M. Butterfly Summary & Study Guide

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M. Butterfly Summary & Study Guide Description

M. Butterfly Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang.

“M. Butterfly” is an award-winning play by David Henry Hwang. The drama, inspired by Puccini's opera “Madame Butterfly”, is loosely based on events surrounding a 1986 espionage trial in which a former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer were imprisoned for passing information to China. The diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, believed his mistress of twenty years, Shi Pei Pu, to be a woman, when in actuality he was a male informant.

The play begins in the Paris prison cell of Rene Gallimard, 65, who has been arrested for espionage. Gallimard addresses the audience, telling them that he is not treated like an ordinary prisoner because he is a celebrity. He makes people laugh. In fact, he has become a societal joke. A flash to a contemporary party scene reveals that Gallimard has had a Chinese mistress for twenty years and it has only recently been revealed, much to Gallimard’s astonishment, that Song Liling is actually a man.

Gallimard takes the audience through a series of flashbacks to explain his situation and his insistence that he has been loved by the Perfect Woman. In explaining his history, Gallimard asserts that the audience must first understand the Puccini opera, “Madame Butterfly”. In the opera's plot, a young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio-San, is sold in marriage to an American Navy Lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Pinkerton marries Cio-Cio-San, or “Madame Butterfly”, without any intention of fulfilling his role as husband; Japan has lax divorce laws, and therefore Pinkerton is bound to Butterfly only as long as he remains in Japan.

Shortly after the marriage, Pinkerton deserts his wife, who has sacrificed everything for her American husband. Three years pass in which Butterfly pines away for Pinkerton while her servant and others try to convince her he is not returning. Finally, Pinkerton cowardly sends his friend and new wife to Butterfly to take her child by Pinkerton and to inform her that he is not coming back for her. Butterfly, in her devastation, commits suicide using her father's hara-kiri knife.

Gallimard meets Song Liling in 1960, when she performs the death scene of “Madame Butterfly” at a party at the German ambassador's home. Although he and Song do not immediately hit it off, Song intrigues him and he later goes to see her perform at the Peking Opera. Song and Gallimard begin an affair and even live together despite the fact that Gallimard is already married to Helga, an older woman he married for career connections and convenience.

The audience watches Song as she interacts with Comrade Chin and it is revealed that Song is both a male and is using Gallimard for information from the West to pass along to the Chinese government. Gallimard, however, is completely blinded by his infatuation with Song's submissive Oriental mystique, and in Act Two, Song joins him in France. Gallimard divorces his wife and supports Song and who he believes to be their son for the next fifteen years in Paris.

In Act Three, Gallimard is devastated by the loss of Song and the discovery of the truth, revealed publicly during Song's espionage trial. Having transformed from “Madame Butterfly”'s arrogant Pinkerton into the tragic heroine himself, Gallimard commits suicide in his cell as Song watches, smoking a cigarette.

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