Get Your Premium Membership

David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly"


In his philosophical treatise Poetics (circa 335 BCE)—the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory—Aristotle wrote about the six basic elements comprising every drama (a written play):

1. PLOT is the arrangement of the events in a written play.

2. CHARACTER is the personality and moral qualities of a dramatic personage.

3. THOUGHT is the ideas and the emotions expressed in the play or implied by elements in the play.

4. DICTION is the nature of the language in a play.

5. MUSIC is the sound inherent in a play.

6. SPECTACLE is the visual element inherent in a written play.

As we shall see from the discussion of David Hwang's award-winning play below, each of these six elements are closely intertwined with all the others. This close interrelationship is an extremely important dynamic in Aristotle's schema for analyzing any drama. M. Butterfly is a popular play by the Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang (born 1957, currently living in Brooklyn with his second wife and two children). Having premiered on Broadway in March 1988, M. Butterfly won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was inspired by the scandalous news story of a French foreign-service official, Bernard Bouriscot, who had a twenty-year secret affair in both China and France with a Chinese opera singer and Communist spy, Shi Pei Pu, whom Bouriscot mistakenly believed to be a woman.

In Hwang's well-crafted dramatic plot, René Gallimard is a former diplomat posted at the French Embassy in Beijing in the early 1960s. As the 65-year-old Gallimard recalls throughout the play from his solitary prison cell many years later, he met Song Liling, an exotic and beautiful Chinese opera diva, when she was performing the title role in Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly in Beijing. Dissatisfied with his love life with French wife Helga and Danish mistress Renée, Gallimard seduced Song and fell deeply in love with her. He tested Song Liling’s self-sacrificing devotion to him by often neglecting and humiliating her. He also forced his Chinese mistress to admit she was his Cio-Cio San (the Japanese word for “butterfly”), the heroine of the famous opera Madama Butterfly that she has publicly scorned. But soon he began supplying Song with top-secret information stolen from the French Embassy, where he had been recently promoted to Vice-Consul. Just when Song told him that they were having a biracial baby, Gallimard was sent back home by Ambassador Toulon who had learned of his secret dalliances in Beijing. Later Gallimard divorced his wife Helga in Paris where he was eventually reunited with Song and “their” Asian-European son. They lived together for the next fifteen years, while he continued to spy for the Chinese until both were arrested for espionage. It was only at the trial that Song revealed to him and the court that she was actually a man. Feeling betrayed by his beloved “Butterfly”—who is soon pardoned for having cooperated with the prosecution and then promptly returns to China—Gallimard commits seppucu (also known as harakiri), a Japanese ritual suicide, while serving his prison sentence outside Paris.

Like his real-life prototype Bernard Bouriscot, Gallimard claims ignorance about the gender of his ex-lover: “I'm a man who loved a woman created by a man“ (3.2.114). In terms of his character (personality), he is a sexually naive protagonist and rather unreliable narrator, who lives in a fantasy world in which he imagines himself in the role of the U.S. naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The character and moral qualities of the other main dramatic personage, Song Liling (“Butterfly”), are much harder to determine, as we know only that he is an anti-Western Chinese nationalist, Communist spy, and a skillful cross-dresser masquerading as an Oriental Mata Hari, whom Gallimard sees in his delusion as the “perfect woman.” In the end, it is the imprisoned Gallimard, not his transgender Chinese ex-lover, who appears to be suffering from a confused sexual identity, as well as cross-dressing and transexual proclivities.

While in Beijing, Gallimard had a brief affair with a liberated Danish graduate student named Renée, but he is put off by her aggressive and exhibitionist sexuality. This disappointing experience convinces Gallimard that only Song’s gentle and submissive Oriental femininity fits his ideal of the "perfect" womanhood. Because Gallimard can not get his wife pregnant, Helga consults a doctor, takes a fertility test, and successfully passes it. She wants Gallimard to do the same, but he feels insulted by Helga's calling of his virility into question. Gallimard confides his marital troubles to Song and draws ever closer to her. He also demands to see his lover nude—something Song had avoided up to that point by pleading Chinese timidity and modesty. But Song then announces “her” pregnancy, thereby reassuring Gallimard’s sense of virility while distracting him from his demand to see “her” naked. After a prolonged absence, Song returns to him with a blond, blue-eyed Chinese “son.”

