Act I, Scenes 1-6: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2386

New Characters
Rene Gallimard: The 65-year-old protagonist and narrator, who is incarcerated and identifies with Pinkerton, the character from the opera Madame Butterfly.

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Song: Gallimard’s lover, who he never realizes is a Chinese man who is only dressed as an exotic Eastern woman.

Man 1: A society figure who discusses the Gallimard affair.

Man 2: A society figure who discusses the Gallimard affair.

Women: A society figure who discusses the Gallimard affair.

Marc: Gallimard’s friend from student days who also adopts the role of Sharpless from the opera.

Girl: The ideal woman from a girly magazine.

Suzuki/Comrade Chin: The servant of Cio-Cio-San, who also appears as Suzuki from Madame Butterfly.

Helga: Gallimard’s wife, the daughter of an ambassador.

Summary
M. Butterfly, the famous play by David Hwang, contains intricate ties to Madame Butterfly, the Puccini Opera. However, a note by the playwright David Hwang informs the reader that the action of his play is loosely based on an improbable espionage case in which a former French diplomat was in love with a man whom he believed to be a woman for over twenty years. The play begins with Gallimard in a prison cell, haunted by visions of the “Butterfly,” the tragic heroine in Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. Alone in his cell, Gallimard addresses the audience, explaining how he perceives his situation. He is not an “ordinary prisoner,” but rather a celebrity whose fame makes him the butt of jokes throughout the world.

Scenes in the play occur rapidly. It is important to remember that they are all narrated to the audience by Gallimard and acted out as if in his mind. Each scene may not be factual, but represents elements of Gallimard’s mental state and memory of events. The audience is, via the scenes of the play, inside Gallimard’s mind, with Gallimard’s commentary as a guide to the action. Thus, when in scene 2 the action abruptly shifts to three minor characters who discuss and joke about the Gallimard case, Gallimard informs the audience that his situation is one that invites mockery the whole world over. The gist of the three character’s discussion and humor is that, somehow, Gallimard was unaware that his “lady friend” is a man. Gallimard watches the scene wryly. As scene 3 begins, it becomes apparent that not only the title of the play, but also the characters are intricately related to the Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly. Characters in M. Butterfly often parallel specific characters in the Puccini opera. The list of characters in the beginning of the script even has characters’ names paired with their counterpart in the opera, indicating that the role includes both parallel parts. Thus, characters take on dual roles, with characteristics and dress from the opera counterparts. Rene Gallimard identifies strongly with Pinkerton, a naval officer who weds a Japanese woman for kicks. Marc is Gallimard’s friend from student days in France, but also adapts the role of Sharpless, Pinkerton’s companion and confidante in the Puccini opera. Both sets of Pinkerton/Gallimard and Sharpless/Marc are young men looking for women and sex.

Gallimard explains to the audience that in order to understand his predicament, one has to be familiar with the Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly. This opera contains Gallimard’s idea of the “perfect woman,” the heroine Cio-Cio-San, who embodies his feminine ideal. Gallimard then goes on to outline the plot. While he does tend to be faithful to the storyline and the key elements of the plot, the summary is really that of Madame Butterfly, according to Gallimard, and therefore not an accurate account of the actual opera.

Gallimard sees himself in the role of Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer who has just purchased a house and a woman, Cio-Cio-San, for a pittance. He discusses these purchases with the American consul, the ironically named Sharpless, who also plays the role of Gallimard’s friend from student days. In the play, Sharpless is the sort of male friend with whom another man can discuss women. From the ensuing conversation, the audience learns that Pinkerton does not really care about his new bride. He is simply collecting sexual experiences; he is a womanizer who enjoys the novelty of buying a woman from another culture.

The scene ends with Gallimard explaining that he has just “played” Pinkerton for the audience’s behalf, while his school chum has played Sharpless. In real life, their roles are reversed and Marc is the womanizer, not Gallimard.

