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M. Butterfly

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M. Butterfly
Written byDavid Henry Hwang
CharactersRene Gallimard
Song Liling
M. Toulon
Comrade Chin
Renee and others
Date premieredFebruary 10, 1988
Place premieredNational Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Original languageEnglish
SubjectEast/West cultural stereotypes
SettingA Paris prison, 1988; recollections of Beijing and Paris

M. Butterfly is a play by David Henry Hwang. The story, while entwined with that of the opera Madama Butterfly, is based most directly on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a Beijing opera singer. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play. In addition to this, it was a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist in 1989.



M. Butterfly premiered at the National Theatre, Washington, DC, on February 10, 1988.[1]

The play opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on March 20, 1988, and closed after 777 performances on January 27, 1990.[2] It was produced by Stuart Ostrow and directed by John Dexter; it starred John Lithgow as Gallimard and BD Wong as Song Liling. David Dukes, Anthony Hopkins, Tony Randall, and John Rubinstein played Gallimard at various times during the original run.[3]

The play was a 1989 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.[4]

A highly unusual abstract staging, featuring Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly intermixed with French pop music, had Kazakh countertenor Erik Kurmangaliev star as Song; he also sang two of Butterfly's arias live during the show. This production was directed by Roman Viktyuk in Moscow, Russia and ran from 1990 to 1992.[5]

It is published by Plume and in an acting edition by Dramatists Play Service.[6] An audio recording of the play was produced by L.A. Theatre Works, with Lithgow and Wong reprising their Broadway roles along with Margaret Cho.[7]

A Broadway revival opened on October 26, 2017, at the Cort Theatre, with previews beginning on October 7. Starring Clive Owen and Jin Ha, the production was directed by Julie Taymor.[8][9] David Henry Hwang made changes to the original text for the revival, mostly centering on the issue of intersectional identities, but also for clarifications.[10]



The first act introduces the main character, René Gallimard, a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. In a prison, Gallimard is serving a sentence for treason. Through a series of flashbacks and imagined conversations, Gallimard tells an audience his story about a woman that he loved and lost. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer, Song Liling. Gallimard is unaware that all female roles in traditional Beijing opera were actually played by men, as women were banned from the stage. The first act ends with Gallimard returning to France in shame and living alone after he asks his wife, Helga, for a divorce, admitting to her that he's had a mistress.

It is revealed in act 2 that Song had been acting as a spy for the Chinese government, and she is actually a man who has disguised himself as a woman to seduce Gallimard and extract information from him. They stay together for 20 years until the truth is revealed, and Gallimard is convicted of treason and imprisoned. Unable to face the fact that his "perfect woman" is a man, he retreats deep within himself and his memories. The action of the play is depicted as his disordered, distorted recollection of the events surrounding their affair.

In act three, Song reveals himself to the audience as a man, without makeup and dressed in men's clothing. Gallimard claims he only loved the idea of Butterfly, never Song himself. Gallimard throws Song and his clothing off the stage, but holds onto Butterfly's kimono. In scene three, the setting returns to Gallimard's prison cell, as he puts on makeup and Butterfly's wig and kimono. Then he stabs himself, committing suicide just as Butterfly does in the opera.

Changes for the 2017 Broadway revival


For the Julie Taymor-directed revival in 2017, Hwang revisited the text to incorporate further information that had emerged about the Boursicot case, and address intersectional identities.[11] Taymor and Hwang wanted their new approach to consider “present public discussion and awareness of nonbinary genders, the growth of China as a superpower, and details about the true story. . . which were not available to Hwang when he wrote the first version.”[12]

Changes include
  • Song Liling initially presents as male to Gallimard, only to claim to be physically female but made to dress up as a man by her parents.
    • Hwang noted in an interview that the surprise reveal that Song Liling is actually a man no longer carried the shock value it did in 1988, especially after The Crying Game used the same tactic only a few years later.[11]
  • The play is changed to a two-act structure.[citation needed]
  • Act 1 ends with Song telling Gallimard that she is pregnant (this moment originally occurred during Act 2).[citation needed]
  • Further information on how Song Liling managed to mislead Gallimard even while they were intimate.[citation needed]