Many of the thoughts, ideas and emotions voiced in this controversial play touch upon the West's traditional prejudices and haughty preconceptions concerning Asia and Asians in general, including persistent Western stereotypes and illusions about the sexual, cultural, and psychological identity of Oriental women, who are all seen to be exactly like the meek, obedient, devoted, and selfless Cio-Cio San from the opera Madama Butterfly (first performed in 1903). Gallimard often uses tender, almost poetic language (poetic diction), as when he insists that “Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.... I am pure imagination. And in imagination I will remain” (3.1.124-125, 138-139). In contrast, Song employs angry nationalist and Marxist rhetoric in the French court to denounce Western colonial attitudes towards Asian nations and cultures, which he sees as being also at the heart of his own transsexual relationship with Gallimard: “The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East.... The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor...the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself.... You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That's why you say they make the best wives” (3.1.54-55, 58-62, 64-66). (The author uses the word “Oriental” here to convey the West's exotic, imperialistic view of the East).

Betrayal is a recurring theme in quite a few of the plays that I have discussed in this space (which only comes to confirm that most people are either betrayers or ingrates)—although in some dramas (Hamlet; Tartuffe; Hedda Gabler; Streetcar Named Desire) this theme is far more pronounced than in others. But betrayal is especially prominent in M. Butterfly—even more so than in Molière's Tartuffe. We have René Gallimard, a young and promising career French diplomat and Vice-Consul in Beijing, who throws it all away due to a passionate but forbidden love affair with an Oriental opera diva who turns out in the end to be a Communist spy. His conviction for espionage is made all the more scandalous and humiliating by his failure to realize that his mistress was, in fact, a drag queen. As Gallimard complains at the end: “I just think it's ridiculously funny that I've waisted so much time on just a man!” (3.2.87-88). Since it is too late for regrets, while in prison he commits harakiri, thus echoing the tragic death of Cio-Cio San, the title role in Madama Butterfly that Song was performing when Gallimard first met her in Beijing.

There is also the Hollywood-like theme of Gallimard's betrayal of his country for the love of an exotic foreign “woman.” Of course, Hwang tends to exaggerate the extent of the Frenchman's high treason, adding James Bond-style elements to the plot that are not ever mentioned in the original news story. After all, what would officials of the French Embassy in Beijing know about Washington's plans to assassinate South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 or to raise the number of U.S. troops occupying South Vietnam? Absolutely nothing, I'm sure, especially since France and the U.S. were not exactly allies or even close friends under nationalistic French President Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969).

In terms of the other two Aristotelian elements of drama—spectacle and music—Gallimard is shown throughout the play as being all alone in a small prison cell, nostalgically and most vividly recalling his unhappy past, his doomed affair with Song, and his ex-lover's Beijing Opera performances of traditional Chinese music and Italian arias from Madama Butterfly. In fact, M. Butterfly is thoroughly interwoven with themes, plot lines, and arias from Puccini’s opera, in which a Japanese teenage girl, Cio-Cio San, performs harakiri in despair for having been abandoned by her unfaithful American “husband,” who leaves her but then comes back to take their biracial child away from her. The play's title is a direct borrowing from Madama Butterfly, which tells the sordid story of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, a callous and selfish American naval officer stationed in Japan, who seduces and then abandons the fifteen-year-old geisha girl Butterfly. All alone, Cio-Cio San gives birth to his son and eagerly waits for his return, rebuffing the courtship of a wealthy Japanese suitor. Three years later Pinkerton comes back with his new American wife who is childless and wants to adopt Cio-Cio San’s Asian-American son. The despondent Butterfly cannot stop them from taking her child and ritually kills herself. This thematically significant reversal of roles between Gallimard and his own “Butterfly” dramatizes the clash of incompatible Western and Oriental cultures, values, and traditions. No matter how one may feel about its more controversial transgender aspects, the play is a well-developed and masterful work of theatrical art in terms of the above-mentioned six Aristotelian elements of drama.

