The Play

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From prison in Paris, René Gallimard looks back on his life, especially the love relationship and espionage trial that have made him the laughing stock of the world. Gallimard recalls his years of work in the French embassy in Beijing, where he developed an intimate relationship with Song Liling—a relationship made extraordinary by Gallimard’s faulty perception of the Chinese opera star’s sexual identity.

Gallimard recalls his first encounter with Song at the German ambassador’s house in Beijing in 1960. Song’s performance of the death scene from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly (1904; Madame Butterfly, 1905) enchants Gallimard, and when he and Song have the chance to talk after the performance, Song’s strong statements about opera and Western misconceptions about the East stimulate Gallimard. Soon Gallimard regularly attends performances of Chinese opera, drawing attention from Song in return. Like Pinkerton, the American naval officer in Puccini’s opera, Gallimard has a need to feel power in his relationship. To make Song need his love, Gallimard begins to avoid Song, disregarding several letters from her. When Gallimard returns to Song, the relationship becomes sexual, but Song insists on modesty, never appearing in the nude with Gallimard, even though they engage in intimacy. When Gallimard finally demands to see Song naked, Song consents, but Song’s willingness to be naked makes Gallimard relent in his demand, leaving Song’s sexual identity unverified. Song announces that she is pregnant, and Gallimard declares that he wants to marry Song. After Gallimard returns to Paris, Song joins him there, and their relationship continues until the French government arrests Gallimard and Song for espionage.

In the French foreign service, Gallimard at first was only a bureaucrat, but executive confidence in his knowledge of the Chinese grew, and eventually he became vice consul. During Gallimard’s service in China, the United States was involved in the conflict in Vietnam, but it did not have full diplomatic relations with China. The French served as diplomatic intermediaries, and the United States relied upon the French to provide information about possible Chinese reactions to actions planned by the United States. Again thinking like Puccini’s Pinkerton, who felt that the best policy toward people in the East was strong tactics, Gallimard recommends a strong approach in Vietnam, including the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first elected president of South Vietnam. When this policy proves ineffective for the United States, Gallimard falls from favor and is reassigned to Paris. In China, Song endured the hardships of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), including indoctrination and required service at a commune. Coerced by the Chinese government, Song travels to France and takes advantage of Gallimard’s love to gather confidential information, which Song then passes to Chinese leaders. In the end, the French discover the espionage and convict both Gallimard and Song. In the process, Gallimard learns that Song is a man. In prison, Gallimard now suffers especially because the fantasy that was the basis of his love is destroyed, and he is humiliated and brokenhearted. He is driven to suicide.

To help the reader assess the development of Gallimard’s sexual outlook, Hwang also provides Gallimard’s recollections of his sexual experiences. For example, in 1947 Gallimard and his schoolmate, Marc, discussed plans for an adventurous weekend. Marc previously had gone to an apartment in Marseilles owned by Marc’s father, and according to Marc, various women swam naked in the pool. With no moonlight, people could not see each other well, and the sexual contact was indiscriminate. Marc’s plan to repeat the experience made Gallimard uncomfortable because he worried that the women would reject him. With Marc, Gallimard also remembers...

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his first sexual intercourse, which Marc arranged: a woman named Isabelle climbed on top of Gallimard as he lay in the bushes near a cafeteria. The intercourse was rough and uncomfortable, and the woman dominated the experience. In marriage, Gallimard and Helga apparently based their relationship on social status rather than a loving sexual union. The couple was childless, and although Helga sought the help of a doctor, Gallimard rejected such help. After the affair with Song begins, Gallimard has another affair with a young woman named Gallimarde, the daughter of a businessman. Renée is shapely and unashamed about being naked; her frank discussion of Gallimard’s penis seems inappropriate to Gallimard. Finally, in prison, Gallimard has a collection of magazines with pinup girls, and these photos stir Gallimard’s fantasies. These sexual experiences are not fully satisfying, but the viewer of the drama must think of them when trying to understand how Gallimard could spend twenty years in a relationship with Song without ever determining that Song is a man.

Dramatic Devices

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To stage the recollections of Gallimard, Hwang makes limited use of props, creates a dreamy connection between scenes, assigns multiple roles to actors, and heightens mood with music. For example, when Gallimard first appears in his jail cell, very few props are onstage, and Gallimard supplies the details of his cell with his lines. Simultaneously, Song appears onstage in a separate scene, performing a traditional Chinese opera and then drifting into a selection from Madame Butterfly. When Gallimard admits that he is the laughingstock of the world, a separate scene of a cocktail party appears onstage. Gallimard can hear scathing commentary, but the characters in the party scene are oblivious to Gallimard.