One reviewer said “in this incarnation, we’re not being seduced, but preached at.”[13] Another said it “was neither a critical nor a popular success…[but] an important, timely, and productive reconsideration of the play and its story in light of new acceptances of gender fluidity and the changing balance of power between Asia and the West.”[14]

The 2019 production at South Coast Repertory used the 2017 revival as its source material. Directed by Desdemona Chiang, Lucas Verbrugghe and Jake Manabat performed as leads. One reviewer said the story “has taken on new resonance in an era shaped by the MeToo movement, China’s geopolitical might and a more widespread understanding of gender identity issues.”[15] Regarding the long-debated questions of Song and Gallimard’s intimate relations, another reviewer said “Song’s defiant explanation to an over-curious French judge struck me as Hwang wanting to put an end to the prying once and for all.”[16]

Film adaptation


Hwang adapted the play for a 1993 film directed by David Cronenberg with Jeremy Irons and John Lone in the leading roles.[17]

Opera adaptation


In July 2022, an opera adaptation ran at the Santa Fe Opera House after being delayed for two years by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was directed by James Robinson and composed by Huang Ruo, with a libretto by Hwang. The leads were played by Mark Stone and Kangmin Justin Kim. One reviewer expressed mixed feelings about the performance, questioning the longevity and adaptability of M. Butterfly in a world of continuously evolving attitudes. [18]



Subhash Kak describes the interplay between the 1904 Madame Butterfly and 1988 M. Butterfly saying that Gallimard "falls in love, not with a person, but an imagined stereotype. His Chinese lover, Song Liling, encourages this stereotype, playing the role of the Oriental woman as demure and submissive. Gallimard, who had thought of himself as the macho Pinkerton, husband of the beautiful and fragile Butterfly."[19] KBPS described the latter as an inversion of the former: "here, it is the Occidental man who becomes the Butterfly: submissive, easily trapped, and ultimately destroyed."[20]

John Gross called it "a mess, intellectually speaking" but also "very well worth seeing".[21]

Relevance to the LGBT community


In an interview with David Henry Hwang, the playwright states: “The lines between gay and straight become very blurred in this play, but I think he knows he's having an affair with a man. Therefore, on some level he is gay.” [22]

In a 2014 review for the Windy City Times, Jonathan Abarbanel states that Song Liling “may be gay but it's a secondary point raised only as a way by which Chinese government agents can control him. As an exploration of sexuality, it's about the Divine Androgyne who Song Liling may recognize and exploit, and which Gallimard certainly recognizes and embraces in the play's closing moments.” [23]

The Washington Blade refers to Gallimard as “a gay man who couldn’t be himself. He had to mask behind male bravado, cultural and religious dicta, and diplomatic constraints. But he was willing to overlook and deny everything in pursuit of love.” [24]

Hwang talked to several people with nonconforming gender identities to get better insight into the character of Song, but he ultimately stressed that the character is not transgender. “He recognized how Song might be differently received by a modern audience more savvy about the wide spectrum of gender identity.” [25]

Ilka Saal writes: “The playwright uses the figure of the transvestite to lay bare the construction and performativity of gender and culture. Yet he stops short of questioning compulsory heterosexuality at its base, and thereby fails to use queer desire in order to open up interstices, categories of 'thirdness,' in this tight homophobic structure.”[26]

In an article for Pride Source, Pruett and Beer state: “Gallimard is a man who thinks he is heterosexual, but is in fact a practicing homosexual for 20 years. Song takes on the role of a woman, but always self-identifies as a gay man, not a transgendered person.” [27]

Christian Lewis, when writing about the 2017 revival, wrote in the Huffington Post that "this production does not explore any foray into non-binary or transgender identities, which is perhaps its one major flaw."[28]

Awards and nominations


Original Broadway production



Year Award ceremony Category Nominee Result
1988 Tony Award Best Play David Henry Hwang Won
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play John Lithgow Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play BD Wong Won
Best Direction of a Play John Dexter Won
Best Scenic Design Eiko Ishioka Nominated
Best Costume Design Nominated
Best Lighting Design Andy Phillips Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play David Henry Hwang Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play John Lithgow Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play BD Wong Won
Outstanding Director of a Play John Dexter Won
Outstanding Set Design Eiko Ishioka Nominated
Outstanding Costume Design Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding New Broadway Play Won
Outstanding Debut Performance BD Wong Won
John Gassner Award David Henry Hwang Won
New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play David Henry Hwang Nominated
Theatre World Award BD Wong Won
Clarence Derwent Awards Most Promising Male Performer BD Wong Won
1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Finalist


