The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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 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

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

The Vietnam War
During the early 1950s, the Western power with a vital interest in Vietnam was not the United States, but...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

M. Butterfly is set in several different places and time periods. It begins in the present, in Gallimard's prison...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1960s: The United States fights in the Vietnam war. In 1969, more than 500,000 American troops are stationed in South Vietnam....

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Is there any truth to the suggestion made in M. Butterfly that Western stereotypes of the East helped to produce the American...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

M. Butterfly was adapted as a film in 1993 and released by Geffen Films through Warner Brothers. Hwang wrote the screenplay and David...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

F.O.B. was Hwang's first play, first produced in 1980. Set in California, it contrasts the attitudes of recent Chinese immigrants with...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.