The surreal atmosphere in the play is intensified by actors who play multiple roles. One actor plays the role of the pinup girl, a woman at the cocktail party, and the businessman’s daughter who briefly becomes Gallimard’s lover. One actor plays Marc, a man at the cocktail party, and Consul Sharpless. One actor plays Song’s servant Shu Fang, Cio-Cio-San’s attendant Suzuki, and Comrade Chin. The same actor who plays one of the men at the cocktail party also plays Ambassador Toulon and the judge at the espionage trial. These multiple roles create a confusing, dreamlike impression, and the viewer of the drama connects this atmosphere with the workings of Gallimard’s mind as he recollects his experiences.

The rendering of Gallimard’s psyche is done suggestively through references to Madame Butterfly. As Gallimard recalls his relationship with Song, musical selections from Puccini’s opera, including “Love Duet,” “The Flower Duet,” and the aria “One Fine Day” emphasize associations between M. Butterfly and Madame Butterfly. Lines in Italian from the opera (with immediate translations) are part of Hwang’s script, reinforcing the comparison between Pinkerton’s treachery and the treachery in the relationship between Gallimard and Song.

Historical Context

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The Vietnam War
During the early 1950s, the Western power with a vital interest in Vietnam was not the United States, but France. However, in 1954, the French were defeated by the Vietnamese at Dien Ben Phu, which ended direct French involvement in the region. It is this defeat that Ambassador Toulon alludes to in M. Butterfly (‘‘It's embarrassing that we lost Indochina.’’).

In the Geneva Accords that followed, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Communist North Vietnam was under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam was under the nationalist, anti-communist rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was supported by the United States. During the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. military advisors were sent to South Vietnam. U.S. commitment to defending South Vietnam against communist aggression from the North increased during the presidency of John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1963.

This is the background to the incident in Act 2, scene 3 of M. Butterfly, in which Toulon and Gallimard discuss what is described as an American decision to begin bombing North Vietnam in 1961. Hwang has altered the chronology of the war, since the decision to bomb North Vietnam was not made until the administration of President Lyndon Johnson (1963-68). Similarly, Song's report to Comrade Chin in 1961 (Act 2, scene 4) that the United States was to increase its troops in Vietnam to 170,000 soldiers, is greatly exaggerated. It was only in December 1961, that the first direct U.S. military support for the South Vietnamese government arrived in Saigon, the capital city. Troop numbers were initially small.

By 1963, South Vietnamese leader Diem had become an unpopular despot. He was assassinated in a coup by South Vietnamese generals who acted with the tacit support of the United States. This is the incident referred to in Act 2 scene 6, when Gallimard says that he has been advising the Americans that Diem must be removed from power.

By the end of 1966, when in the play Gallimard is dismissed for wrongly predicting that the United States would win in Vietnam, the United States had 385,000 troops in the region and was heavily bombing North Vietnam. But little progress was being made in winning the war.

One factor which was always uncertain in the minds of U.S. policy makers was how China would react to any escalation of the war. This concern about Chinese intentions is reflected in Toulon's question to Gallimard (Act 2, scene 4). The United States feared that if China intervened, as it had done in the Korean War (1950-53), the war might escalate to the point where the use of nuclear weapons might have to be considered.

China's Cultural Revolution
After a civil war in China, the communists gained power in 1949. Song refers to these events in Act 1, scene 10, when he tells Gallimard that his father did not live to see the Revolution.

Nearly two decades later, in 1966, China embarked on another period of internal upheaval, known as the Cultural Revolution, which lasted until 1976. Some of the effects of this are described impressionistically by Gallimard in Act 2, scene 9. Fueled by the personality cult of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution attempted a radical restructuring of Chinese society. Political leaders at all levels were purged, and large groups of communist youths, known as Red Guards, created disruption in cities as part of an officially approved struggle against what were called old ideas and customs. Schools were closed down, intellectuals and artists were denounced, and, in many cities, conditions became chaotic. This is the ‘‘continuous anarchy’’ that Gallimard describes in the play.

