A Lasting Butterfly

Andy Knight
 | May 06, 2019

M. Butterfly Logo


Playwright David Henry Hwang


​Former French embassy employee Bernard Boursicot faces the judge as his and Shi Pei Pu trial begins in Paris, May 5, 1986.


​Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, before 1960.


John Lithgow and BD Wong in the 1988 Broadway production of M. Butterfly.

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly begins in a Paris prison in 1986. There, in a secluded cell, Rene Gallimard serves out his sentence for treason. Gallimard, a former civil servant, is no ordinary prisoner, however—he’s an international celebrity; his name is in all the papers, and he’s the talk of the chicest parties. But it’s not his acts of espionage that the world is discussing. Instead, it’s his 20-year romance with Song Liling, a Chinese opera star, whom Gallimard calls “the Perfect Woman.”

Night after night, Gallimard replays the story of his love affair in his head, trying to piece together the details, with the hope that the ending might somehow change. His story begins as a boy of 12 years old—on the night he first saw Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly. The experience was a formative one for Gallimard, for it was then and there that he came to know the feminine ideal—the opera’s fragile but brave heroine, Cio-Cio-San. Cio-Cio-San is the Japanese wife of the scoundrel Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy. She’s exotic, faithful and willing to sacrifice her life for a man who’s unworthy of her love. For the 12-year-old Gallimard, a romantic at heart, Cio-Cio-San represents what all men deserve: a butterfly ready to be caught and kept.

Years later, in 1964, Gallimard, now a married 29-year-old junior-level diplomat in China, once again experiences the beautiful tragedy of Puccini’s Butterfly. But this time, more than the story bewitches him. For on that night, he meets Song Liling, the Chinese opera singer performing the title role. To Gallimard, Song is a “Butterfly with little or no voice,” and yet he still wishes that he could “protect her, take her home, pamper her, ease her pain.” Gallimard is smitten.

However, Gallimard soon learns that Song is not who he thinks she is. After he attends her performance at the Beijing Opera, she comes out of her dressing room in the clothes of a man. Song’s performances in women’s roles have blinded Gallimard to the truth—Mademoiselle Song is, in fact, Monsieur Song. Instead of a lover, Gallimard must settle for a friend.

But with nothing to gain from a friendship with a Chinese man, Gallimard quickly becomes distant. Sensing the void growing between them, Song finally tells Gallimard his biggest secret: Song is a woman. Her mother had already given birth to three girls by the time Song was born, and her father was prepared to take another wife if the next child was not a boy. What other choice did her mother have but to pretend that Song was a boy? And now it’s too late to live any other way; communist China would never forgive the deception.

Despite the sad reality of Song’s situation, Gallimard is thrilled that their love affair can finally begin. Here is the Butterfly who trusts him with all her secrets, who trusts him with her very life. Song is the woman he’s been waiting for since he was 12 years old. He would do anything for her. And as if winning Song wasn’t enough, Gallimard’s career takes a sudden and promising turn when he’s promoted to vice-consul.

But like all good luck, Gallimard’s proves temporary, and by the mid-1970s, his life is crumbling around him. But nothing can prepare him for what’s next. For soon, Gallimard will take his greatest fall—and be forced to face the ultimate truth.

Playwright David Henry Hwang was first inspired to write M. Butterfly in the mid-1980s, after reading a short column in The New York Times about the real-life relationship between a French Embassy employee named Bernard Boursicot and a Chinese opera singer named Shi Pei Pu—a love affair that ended in espionage charges for both parties and a particularly public scandal surrounding their relationship. Hwang was intrigued by not only the story of romance and espionage, but also the questions it raised about geopolitics, race and gender. But since this was pre-Internet, Hwang notes, “I essentially made everything up, which worked out quite well.” Indeed it did. M. Butterfly opened on Broadway in 1988 to much success—and would go on to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and win the Tony Award for Best Play.

Thirty years ago, Broadway audiences were introduced to not only a contemporary story about a love affair set in China (during the regime of communist leader Mao Zedong, who had died only 10 years earlier), but also conversations about the relationship between East and West, frank conversations that had rarely been featured in New York’s commercial theatre. For in M. Butterfly, Hwang scrutinizes orientalism—that is, the fetishizing of Asian culture from a Western, colonial perspective—as well as the ways in which leaning into cultural stereotypes can be used to manipulate and amass power. And in doing so, the play takes on gender, too, pulling apart the stereotypes of the “feminine East” and the “masculine West.” But these larger thematic explorations are only part of the play’s enduring brilliance. After all, it’s Hwang’s characters that give the play its life—chiefly the tortured Rene Gallimard and the enigmatic Song Liling. They’re rich, meaty roles that many actors hope to tackle at some point in their careers.

Not long after its original Broadway run, productions of M. Butterfly began to play at theatres across the country—and, later, across the world. In 2017, M. Butterfly received its first Broadway revival, under the direction of Julie Taymor (director of Broadway’s The Lion King and the film Across the Universe). For the revival, Hwang made significant changes to the text—reworking the play’s meditation on the fluidity of identity and gender and bringing even more balance to the Eastern and Western perspectives represented in the story. As he was rewriting, Hwang also looked back at the real-life events that inspired the piece—about which much more information can be easily found today—and discovered that the true story aligned nicely with the new direction his play was taking. And so, while the revised version of M. Butterfly is still far from a docudrama, it’s tied to history more faithfully than the original.

South Coast Repertory’s production of M. Butterfly is directed by Desdemona Chiang, who makes her SCR debut this season. To Chiang, Hwang’s play is about “the allure of exceptionalism and the lengths a person will go to achieve and preserve it.” But it’s perhaps M. Butterfly’s unexpected timeliness that makes the opportunity so irresistible to her. “For a while, I kept asking myself why I was directing this play in 2019,” Chiang says. “I wholeheartedly agree that this play is a kind of love story, but it is also a warning to those who are willfully ignorant to the totality of the world they live in….As society becomes more interconnected, intersectional and, yes, complicated, we cannot afford to persist in self-affirming confirmation bias where we refuse to see the whole picture.”

Like all lasting period pieces, M. Butterfly promises to challenge audiences who watch the play through a contemporary lens. But it also promises to intrigue them, to delight them and to ultimately move them.

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