation. Eventually, he is proven wrong when all of his military and political advice given to the American and French diplomats blows back in everyone's faces at the start of the Vietnam War.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Gallimard's fantasy of entering a relationship in the vein of Madame Butterfly does come true, in a way. Only he's the one who turns out to be the sad, pathetic, and naive weakling exploited and abused by a dominant lover, who was Song all along.
  • Hands-On Approach: Song often teases Gallimard with this when they first meet.
  • Happily Married: What Gallimard imagines his relationship with Song is going be like once he finds her in Paris. It doesn't.
  • Happiness in Slavery: How Song seems to Gallimard. This isn't entirely true, but Gallimard never finds out whether it's entirely false.
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me : Played straight and subverted with Song and just played straight with Gallimard.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy : Another ruse by Song in order to test Gallimard's devotion.
    • Subverted with Gallimard's wife Helga, who leaves him after he confesses he's in love with Song, her final words being "I hope people are mean to you for the rest of your life."
  • Love at First Sight : Played around with. Gallimard is already married when he hooks up with Song.
  • Love Hurts: Thoroughly deconstructed with Song's deviance and Gallimard's histrionics.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: How Song was able to fool and manipulate Gallimard for eighteen years.
  • Love Martyr: Invoked with the constant Madame Butterfly references and deconstructed with Song. It is then reconstructed by Gallimard at the end of the play.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow:
  • One Steve Limit: 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".
  • Playing Hard to Get: Gallimard thinks he's doing this to Song at the beginning of their relationship, but it is actually Song who's manipulating him.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: A rare non-supernatural example when Gallimard realizes he’s been the real “Madame Butterfly” all along.
  • 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.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: David Henry Hwang got the idea for his play after coming across a short article about the trial of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu. He did not do any research after that and just used the article as a premise for his own story, but was later surprised to learn his play had several similarities to the real case by sheer coincidence.
  • 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.

This film adaptation provides examples of:

  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: In the film version, Gallimard's marriage is never fully explored and his wife appears in just one scene before disappearing and never being mentioned again, leaving the audience confused as to who was the woman in Gallimard's bed at the beginning of the movie.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: A side-effect of removing all the comic elements in the film; the two main characters become much more brooding and emotional than they were in the stage play.
  • Adaptational Name Change:
    • Gallimard's wife has her name changed from Helga to Jeanne.
    • His one-night stand is changed from Renée to Frau Baden.
  • Adapted Out: All of the flashbacks to Gallimard's childhood, and with it the characters of Marc and Isabelle.
  • Age Lift: Gallimard's one-night stand goes from being an 18-year old schoolgirl to a middle-aged woman.
  • Artistic License – Music: In the film, everyone keeps referring to the aria "Un bel dì vedremo" as Butterfly's "death scene," but it isn't. This song occurs much earlier in the opera, where Butterfly dreams of her American lover returning. Her actual death scene occurs at the very end, during an aria called "Con onor muore."
  • Canon Foreigner: The film introduces several new incidental characters, including several colleagues for Gallimard to interact with and a government agent that arrests him.
  • Composite Character: Renee, the young woman Gallimard has a fling with, is combined with the briefly-mentioned but unseen Swedish consul's wife.
  • Darker and Edgier: The film adaptation eschews most of the play’s humor and witty social commentary and presents the story in a much more serious and dramatic manner.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The film is a lot more explicit when it comes to showing how Song and Gallimard had intercourse without him ever realizing something wasn’t right. It is a David Cronenberg film, after all.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: 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. Most of the comic relief and witty zingers provided by the characters, especially Song's espionage handler, has also been removed.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Other than a (very) brief allusion to a divorce, Gallimard's wife disappears without explanation less than halfway through the film.

Alternative Title(s): M Butterfly


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