One aim of the Cultural Revolution was the complete restructuring of the educational system to make it less elitist. The goal was to eliminate the distinction between manual labor and intellectual work, and between urban and rural. Urban workers, young people, intellectuals, and artists were sent to work on farms where they engaged in physical labor and were forced to study the prevailing political ideology. This is the background of Act 2, scenes 9 and 10 in the play, when Comrade Chin holds a placard reading, "The Actor Renounces His Decadent Profession’’ and Song says he spent four years working on a farm from 1966 to 1970.

Cultural Stereotyping
The cultural stereotyping of Asians by the West that is a central theme of M. Butterfly has a long history. Peter Kwan, in his article, ‘‘Invention, Inversion and Intervention: The Oriental Woman in The World of Suzie Wong, M. Butterfly, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’’ writes, "The figure of the Oriental Woman, and her relationship with the white man who becomes her lover is a theme repeatedly mined by Hollywood studios ... The Oriental Woman is meek, shy, passive, childlike, innocent and naive. She relies and is dependent on the white hero to satisfy her most basic needs and to perform the most basic tasks.’’ Kwan draws on the work of feminist scholar Gina Marchetti, who in Romance and the "Yellow Peril’’ analyzed seventeen mainstream films, made between 1958 and 1986, which featured romantic and sexual relationships between white men and Asian women. Marchetti concluded that the "myth'' of the submissive Oriental woman ‘‘endures and continues to function not only as a romantic justification for traditional female roles but also as a political legitimation of American hegemony internationally.’’ This conclusion is a striking echo of the theme of M. Butterfly, in which cultural stereotyping is seen as in part responsible for the Vietnam war.

The meek Asian woman is not the only stereotype that American popular culture has imposed on the East. As Elaine H. Kim writes in Asian-American Literature, ‘‘The power-hungry despot, the helpless heathen, the sensuous dragon lady, the comical loyal servant, and the pudgy, desexed detective who talks about Confucius are all part of the standard American image of the Asian.’’

Literary Style

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SettingM. Butterfly is set in several different places and time periods. It begins in the present, in Gallimard's prison cell in Paris. As Gallimard tells his story, the scene shifts to Beijing, China, during the decade from 1960 to 1970. Scenes are set in the German Ambassador's house, French Embassy, the French Ambassador's residence, Gallimard's apartment, Song's apartment, a Chinese opera house, and the streets of Beijing. One scene flashes back to Gallimard's school days in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1947. Later scenes take place in Paris from 1966 to 1968, and in a courthouse in Paris in 1986.

As the play begins, and before a word is spoken, the playwright employs a technique known as foreshadowing, which is the presentation of an action, image, or symbol that anticipates a theme or event later in the work. In Act 1, scene 1, as Gallimard sits in his cell, the audience also sees Song upstage, behind Gallimard. Song is dressed as a beautiful woman in traditional Chinese clothing, and he/she is dancing to a piece from the Peking Opera, while Chinese percussion music plays. As Song dances, the Chinese music fades and is replaced by the music of a Western opera, Madame Butterfly. Song continues to dance in the Chinese style. Thus one of the main themes of the play, of a clash between two cultures, East and West, is demonstrated at the outset.

The story of M. Butterfly ranges across two continents and more than twenty-six years. Hwang solved the problem of how to present such a lengthy and unwieldy drama by making Gallimard the narrator of his own story and adopting the device of the flashback. The flashback is a technique that presents events that took place prior to the opening scene of the play. So after the play begins in the present, in Gallimard's prison cell in Paris, it flashes back to the early days of Gallimard's love affair with Song. Most of Act 1 is presented through flashbacks. Act 2 begins once more in the present, before again flashing back as Gallimard continues the story. Finally, in Act 3, scene 3, the action returns to the present, as Gallimard prepares his own transformation into Madame Butterfly.

Structurally, then, the play rounds back on itself, ending where it began, in a prison cell, to the music of the ''love duet'' from the opera Madame Butterfly. Another structural parallelism occurs when the opening words of the play, ‘‘Butterfly, Butterfly,’’ spoken by Gallimard as he gazes upstage at the dancing Song, are repeated as the final words of the play. However, there is a difference. The words are spoken not by Gallimard to Song, but the other way round, by Song to Gallimard. So the structure of the play, in which the ending is a reverse image of the beginning, echoes the theme, of how the expected, traditional roles of the Western man and the Oriental woman are radically reversed. (Incidentally, ‘‘Butterfly? Butterfly?’’ are also the last words of Puccini's opera, sung by Pinkerton as he gazes with remorse on the dying Butterfly. This gives yet another layer of reference to the ending of the play.)

