82: M Butterfly

11 Jun

David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award winning play is rivetting to read. Hwang was inspired to write M Butterfly when he read about French diplomat Bernard Boursicot in The New York Times.

M Butterfly

“A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity […] Mr Boursicot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Mr Shi, whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman.” The New York Times, May 11, 1986

Hwang has written a beautiful and moving play based on an incredible true story, but he chose to change the protagonists’ names rather than attempt to write a docudrama. In the play’s afterword he says: “Frankly, I didn’t want the ‘truth’ to interfere with my own speculations.”

In M Butterfly he explains the 20-year obtuseness of his hero (whom he names Rene Gallimard) as being due to “the degree of misunderstanding between men and women and also between East and West”. Westerners mythologise the delicate, fragile Oriental beauty, subservient and shy, and for Gallimard it is no surprise that his lover insists on having the lights out and keeping her body covered from his gaze. (It’s obvious that for 20 years he’s made no attempt to pleasure his lover, otherwise he would have discovered her secret…)

It’s a fabulous story and would no doubt create interest even without Hwang’s elegant writing, but his brilliant weaving of the story from past to present, fantasy to reality and the way he juxtaposes the events with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly make it a work of art.

In his cell, Gallimard realises that he has become a laughing stock, “I’ve become patron saint of the socially inept” but he sees things quite differently. “I have known, and been loved by … the Perfect Woman.”

GALLIMARD: Alone in this cell, I sit night after night, watching our story play through my head, always searching for a new ending, one which redeems my honor, where she returns at last to my arms. And I imagine you – my ideal audience – who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy me.

When Gallimard conjures Song, she is herself but she is also his memory or his fantasy of her. He tries to make her the ideal woman he imagined her to be, but she keeps breaking out of the role he wants her to play.

GALLIMARD: You have to do what I say! I’m conjuring you up in my mind!

SONG: Rene, I’ve never done what you’ve said. Why should it be any different in your mind? Now split – the story moves on, and I must change.

M Butterfly made me think about gender relationships, about imperialism and Western attitudes of superiority, but it left me to draw my own conclusions and captivated me throughout with its depiction of love, delusion and power. Towards the end of the play, Gallimard says: “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man. Everything else – simply falls short.”

Publisher: Plume

Cast: 5M, 3F

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