The locale shifts abruptly, as it so often does in the play. In scene 4, Gallimard and Marc are in Aix-en-Provence, a city in southern France. The year is now 1947. In the ensuing conversation, Gallimard’s assessment of Marc and himself is verified. In real life, Marc is the cad and Gallimard is the shy, social misfit who does not understand women.

Gallimard’s recollections abruptly shifts back to Gallimard’s cell in scene 5. Gallimard continues to compare his tale to that of the Puccini opera. As in the first scene, Gallimard is haunted by the image of Song/Cio-Cio-San. This time Hwang notes she should be dressed like Madame Butterfly. While Gallimard recounts the plot, key music from the opera plays in the background.

Gallimard generalizes and compares average men to Pinkerton. According to Gallimard, these typical men only mistakenly believe that they deserve a woman like Butterfly. This opinion sets Gallimard in direct opposition to the basic assumptions and stereotypes in the Puccini opera. He points out that the opera is fantasy. “In real life, women who put their total worth at less than sixty cents are quite hard to find,” he says. He then interrupts his diatribe to show the audience girly magazines in order to emphasize the fantasy world in which most men live. To further prove this point, Gallimard brings a girl onto the stage who looks like she has stepped straight out of one of these magazines.

Gallimard continues recounting the opera. Pinkerton deserts his bride after the wedding night while giving her false hope that he will return, “when the robins nest.” Three years pass as Butterfly pines. Finally, her faithful servant, Suzuki, tries to make her see the light, that Pinkerton is just a cad who has deserted her. Sharpless also appears; he has the undesirable task of telling Cio-Cio-San that Pinkerton has remarried. However, Sharpless’ courage wavers when Cio-Cio-San shows him the son she had as a result of her wedding night.

Cio-Cio-San spots Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor. As she prepares to greet him, Helga, Gallimard’s wife, appears. True to the parallels with the opera, Gallimard/Pinkerton is married to someone else. However, theirs is a loveless marriage based on practicality.

Gallimard’s attention, and hence the narrative, shifts in scene 6. This time the setting is the German ambassador’s house in Beijing, 1960. There is a formal party and a (wo)man, Song, is performing the death scene that culminates Madame Butterfly. At this moment, Gallimard’s recounting of the opera merges with his introduction to Song, the (wo)man who he idealizes as Cio-Cio-San, Madame Butterfly.

The end of the opera is briefly recounted as Song, a performer at the party, acts out and sings the final death scene. Touched by the scene, Gallimard reacts to the character of Cio-Cio-San and wants to act as the 15-year-old character’s protector. He sidles up to Song after the performance, and the two talk. Song is not nearly as enamored of the opera as Gallimard. She points out historical irony in the opera and emphasizes that only a Westerner could be fooled into believing the underlying stereotypes. She counters his enthusiasm with, “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.”

Song then invites Gallimard to see her perform in the Peking opera. Gallimard is impressed with the way Song wins the upper hand after their brief encounter.

Analysis
Things are not always as they appear. In fact, in David Henry Hwang’s drama, M. Butterfly, things are often the direct opposite of what they appear to be. Building on an international news story about a French diplomat who gave secrets to a lover whom the diplomat thought was a female, David Henry Hwang, uses the incident to show exactly how someone could confuse gender in spite of the obvious. In order for a man to be so thoroughly duped, he must willfully remain ignorant. However, not only must such a person not want to know the truth, he must also live in a world of pure imagination to be ignorant of the plain facts.

The play opens with the protagonist, Gallimard, languishing in prison. As the note on the setting indicates, Gallimard conjures up images from the past to try to explain the absurdity of his failure to recognize his lover’s sex during twenty years of intimacy. The play is ultimately psychological in nature, since it presents only Gallimard’s recollections and impressions. Through this technique of presenting the action subjectively from the viewpoint of Gallimard’s explications, Hwang presents a logical explanation of how such a seemingly ridiculous error could occur. Hwang uses flashbacks and rapid asides to the audience to present scenes in quick succession that change the locales by continent and the eras by decades, which makes the narrative resemble thought and memory.

