David Henry Huang
M. Butterfly was a 1988 play by David Henry Huang. It was inspired by a 1986 espionage trial publicized in many international newspapers about a Mr. Bouriscot and Mr. Shi. Mr. Bouriscot was charged with passing classified information to China after he fell in love with Mr. Shi, whom he supposedly believed was a woman for two decades.
Mr. Gallimard and Song Liling in the M. Butterfly resemble Mr. Bouriscot and Mr. Shi respectively. The play is not entirely factual, as Huang took liberties with incidents and new characters. The play takes place in a Paris prison in the present and in recall, during 1960 - 1970 in Beijing, and from 1966 to the present in Paris. In the play, a former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer are sentenced to six years in prison for spying for China after a two-day trial. The trial traced the relationship between Gallimard and Song and exposed mistaken sexual identity and secret love.
The following is an essay I wrote in 1996 for an NJIT
freshman humanities class called Writing, Speaking, Thinking
with Dr. Nikki Stiller:
Fantasy: Wishes that as Soon as Granted Fly
Fantasy plays a necessary role in everyday life but when taken too far can be quite dangerous. In M. Butterfly, an eccentric love story, this theme extensively appears. Samuel Johnson's quotation, "The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are," relates to this story rather well. After all it is through the many journeys Gallimard makes to the Far East that he finds his true self- mainly, his genuine sexual orientation. However in doing so, the rest of Gallimard's world comes crashing down.
In a world where there is no set truth, fantasy in life is necessary so that forbidden desires can be mentally -- rather than physically acted out. Yet in this case, forbidden desires, like an extramarital affair, physically take place. Gallimard carries on an affair with Song, a woman from the East. Later in the play, Gallimard physically acts out his fantasy to be a woman- dressing up in make up and a dress. Before the tragedy of his suicide, Gallimard professes, "There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in cheongsams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils."
Gallimard's physical-pseudo-reality is continually his reality throughout the play. Earlier into the play, Gallimard holds such a flawless image of Song as the perfect woman that it almost seems dangerous or too good to be true. He also believes he fits the stereotype of the French ladies' man who gets all the girls yet in reality neither of these are true. In actuality, Gallimard is a weak man, marrying a French woman out of social and political convenience, becoming a spy, convincing himself he is the converse of his pathetic self, and persuading himself that Song is a woman. He believes he fits the masculine and domineering role with a right to exploit an Eastern woman to help his ego amongst society and friends.
Again, for most of the play, Gallimard's fantasy is his reality. He continues feeling he is the macho Westerner dominating the humble Eastern female while all along Song manipulates him- playing whatever role is assigned to her, having no self. After several readings, it is still uncertain whether Song truly loves Gallimard but whatever role she played for the Chinese government, she played well. This doubt magnifies as Song toys with Gallimard in court, "maybe, Rene, just maybe-I want you. Then again, maybe I'm just playing with you. How can you tell?"
As a psychology teacher once said, "It's all right to build castles in the sky but it is another thing to live in them." Fantasy is self-defeating and unhealthy when Gallimard allows it to control his life at every turn. For a long time Gallimard thinks he manipulates Song by not returning to "her" for weeks at a time but in reality Song is the one in control. Another instance in which Song is in command is when Gallimard wants to undress her before making love to her. Song maneuvers Gallimard into her meticulous ways of doing things. There is, in fact, a role reversal here in which Song is the manipulator and Gallimard is the "humble servant."
Another role reversal occurs in the closing of the play in which Gallimard dresses up as Song in make up and wig pretending he is a woman of the Orient "willing to sacrifice herself for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth." Yet, earlier in the play it is Song who seems submissively devoted to Gallimard. When Gallimard finally comes to the realization that Song is a man with whom he is imprisoned, his personal, social and political reputation are already destroyed. The world leaves him with no one to please but himself. With the "vision that has become his life- of women who are born and raised to be the perfect women -- who take whatever punishment we give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally," Gallimard kills himself.
As in many of today's glamorous cigarette ads, people seem to be in an Eden - merrily smoking away at cigarettes. Yet in reality, this perfect picture too often shatters with the tragedy of cancer. Too bad Gallimard's perfect picture of Song did not shatter until it was too late to save him from himself.