Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: M. Butterfly

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 11, 2001

“There was a reception for a visiting scholar. he’s writing a six-volume treatise on the Chinese revolution. We all gathered that meant he’d have to live here long enough to actually write six volumes, and we all expressed our deepest sympathies.”

Perhaps the best social satire play I’ve read since “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “M. Butterfly” has a lot to say about race and gender in a very small space.

AuthorDavid Henry Hwang
Length100 pages
Book Rating8

I’ve never seen “Madame Butterfly” but I did see “Miss Saigon” while I was in London a few years back. I loved the play, but the important, pivotal scene, where Chris leaves Kim, was always totally ridiculous to me. I suspect the writers felt the same way, and that’s why they skipped over it until the end of the play when they hoped we would consider it already a done deal. Let’s face it, Chris is either a complete idiot or he didn’t really love Kim as much as he sang that he did. If “Miss Saigon” was as much of a remake of “Madame Butterfly” as it appears from the snippets I’ve picked up on in “M. Butterfly”, then there’s a reason for that: he didn’t.

“M. Butterfly” is based both on author Hwang’s feelings about the cultural stereotype of Madame Butterfly and vaguely on a true story, a French diplomat caught spying for his Chinese lover--who he claimed he thought was a woman.

The diplomat, attempting to account for the fact that he had never seen his “girlfriend” naked, was quoted as saying, “I thought she was very modest. I thought it was a Chinese custom.”

Now, I am aware that this is not a Chinese custom. I am also aware, however, that his assumption was consistent with a stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, blushing flowers. I therefore concluded that the diplomat must have fallen in love, not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype.

I knew Butterfly only as a cultural stereotype; speaking of an Asian woman, we would sometimes say, “She’s pulling a Butterfly,” which meant playing the submissive Oriental number. Yet, I felt convinced that the libretto would include yet another lotus blossom pining away for a cruel Caucasian, and dying for her love. Sure enough, when I purchased the record, I discovered it contained a wealth of sexist and racist clichés, reaffirming my faith in Western culture.

Interestingly, the copy of the play that I have has a cover playing off of the relationship with “Madame Butterfly”. The cover I see displayed on Amazon.Com is more like “Miss Saigon”. Probably from the movie, which had a similar poster.

While the play was born in racial stereotypes, it becomes more of a play about male-female relations, using East-West stereotypes as a medium. It is, mostly, about men’s fantasies about being the male protector.

The play alternates between Gallimard (the diplomat) describing his perception of the play “Madame Butterfly”, Gallimard describing his own love affair with Song Li Ling, and Song Li Ling describing why and how she did it, all in flashback. Gallimard is a nobody, a faceless diplomat, who begins to gain in confidence as his own “Madame Butterfly” submits to him. And as he gains confidence, he moves up in diplomatic circles. Of course, since the story is told after his arrest, it drips heavily with cynicism and sarcasm.

The only real complaint I have about this play is that it was so good, I wanted it to last longer. This is a great play, and worth reading even if you don’t normally read plays.

M. Butterfly

David Henry Hwang

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed M. Butterfly…

For more about gender, you might also be interested in Possession: A Romance, The Desert Peach, and The Second Sex.