Direct Address
As Gallimard tells his story, he addresses the audience directly. Many of the scenes that flash back to an earlier period are introduced by Gallimard telling the audience of how he felt at the time, what his reasoning was for his actions, what the events were that lead up to the scene. For example, in Act 1, scene 10, Gallimard sets the scene for his first meeting alone with Song in the actor's apartment by explaining how the meeting has long been delayed and confiding in the audience that he thinks Song is interested in him. Similarly, a scene often ends with Gallimard's reflections on what has just taken place, as in Act 2 scene 9, in which he speculates about Song's motives and his own state of mind.
On a number of occasions Gallimard turns to the audience and addresses it directly even in the middle of a scene. He may confide his thoughts, explain who a character is, or move the action forward with a piece of narration. An example occurs in Act 1, scene 11, when Gallimard is reading letters from Song complaining that Gallimard has failed to keep in touch. Gallimard keeps turning to the audience, commenting on the tone of the letters, and how he reacted to them.

Towards the end of the play, Gallimard's role of narration and direct address is taken over by Song. This is in keeping with the reversal of roles that occurs as the play reaches its climax. The effect of the technique of direct address to the audience is to limit the audience's emotional involvement in the scene that is being played out in front of them. It is sometimes called a distancing device. When a character steps out of the immediate action and talks directly to the audience, the theatrical illusion is temporarily broken and the audience is reminded that they are watching a performance. The result is that the audience can view events from a more objective, or detached, point of view, rather than getting drawn into the emotional dynamics of the scene. The technique is appropriate for a play like M. Butterfly, which has as its purpose the deconstruction of the stereotypical romantic myth that is being acted out on stage.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: The United States fights in the Vietnam war. In 1969, more than 500,000 American troops are stationed in South Vietnam. Casualties mount. More than 10,000 American soldiers are killed in Vietnam this year.

1980s: Vietnam no longer exists as two separate, independent nations; it is one nation under communist rule.

Today: The United States has normal diplomatic relations with communist-ruled Vietnam, but expresses frustration at the slow pace of Vietnam's economic and political reform. Vietnam continues to ask for aid in dealing with the continuing environmental and health effects of Agent Orange, a highly toxic defoliant used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam war.

1960s: In 1966 China begins the Cultural Revolution, a period of upheaval that lasts until 1976, to try to rekindle revolutionary fervor amongst the young.

1980s: In 1989, hundreds of non-violent, pro-democracy students are massacred by Chinese troops in Beijing's Tianamen Square.

Today: U.S. policy towards China is a major topic of political debate. Human rights activists oppose the granting of permanent trading relations with China, but pro-business groups argue that it will be good for American trade.

1960s: Asian-American writers find it difficult to get their works published. Even when they succeed, their books sell poorly, are soon out of print, and are regarded, if they are noticed at all, as "minority" or "ethnic" literature.

1980s: In the late 1980s, around the time that M. Butterfly, is written, there is an explosion of interest in Asian-American writing. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989) becomes a bestseller, and acclaimed Asian-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston publishes her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989).

Today: Hundreds of books by and about Asian Americans are in print. Many of them have mass-market appeal, and Asian-American writers are on the cutting edge of literary achievement.

1960s: In 1965, the Immigration Act removes discriminatory quotas against immigrants from Asia. Asian immigration to the United States undergoes a rapid increase.

1980s: Because of their economic success and strong family structures, Asian Americans are sometimes referred to as the ''model minority''; some Asian Americans see this as yet another stereotype imposed on them by the dominant white culture.

Today: According to a public policy report issued by a team of respected scholars in March 2000, Asian Americans, no matter how long they have lived in the United States, are still often perceived as an ‘‘alien presence.’’

Media Adaptations

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M. Butterfly was adapted as a film in 1993 and released by Geffen Films through Warner Brothers. Hwang wrote the screenplay and David Cronenberg directed. Jeremy Irons played Gallimard and John Lone played Song. The producer was Gabriella Martinelli.

An audio version of the play was made in 1996, starring the original Broadway cast: John Lithgow as Gallimard and B. D. Wong as Song. It was produced by L.A. Theatre Works as part of its Audio Theatre Series.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brustein, Robert, " Transcultural Blends,’’ in New Republic, April 25, 1988, pp. 28-29.

