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Theatre / M. Butterfly

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"I could escape this feeling
With my China girl..."
— The opening quote of the script, "China Girl" by Iggy Pop

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 Gallimard 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 from which the play gets its name.

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.

A direct commentary on but 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 him. 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 himself 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 his 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 René'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.
  • 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 naïve 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.
  • Honey Trap: Song was sent to seduce Gallimard as part of a ploy to get information out of him for the Chinese government.
  • 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: Discussed by Song, who brings up that while Madame Butterfly gets well-received for using this trope, an inversion would be far less so.
    Song: Consider it this way. What would you say if a blond cheerleader fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He marries her and then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy? Then when she learns her husband has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner, you find her beautiful.
    Gallimard: [beat] Yes. Well, I see your point.
  • One-Steve Limit: René Gallimard and his other mistress Renée. 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 and divorce are never fully explored, and his wife just disappears from the film with no explanation given.
  • 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: Renée, 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.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In the opening credits of the movie, the name John Lone tells us that the female deuteragonist we are about to see is actually a male.
    • 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.
    • When first meeting René after performing Madame Butterfly, Song points out to him how grotesque it would be to reverse the roles in the story, with an Asian businessman exploiting a naïve lovesick Westerner. At the film's end, René's disgust is palpable when he is confronted by Song wearing a business suit and using his real masculine voice.
  • Effeminate Misogynistic Guy: Song is all about this when speaking with Comrade Chin, his handler.
    • Early in the film when Song's value to the government is still in question, Chin admonishes him for continuing to dress and behave as a woman in private when it should be unnecessary; reading trashy magazines and behaving in an altogether decadent and un-socialist way. Song counters that in order to be a successful Honey Trap for René, he feels it is best to practice often and fully immerse himself in the role. The Subtext of the conversation is that Song may not just be acting the part anymore.
    • Later in the film, Song is much bolder towards Chin, having proved to be very adept at teasing vital military intelligence out of René. He asks Chin why it is that only men play the female roles in the Bejing Opera. Chin starts to spout the standard anti-imperialist party line about obsolete traditional gender roles; Song "corrects" her, saying that only a man knows how a woman should behave.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Song feeds René all the clichéd stereotypes about the Chinese and Easterners in general so that he uses them to predict to the French ambassador that China will open trade with France and that America is sure to win the Vietnam war. A few years later, after the exact opposite has happened, the ambassador sarcastically comments that René must have been joking back then, based on how stupid he looks now.
  • 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.
  • Hypocritical Humor: René's first conversation with Song takes place following her performance of Madame Butterfly; he praises her for depicting such a beautiful character and she admonishes him for his ignorant and condescending fantasies around Oriental women. We then get a Smash Cut to René back at home, commenting to his wife that the Chinese are an arrogant people.
  • Loving a Shadow: Once Song reveals his true nature, he still tries to force René into admitting he loves the real person and not his idealized fantasy of an Oriental woman. When René responds that he was in love with a perfect lie and that the real Song "simply falls short", it actually breaks Song's heart.
  • 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 his identity as Gallimard's ideal lover. Most of the comic relief and witty zingers provided by the characters, especially Song's espionage handler, have also been removed.
  • Prisoner Performance: The film adaptation ends with Gallimard in prison where he puts on make-up and dresses like a Chinese courtesan and performs a version of Madame Butterfly, recounting the plot of the play. Then, in a recreation of Madame Butterfly's ending, as Gallimard reaches the end of his performance, he takes his hand mirror and uses the sharp edge to slash his carotid artery.
  • Symbolism After being sent back to France, René encounters French students parading in the streets with Chinese communist symbols and signs, paralleling the similar socialist riots he saw back in China. This seduction of French youth by socialist propaganda is a mirror that reflects Song's seduction of René.
  • 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