Unless you are watching it performed on stage, spectacle (visual elements) and music (sounds) are not present when you read a written play like M. Butterfly. So, you have to use your own imagination to “see” and “hear” what is in the text. Spectacle and music are an even bigger problem when you have René Gallimard narrate the entire play from his solitary prison cell. But David Hwang has found a solution to circumvent this problem. We can rely on Gallimard's vivid imagination, instead of our own. As he admits, “I am pure imagination. And in imagination I will remain” (3.1.138-139). He often flashes back to his days in Beijing, reliving the events that led to his current incarceration. But he also has many imaginary flashbacks about his prison stay, involving Song (who has already gone back to China but mysteriously reappears—ghost-like and dressed as a man—in Gallimard's prison cell) and other characters (like his old classmate and womanizing friend Mark). When Gallimard vividly describes how his ex-lover is changing his operatic costume on stage, shedding his wig, makeup, and woman's kimono, one can “see” his transformation from a very young Japanese geisha (Cio-Cio San) into Song Liling, an effeminate and not so young Chinese man. It is the same with M. Butterfly's “invisible” music, most of which consists of playing famous Italian arias from the opera Madama Butterfly that “provide” the musical backdrop for the drama.

There are perhaps more unanswered questions in this otherwise well-designed play than in any other drama that I have written about so far in this space. First of all, was René Gallimard so ignorant as a foreign diplomat that he didn't know that all female roles (dan) in the Beijing Opera's performances of traditional Chinese music as well as of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly were played by men only? Or did he deliberately fool himself into believing that Song Liling was indeed a woman, as the latter claimed all the time. Gallimard also chose to believe Song's tall tales about “their” biracial son, or the ever-present “Comrade Chin” (from Red China's secret police), or Song's supposed punishment stint at a rehabilitation commune in China's Hunan Province in 1970. For it is quite obvious that Song Liling was a trained Chinese intelligence officer who operated deep undercover, deceived all the time, and played poor Gallimard for a fool. What is perhaps even more mysterious is why Communist China's intelligence service (the Ministry of State Security) would task a man dressed as a woman to seduce and recruit the French Vice-Consul in Beijing, instead of using, as usual, some very attractive young woman to do so. Song's spy-masters must have had some incriminating information to make them believe that Gallimard might be secretly more interested in things like transgender identity, cross-dressing, and transsexual orientation. I suspect that Bouriscot/Gallimard is not telling us the whole truth.

There are other unanswered questions about M. Butterfly. One of them is how this illicit love affair was even possible when the citizens of Mao Tse-tung's China were reportedly forbidden to hobnob with Westerners without the Communist government's permission. Likewise, foreign-service officials posted at the French Embassy in Beijing were similarly prohibited from fraternizing with the local Chinese (and with the citizens of any other Communist country). In fact, the original story of Bernard Bouriscot and Shi Pei Pu is quite different from the plot of Hwang's play. A low-level accountant employed by the French Embassy in Beijing in 1964, Bouriscot was a lonely, miserable, and socially clumsy 20-year-old with bisexual tendencies. In every respect, this high-school graduate from a provincial working-class family was quite unlike the play's sophisticated socialite and erudite diplomat René Gallimard. Even though he was studying the Chinese language, Bouriscot never served as a Vice-Consul, nor was he ever involved in the Embassy's intelligence gathering and political analysis.

At an Embassy reception, Bouriscot met a 26-year-old male writer of plays and operas, the French-speaking former actor and singer Shi Pei Pu, who confided to him being actually a woman dressed as a man. They started a secret sexual relationship, from which Shi claimed to have had a baby “son”—obviously procured for this special occasion by China's secret police. Even though he was moved from one Asian capital to another, Bouriscot maintained his secret love affair with Shi. He also passed some confidential documents to a Chinese intelligence officer (Comrade Kang) in exchange for having access to his Oriental mistress. Bouriscot finally returned home in 1979 and was reunited three years later with Shi and “their” biracial son (although he was officially posted in Belize at that time). In 1983, both of them were arrested and charged with espionage for China. At the 1986 trial, Bouriscot admitted having passed confidential information to Kang, but was visibly shaken to find out that Shi was anatomically a man. After both of them were released from prison, Shi became a male opera singer and media celebrity in Paris, while Bouriscot entered into a long-term same-sex relationship with yet another man. They never had any contact with each other again until Shi Pei Fu died in 2009. So, it is hardly a tale of a French James Bond and a cross-dressing Chinese Mata Hari.

