Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.
- Full Title: M. Butterfly
- When Written: 1988
- When Published: Debuted on Broadway March 20, 1988
- Literary Period: Post-Modernism, Post-Colonialism
- Genre: Drama
- Setting: Beijing, 1960-1966 and Paris, 1968-70 and 1986-1988
- Climax: Song strips naked in front of Gallimard for the first time, and Gallimard rejects Song in favor of the fantasy of Butterfly.
- Antagonist: The question of antagonists is a complex one in M. Butterfly. In some ways, Song is the antagonist, since he is responsible for Gallimard's imprisonment and spends much of the play tormenting Gallimard. In some important ways, Gallimard himself is the villain — he embodies the destructive ignorance and prejudice the play condemns. Both characters are victims of the racist and sexist social context in which they live, and of the legacy of Western imperialism that precedes them: Gallimard inherits his terrible ideas from other Westerners eager to justify the exploitation of Asia, and Song becomes entangled with a political movement that arises in response to that exploitation.
The Real “M. Butterfly”. David Henry Hwang was inspired to write M. Butterfly after reading about the real case of Bernard Bouriscot, a French diplomat who, while stationed in China in his early twenties, fell in love with the male opera singer Shi Pei Pu, whom he believed throughout their twenty-year relationship (which, like the affair between Song and Gallimard, included the “birth” of a son) to be a woman. Shi was imprisoned during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Bouriscot collaborated with the Chinese Secret Service to guarantee his lover’s safety, passing classified information from the French embassy. Hwang refrained from researching Bouriscot’s case in depth while writing M. Butterfly because, according to his Author’s Notes, he “didn’t want the ‘truth’ to interfere with my own speculations.” However, journalist Joyce Wadler published an account of the affair between Shi and Bouriscot, and of their ensuing court trials, in her book Liaison.
Butterfly Up Close. In 1993, direct David Cronenberg adapted M. Butterfly into a film starring Jeremy Irons as Rene Gallimard and John Lone as Song Liling. While Hwang’s play received tremendous acclaim after its 1988 debut, reactions to the film were lukewarm. In his review, Roger Ebert suggested that film was too “cruelly realistic” a medium for the story; while actors playing Song onstage can create a convincing illusion of femininity and so make Song’s disguise seem plausible, the close-up shots used in the film betrayed Lone as looking undeniably masculine even when dressed in elaborate feminine costumes. Ebert even suggested that he could see Lone’s five o’clock shadow in some shots.