In an intriguing use of “found” material, Hwang used a newspaper article for the basic story line of M. Butterfly: A French diplomat falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, and they have a twenty-year love affair before the singer is shockingly exposed as both a spy and a man. The play begins with Rene Gallimard in his prison cell, musing and reflecting about the “perfect woman” as he utters the opening lines, “Butterfly, Butterfly,” which give rise to flashbacks that piece together the story. The play closes with Song Liling, Gallimard’s “perfect woman,” tersely and almost disdainfully questioning, “Butterfly? Butterfly?” after Gallimard has committed seppuku, ritual suicide.
Irony and ambiguity saturate the play. Things are not as they seem, and stark reality becomes, for Gallimard, impossible to accept. The title is a direct borrowing from Puccini’s opera, which tells the story of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a callous and selfish American naval officer stationed in Japan, who woos and leaves a fifteen-year-old geisha girl named Cio-Cio-San (her name means “butterfly” in Japanese), who bears his son and pines for his return. Three years later, when Pinkerton comes back with his American wife to claim the child, Cio-Cio-San kills herself.
Hwang’s protagonist, Gallimard, summarizes at extended length early in the play the plot of Puccini’s opera; he says that relaying the...
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