‘‘A Conversation With David Henry Hwang,’’ in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune. Washington State University Press, 1993, pp. 185-191.

DiGaetani, John Louie, ‘‘M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,’’ in Drama Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 142-43.

Henry, William A., III, "Politics and Strange Bedfellows,’’ in Time, April 4, 1988, p. 74 in Nation, April 23, 1988.

Hodgson, Moira, ‘‘M. Butterfly, pp. 577-78.

Hwang, David Henry, "Afterword," in M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, Penguin, 1989, pp. 94-100.

Kim, Elaine H., Asian-American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Temple University Press, 1982, p. 3.

Kroll, Jack, ‘‘The Diplomat and the Diva,’’ in Newsweek, April 4, 1988, p. 75.

Kwan, Peter, ‘‘Invention, Inversion and Intervention: The Oriental Woman in The World of Suzie Wong, M. Butterfly, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,'' in Asian Law Journal, Vol. 99, 1998.

Loo, Chalsa, "M Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective,’’ in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune, Washington State University Press, 1993, pp. 177-180.

Marchetti, Gina, Romance and the ‘‘Yellow Peril’’: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood, University of California Press, 1994, p. 108.

Rich, Frank, ‘‘M. Butterfly, a Story of a Strange Love, Conflict and Betrayal,’’ in New York Times, March 21, 1988, p. C13.

Richards, David, "Chinese Puzzle at the National: A Curious M. Butterfly," in Washington Post, February 11, 1988, p. C1.

Chang, Williamson B.C.,"M. Butterfly: Passivity, Deviousness, and the Invisibility of the Asian-American Male,’’ in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune. Washington State University Press, 1993.
In this text, Chang argues that the play lacks a character with whom Asian males can identify because Song embodies a negative stereotype of Asians as devious and untrustworthy.

Deeney, John J., ‘‘Of monkeys and butterflies: transformation in M. H. Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and D. H. Hwang's M. Butterfly,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 1993, p. 21.
This article is an analysis of how both works present characters seeking to transform themselves in reaction to stereotyped images that keep them from being recognized as individuals.

Gerard, Jeremy, "David Hwang: Riding on the Hyphen,’’ in New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, pp. 44-5, 88-9.
Gerard's article is an overview of Hwang's life and career up to M. Butterfly, including many observations by Hwang himself.

Henry III, William A., "When East and West Collide: David Henry Hwang Proves Bedfellows Make Strange Politics in M. Butterfly, a Surprise Stage Success on Three Continents.'' in Time, Vol. 134, No. 7, August 14, 1989, p. 62.
This overview of Hwang's early life and career emphasizes the success of M. Butterfly, suggesting that Hwang has the potential to become the most important American dramatist since Arthur Miller.

Lyons, Bobby, '‘‘Making His Muscles Work For Himself’: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,’’ in The Literary Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, Winter 1999, p. 230.
During this interview, Hwang discusses the question of identity in his plays, including M. Butterfly, and notes that his work has been influenced by the plays of Sam Shepard and Anton Chekhov. Jazz has also influenced his theatrical approach.

Street, Douglas, David Henry Hwang, Boise State University Press, 1989.
This book is a concise analysis of Hwang's work up to and including M. Butterfly, highlighting the many ways in which Hwang combines the American with the Asian experience.


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Sources for Further Study

DiGaetani, John Lewis. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies 33, no. 3 (Fall, 1989): 141-153.

Eng, David L. “In the Shadows of a Diva: Committing Homosexuality in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.” Amerasia Journal 20, no. 1 (1994): 93-116.

Hwang, David Henry. Afterword of M. Butterfly. New York: New American Library, 1988.

Hwang, David Henry. Introduction to “F.O.B.” and Other Plays. New York: New American Library, 1990.

Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)Construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.” In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Morris, Rosalind. “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross Dressing in the Critique of Empire.” In Gender and Culture in Literature and Film East and West: Issues of Perception and Interpretation, edited by Nitaya Masavisut. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Remen, Kathryn. “The Theatre of Punishment: David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.” Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (Fall, 1994): 391-400.

Shimakawa, Karen. “‘Who’s to Say?’ Or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in M. Butterfly.” Theatre Journal 45 (October, 1993): 349-361.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33, no. 1 (March, 1990): 59-66.

Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989.




Critical Essays