  1. ^ Hwang, David Henry. "Foreword", 'M. Butterfly': With an Afterword by the Playwright, Penguin, 1993, ISBN 1101077034
  2. ^ The Broadway League. "M. Butterfly". ibdb.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  3. ^ Rich, Frank (21 March 1988). "Review/Theater; 'M. Butterfly,' a Story Of a Strange Love, Conflict and Betrayal". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 Jan 2020.
  4. ^ "Finalists 1989" pulitzer.org, accessed October 11, 2015
  5. ^ "Erik Kurmangaliev (Counter-tenor) – Short Biography". bach-cantatas.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  6. ^ "Dramatists Play Service, Inc". dramatists.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  7. ^ "Catalog | LATW". latw.org. Retrieved Feb 11, 2020.
  8. ^ Viagas, Robert (Jan 30, 2017). "Clive Owen Will Return to Broadway in M. Butterfly Revival". Playbill. Retrieved Feb 11, 2020.
  9. ^ Lefkowitz, Andy (2017-06-19). "Clive Owen-Led Revival of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly Finds Its Broadway Home". Broadway.com. Retrieved 2017-06-19.
  10. ^ Collins-Hughes, Laura (2017-10-17). "New Flight for a New 'Butterfly'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  11. ^ a b Gushue, Jen (28 November 2017). "M. Butterfly from 1988 to 2017". HowlRound. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  12. ^ Orenstein, C. (2018). "M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (review)". Asian Theatre Journal. 35 (2): 490-495. doi:10.1353/atj.2018.0044. S2CID 165339503.
  13. ^ Brantley, B. (27 October 2017). "Review: 'M. butterfly returns to Broadway on heavier wings". The New York Times. Retrieved October 27, 2017.
  14. ^ Orenstein, C. (2018). "M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (review)". Asian Theatre Journal. 35 (2): 490-495. doi:10.1353/atj.2018.0044. S2CID 165339503.
  15. ^ Hodgins, P. (20 May 2019). "'M. butterfly' flies a little differently 30 years after its creation". Voice of OC. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  16. ^ McNulty, C. (20 May 2019). "Review: David Henry Hwang's 'M. butterfly' takes flight in a more gender-fluid era". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  17. ^ sagg928 (1 October 1993). "M. Butterfly (1993)". IMDb. Retrieved 30 July 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  18. ^ Allen, D. (August 2022). "Review: 'M. Butterfly' metamorphoses again, as an opera". The New York Times. Retrieved April 24, 2023.
  19. ^ Kak, Subhash (4 May 2005). "Asia's two butterfly syndromes". Asia Times. Archived from the original on 4 May 2005. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  20. ^ "'M. Butterfly' at North Coast Repertory Theatre". KPBS On Air Magazine. August 1993.
  21. ^ Gross, John (10 April 1988). "A 'Butterfly' That Hovers Over The Issues of Racism, Sexism". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 25, 2015.
  22. ^ Young, Harvey (May 2016). "An Interview with David Henry Hwang". Theatre Survey. 57 (2): 232–237. doi:10.1017/S0040557416000077. S2CID 163905085.
  23. ^ "THEATER REVIEW M. Butterfly - Gay Lesbian Bi Trans News Archive". Windy City Times. 28 May 2014. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  24. ^ "Gender-bending romance". Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights. 2017-09-29. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  25. ^ "This 30-Year-Old Play About Gender And Asian Identity Is More Relevant Than Ever". BuzzFeed News. 10 November 2017. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  26. ^ Saal, Ilka (1998). "Performance and Perception: Gender, Sexuality, and Culture in David Henry Hwang's 'M. Butterfly". Amerikastudien / American Studies. 43 (4): 629–644. JSTOR 41157422.
  27. ^ Staff, B. T. L. (10 May 2012). "'M. Butterfly' layers on levels of self-delusion". Pride Source. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  28. ^ Lewis, Christian (2017-10-26). ""M. Butterfly" Surprisingly Relevant". HuffPost. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  29. ^ "'M. Butterfly' Production Broadway" playbillvault.com, accessed October 11, 2015