M. Butterfly

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 Peking opera singer. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play.

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 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]

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.[4]

The play was a 1989 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.[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, the production was directed by Julie Taymor.[8][9] David Henry Hwang made changes to the original text for the revival, mostly centering around the issue of intersectional identities, but also for clarifications.[10]


The first act introduces the main character, Rene 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 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 his wife, Helga, finds out about his affair with Song and leaves him.

In act two it is revealed that Song 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.

Film adaptation

Hwang adapted the play for a 1993 film directed by David Cronenberg with Jeremy Irons and John Lone in the leading roles.[11]

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.” [12]

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.” [13]

A quote from the Washington Blade refers to Gallimard a “a gay man who couldn’t be himself. He had to mask behind male bravado, cultural and religious dictums, and diplomatic constraints. But he was willing to overlook and deny everything in pursuit of love” [14]

Hwang talked to several people with nonconforming gender identities to get better insight into the character of Song, but 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.” [15]

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.”[16]

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.” [17]

Christian Lewis wrote in the Huffington post that “this production does not explore any foray into non-binary or transgender identities, which is perhaps it’s one major flaw.” [18]

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 15 March 2011.
  4. "Erik Kurmangaliev (Counter-tenor) – Short Biography". bach-cantatas.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  5. "Finalists 1989" pulitzer.org, accessed October 11, 2015
  6. "Dramatists Play Service, Inc". dramatists.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  7. latw.org
  8. http://www.playbill.com/article/broadway-m-butterfly-revival-announces-its-star
  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. sagg928 (1 October 1993). "M. Butterfly (1993)". IMDb. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  12. Young, Harvey (May 2016). "An Interview with David Henry Hwang". Theatre Survey. 57: 232–237.
  13. "THEATER REVIEW M. Butterfly - Gay Lesbian Bi Trans News Archive". Windy City Times. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  14. "Gender-bending romance". Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights. 2017-09-29. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  15. "This 30-Year-Old Play About Gender And Asian Identity Is More Relevant Than Ever". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  16. Saal, Ilka (1998). "Performance and Perception: Gender, Sexuality, and Culture in David Henry Hwang's 'M. Butterfly". Amerikastudien / American Studies. 43: 629–644 via JSTOR.
  17. Staff, B. T. L. "'M. Butterfly' layers on levels of self-delusion". Pride Source. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  18. Lewis, Christian; Author, ContributorTheater critic Queer activist; publisher. (2017-10-26). ""M. Butterfly" Surprisingly Relevant". HuffPost. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  19. "'M. Butterfly' Production Broadway" playbillvault.com, accessed October 11, 2015
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