In order to understand Gallimard’s situation, the audience must sympathize with him. To facilitate this, Hwang allows the audience into Gallimard’s. Gallimard, from the earliest moments in the play, obsessively identifies with the opera Madame Butterfly. Since the action occurs in Gallimard’s mind, duets and arias from the opera often play in the background. The image of the heroine, Cio-Cio-San, also haunts Gallimard’s thoughts; she is seen dancing upstage from him as he begins his narration.

While Hwang does not presume that the audience has any prior knowledge of the opera, Madame Butterfly, its importance in the play cannot be underestimated, and it is worthwhile to read the libretto of the opera in order to comprehend exactly what Hwang accomplishes: he deconstructs the opera. In other words, he analyzes the work and exposes the preconceived assumptions and stereotypes on which they are based. Ultimately, these assumptions and stereotypes are so ingrained in Western culture that it really takes close scrutiny to uncover them. At the heart of Gallimard’s absurd mistake are his false assumptions about Orientals (Hwang’s choice of vocabulary), based on the fallacies propounded by the opera.

Building on the theme that things are not always as they appear to be, Gallimard sets out to clarify exactly why he should not be considered a laughing stock. First off, he has a higher, more ethereal conception of romance than his detractors: “Men like that—they should be scratching at my door, begging to learn my secrets! For I, Rene Gallimard, you see, I have known, and been loved by. . . the Perfect Woman.”

Gallimard is a dreamer whose conception of love is based on an ideal, which cannot exist. Ideal love is a romantic invention, a product of the artistic imagination that has no basis in reality. In the present case, Gallimard’s idealization is based on an opera in which the Oriental heroine dies for true love. Gallimard, both in his prison cell and in his recollections, wants his relationship to resemble his beloved opera, Madame Butterfly.

According to his own fancy, Gallimard has played the part of Pinkerton, the crass U.S. naval officer who buys a Japanese bride for a pittance. Since he has no intention of staying in Japan, or being true, Pinkerton’s behavior is quite cruel, especially when Hwang reveals the devotion of Pinkerton’s wife’s who pines for him for years. As Gallimard points out, Pinkerton lacks good qualities; he is crass and common. However, Gallimard seems to admire the ease with which Pinkerton can pick up women. The flashback in scene 4 aptly demonstrates Gallimard’s discomfort around women. He yearns to experience the same sort of unrequited devotion that Cio-Cio-San or Butterfly lavishes on Pinkerton.

Of course, the audience must always remember that things are not as they appear. Over the course of the play, Hwang reveals that Gallimard’s role in the affair with Song is not like Pinkerton, but rather resembles Butterfly, who realizes that her ideal love has been lavished on a vastly inferior being (Pinkerton) and commits suicide. So, Hwang recasts Gallimard as the character who diametrically opposes the one who Gallimard likes to think he is. This final realization makes it possible for Gallimard to utter the heroine’s lines, “Death with honor/ Is better than life/ Life with dishonor.”

A major theme of the play is the sad predicament of the Western man who can find himself if he accepts the stereotypes as truth. Perhaps the key to understanding the whole play occurs soon after Gallimard meets Song. Song derides Gallimard’s devotion to the opera, and sums it up from the Asian perspective:

Consider it this way: what would you say if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, 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 he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe that you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful!

This deconstructive viewpoint is quoted in full because it contains the key to understanding the whole play. Gallimard’s ideal love is based on an absurd fallacy, the Western conception that the Oriental woman is a meek, submissive, devoted “Butterfly.” Even though Song has directly told Gallimard that this viewpoint is absurd, Gallimard continues to grasp at the ridiculous fallacy. He is in love with the notion of unrequited love based on the Oriental’s natural, feminine tendency to devotion and submissiveness. Gallimard’s inability to see reality for what it is because of his blind obeisance to stereotypes that are nothing more than a false Western conception of the Oriental “woman” proves to be his downfall.

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Act I, Scenes 7-13: Summary and Analysis