On this THROWBACK THURSDAY, we are taking a look at one of renowned playwright David Henry Hwang’s greatest works: M. Butterfly. The gender-bending play inspired by Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly premiered on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in 1988. John Lithgow starred as Rene Gallimard, a French civil servant working at the Embassy in China who falls in love with Chinese Opera singer Song Liling, played by B.D. Wong. Song, a man masquerading as a woman to serve as a spy, and Gallimard, carry on a 20 year affair with Gallimard believing Song is a woman. Gallimard is tried and sent to prison for treason, learning that his love is really a man. This play has received many awards and nominations, including the Tony for Best Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play (Wong), and Best Direction of a Play (John Dexter).
1. Based on a true story
M. Butterfly really happened! In 1964, 20 year-old French diplomat Bernard Boursicot was working as an accountant at the French Embassy in Peking, China when he met 26 year-old Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pei. Shi even faked a pregnancy and bought a baby boy that Boursicot raised believing him to be his own child. Boursicot was duped into believing he needed to pass along French government documents to the Chinese Secret service in order to see Shi and keep her safe. The two were arrested in 1982 in France as spies for China, and it was revealed during the prosecution that Shi was, in fact, a male. Contrary to the end of the play, Boursicot was not successful in his attempted suicide in prison, and they were both sentenced to 6 years. They only served about 1 year before being pardoned, and Boursicot is still alive today! I wonder if he’s seen the play.
2. Challenging Orientalism
David Henry Hwang has expressed several times that M. Butterfly is meant to put Oriental stereotypes in the face of Western audiences and then turn them on their head. As you may know, the exotic, submissive characteristics of female Asian characters juxtaposed with the dominating, masculine Western men has been a long time perception of the “Oriental” world in relationship to the Western World (i.e. Miss Saigon). By revealing Song to be male, the Oriental illusion is destroyed, giving Song the power usually held by the Western male. Gallimard takes on the female role by committing suicide.
3. Anthony Hopkins donned the role
When the play was brought to the West End in 1989, Sir Anthony Hopkins took on the role of Gallimard at the Shafstbury Theatre. The New York Times review didn’t give him the glowing review one might expect from such an iconic actor. “Initially, sneering at himself as ‘the patron saint of the socially inept,’ he sets the tone for an angrier, more bruising Gallimard than either John Lithgow or David Dukes offered in New York, and Mr. Hopkins’s burred Welshman’s delivery insures that the lines ricochet off the back walls of the Shaftesbury Theater (Matt Wolf, 1989)” I think it would be very interesting to see Hopkins in such a romantic role.
4. It was B.D. Wong’s Broadway debut
Can you imagine winning a Tony Award on your Broadway debut? Quite incredible! He also won a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Clarence Derwent Award, and Theatre World Award for his role as Song. Apparently, he’s the only actor to win all 5 awards for the same role. Talk about a tremendous accomplishment.
5. A Film adaptation
In 1993, David Cronenberg directed the film adaptation of M. Butterfly starring Jeremy Irons as Gallimard and John Lone as Song. Cronenberg decided to focus more on the relationship between the two lovers by removing most of the political connotations. David Henry Hwang adapted his play for the screen! How many playwrights get to do that?
Check out this segment of B.D. Wong and John Lithgow performing at the Tonys:
Have you seen a production of M. Butterfly before? What do you think of the way David Henry Hwang tackles Oriental stereotypes? What other plays challenge Asian stereotypes? Scroll down to share your thoughts in the comments below!