The play opens on Rene Gallimard, alone in his prison cell in Paris. He is sitting on a crate, wearing a bathroom. He has only a few modest possessions, including a tape recorder. The year is 1988. Upstage, a beautiful woman wearing traditional Chinese clothing dances to traditional Chinese music of the kind that might be performed at the Peking Opera. This woman is Song Liling. As the dance continues, the music changes. The traditional Chinese song and instruments are replaced by European music: the famous “Love Duet” from Giacomo Puccini’s celebrated 1904 opera, Madame Butterfly. Gallimard approaches Song, who dances on and does not notice him. He says two words:“Butterfly, Butterfly.” Then, he forces himself to turn away from Song.
The opening moments of the play depict Orientalist fantasy in the making. The traditional Chinese music and clothing fulfills Western ideas of China as an ancient, exotic, and mysterious culture. Puccini’s music represents a Westerner’s misguided attempt to recreate that culture for the entertainment of other non-Asians like him — a practice that perpetuates and strengthens Orientalist stereotypes. When the Western music overwhelms the Chinese music, it evokes the long history of conflict between Asia and the Western nations that sought to exploit and dominate it.
Gallimard addresses the audience. He explains the layout of the cell, and the routines of eating and sleeping in the prison. He mentions that the door to his cell is very strong, because so many people want his autograph. Gallimard tells the audience he is not treated like an ordinary prisoner. This, he says, is because he is a celebrity.
Though Gallimard’s audience has found him in extremely humble circumstances, he carries himself with pride. He even seems a bit arrogant. It is clear Gallimard sees himself as someone special, far from an “ordinary prisoner.”
Gallimard tells his audience that he makes people laugh. Though nobody found him interesting or funny when he was a young man — in fact, he was voted “least likely to be invited to a party” when he was in grade school — the story of Gallimard’s life now provides entertainment for fashionable, sophisticated people throughout Europe and the United States. Talking about him “lifts their spirits,” Gallimard says.
Gallimard takes an ironic tone when discussing his situation, acknowledging that he is only famous because he is the butt of so many jokes. His irony seems designed to protect his pride and disguise his vulnerability from the audience.