M. Butterfly is David Henry Hwang’s fictionalized account of a real French diplomat who carried on an affair with a Chinese opera singer for twenty years, only to discover she was actually a man. Hwang’s compelling drama examines themes of sexual and racial stereotyping, Western imperialism, the role illusion plays in perceptions, and the ability for one person to truly know another.
M. Butterfly contrasts Rene Gallimard with Pinkerton in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (produced, 1904; published, 1935). Gallimard sees himself as awkward, clumsy at love, but somehow being blessed with the utter devotion of Song Liling, a beautiful Oriental woman. Hwang uses the word “Oriental” to convey an exotic, imperialistic view of the East. Gallimard becomes so absorbed with his sexist perception of Asian women that it distorts his thinking. He tests Liling’s devotion by neglecting and humiliating her, ultimately forcing her to admit she is his “Butterfly,” a character she has publicly denounced.
Unknown to Gallimard, Liling is a Communist agent, manipulating him to extract information about the Vietnam War. At the embassy Gallimard finds increased status because of his Oriental affair. When his analysis of East-West relations, based entirely on his self delusions, prove wrong, Gallimard is demoted and returned to France. His usefulness spent, Liling is forced to endure hard labor, an official embarrassment because “there are no homosexuals in China.” Eventually, the Communists send Liling to France to reestablish his affair with Gallimard. When Gallimard is caught and tried for espionage, it is publicly revealed that Liling is a man. Liling now changes to men’s clothing, effecting a complete role-reversal between Liling and Gallimard. Liling becomes the dominant masculine figure while Gallimard becomes the submissive feminine figure. Preferring fantasy to reality, Gallimard becomes “Butterfly,” donning Liling’s wig and kimono, choosing an honorable death over a dishonorable life.
M. Butterfly demonstrates the dangers inherent in living a life satisfied with shallow stereotypes and misconceptions. Gallimard’s singular desire for a submissive Oriental woman was fulfilled only in his mind. It blinded him to every truth about his mistress, refusing even to accept the truth about Liling until he stood naked before him. It first cost him his career, then his wife, then his dignity, then his lover, and finally his life. Even when he is confronted by the truth, Gallimard can only respond that he has “known, and been loved by, the perfect woman.”