David Henry Hwang obviously chose the notorious mistaken-identity scandal of Bernard Bouriscot and Shi Pei Pu for the plot and characters of his play M. Butterfly because he must have found in it the telltale signs of the West's persistent stereotypes and shallow prejudices defining Asian men as effeminate and sexually powerless. Even the ambiguous “M.” of the play’s title signifies Monsieur (“Mr.”) in French, thus transforming the gender of Puccini’s young Cio-Cio San into its masculine opposite. When the presiding French judge asks Song Liling how he managed to fool René Gallimard for so long about being a woman, Song characteristically replies: “One, because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (3.1.71-73). The same doubts and questions about the effete Song's supposedly confused gender and sexual identity are highlighted in the following verbal exchange with his former French lover:

“Gallimard: ...I just think it's ridiculously funny that I've waisted so much time on just a man!

Song: Wait. I'm not “just a man.”

Gallimard: No? Isn't that what you've been trying to convince me of?

Song: Yes, but what I mean—

Gallimard: And now, I finally believe you, and you tell me it's not true? I think you must have some kind of identity problem.” (3.2.87-93)

Song even insists before the judge that these enduring Western stereotypes and preconceptions extend to the West's sincere belief that the entire Orient is politically and militarily unmanly and weak: “The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor...the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself” (3.1.58-62). And yet Song seems to think that the supposedly “weak” and “feminine” East is powerful and spiritually strong “deep inside”:

“Song: As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East—he is already confused....

Judge: Your armchair political theory is tenuous, Monsieur Song.

Song: You think so? That's why you'll lose in all your dealings with the East....”

Hence, another important theme in M. Butterfly is the West's political, cultural, and sexual imperialism in Asia which can however backfire on arrogant Westerners who take their preconceived illusions and prejudices about China for a reality. In his play, Hwang interweaves and contrasts details from the Bouriscot story with plot lines from the opera Madama Butterfly. In the play, a male Chinese spy is ordered to present himself to Gallimard as a female opera diva named Song Liling for the purpose of manipulating him and obtaining secret information about France and America. Gallimard first encounters Song on stage as she performs the title role in Madama Butterfly. Gallimard is fooled into believing Liling is indeed an exotic Chinese woman and believes he can seduce her by using his supposed sexual attractiveness as a white man to all Oriental females. When Liling responds positively to his advances, he develops a sexual relationship with her, lasting many years. Then, much like the opera's Lieutenant Pinkerton, Gallimard abandons her for a while and returns to his wife in France. A few years later, Liling is sent to France to restart the relationship with Gallimard, who is now divorced from his wife Helga but continues to work for the French foreign service. Liling is supplied with an Asian-European child to present to Gallimard as the fruit of their love. The ruse is so successful that the ex-lovers are soon reunited. After living with Song Liling as man and wife for over fifteen years, Gallimard is arrested and accused of providing the Chinese government (via Liling) with French state secrets and other confidential information that has passed through the French Embassy in Beijing. But when Gallimard is tried for espionage, it is publicly revealed that Liling is actually a man. In court, Liling changes to men’s clothing, effecting a complete role-reversal between her and Gallimard. Song Liling now becomes the dominant masculine figure while Gallimard becomes the submissive “feminine” counterpart. Preferring fantasy to reality, Gallimard becomes “Butterfly,” choosing in the end a ritualized suicide over his wretched existence in prison.

In the final scene, Gallimard, who is still serving his sentence for high treason, dresses in a wig and the garb of a traditional Chinese diva to perform a harakiri. This scene portrays a complete reversal of events as depicted in Puccini's opera, in which the Japanese geisha girl kills herself by harakiri in despair over her abandonment by a treacherous American lover. It is the cross-dressed and emasculated Gallimard, however, and not his transgender Chinese ex-lover, who appears to be suffering in prison from a confused gender identity, as well as from transsexual and cross-dressing tendencies—by playing the archetypal and stereotypically submissive role of Cio-Cio San. M. Butterfly ends with the dying Gallimard whispering longingly (in the voice of the physically absent Liling): “Butterfly? Butterfly?” (3.3.35). In essence, the transsexual Frenchman is humiliated and punishes himself by killing the woman in him who had been seduced, made love to, and finally betrayed by her cruel Chinese lover-spy—a politically suggestive reversal of roles with the young but doomed Oriental heroine of Madama Butterfly. As the play ends, a ghost-like Song towers over Gallimard’s corpse with all the strength, arrogance, and sexual power of his superior race, gender and culture.

It is quite symptomatic of the time period that their transsexual affair becomes a cause célèbre in France and beyond, as the imprisoned Gallimard even basks—at least for a while—in his new celebrity status: “...I'm a celebrity. You see, I make people laugh.... Look at me: the life of every social function in Paris. Paris? Why be modest? My fame has spread to Amsterdam, London, New York. Listen to them. In the world's smartest parlors. I'm the one who lifts their spirits!” (1.1.11, 16-19). Obviously, in 1980s France, where homosexuality was still not socially accepted—at least not between men—there was nothing as spicy and scandalous as a sex-and-spy news story, involving an Oriental honeypot trap and her French transgender lover.



M. Butterfly is David Henry Hwang’s fictionalized account of a real French diplomat who carried on a secret sex affair with a Chinese opera singer for twenty years—only to discover in the end that she was actually a man and a Communist spy. Hwang’s compelling work examines themes of sexual and racial stereotyping, Western cultural imperialism in the Third World, and the role illusion plays in one's self-perception and perceptions of others. M. Butterfly explores Western prejudices and preconceptions concerning Asian women and men, including issues of gender and sexual identity, which affect racial, cultural, and political East-West tensions. Hwang has described his play as a “deconstructivist” revision of Madama Butterfly—a parody openly ridiculing the opera's racist, supremacist and sexist notions, while presenting a scathing critique of the West's traditional self-delusions and fantasies about the Orient and Oriental women. While the plot lines in the opera and in the play may be mirror images of each other, the characters and their roles, personalities, and moral qualities are shockingly reversed. Because of that symbolic reversal, gender as well as racial and sexual identities seem to be not so much confused as purposeful and “socially constructed.” People are often what they want to be in their day-dreams, sexual fantasies or manipulation of others.

The playwright utilizes such postmodern theatrical techniques as nonlinear narrative, direct address to the audience, and unique staging to dramatize the intersecting discourses of race, gender, sexuality, Western imperialism, and Asian nationalism that permeate his play. On one level, the drama functions as an examination of the phenomenon of “Orientalism,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of Western attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes regarding Asian women, men, and cultures. In the play, Gallimard's eagerness to accept Song as the "perfect woman" is a logical extension of his perception of Asian men as effeminate and week creatures who cannot be real rivals to superior Western males for the affection of Oriental females. Furthermore, Gallimard's stereotyping of Asian women as passive, meek, subservient, and sexually submissive to Western men makes it possible for Song to fool him and live as his “wife” during the couple's long and intimate relationship—without the Frenchman ever suspecting that his “mistress” was in fact a drag queen and Communist spy. Gallimard's Western “colonial” attitudes concerning Asian cultures and women appear to be also at the heart of his doomed relationship with his protean Oriental “perfect woman.”

In the end, it is the clever and deceptive East (Song), not the humiliated and emasculated West (Gallimard), that is ultimately triumphant in the play. By seamlessly interweaving plot, character, thought, spectacle, music and diction, M. Butterfly is a well-crafted and masterful work of theatrical art in terms of the above-mentioned six Aristotelian elements of drama.


Works Cited

Hwang, David H. M. Butterfly, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 1666-1717. Print.