M. Butterfly

For the film, see M. Butterfly (film).
M. Butterfly
Written by David Henry Hwang
Characters Rene Gallimard
Song Liling
M. Toulon
Comrade Chin
Renee and others
Date premiered February 10, 1988
Place premiered National Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Original language English
Subject East/West cultural stereotypes
Genre Drama
Setting A Paris prison, 1988; recollections of Beijing and Paris

M. Butterfly is a play by David Henry Hwang loosely based on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play.


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

The play opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on March 20, 1988, closing after 777 performances on January 27, 1990.[2] It was produced by Stuart Ostrow and directed by John Dexter and 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 staging featuring Puccini's music and the Kazakh countertenor Erik Kurmangaliev in the title role was undertaken by Roman Viktyuk in Russia in 1990.[4]

The play was a 1989 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.[5]

It is currently 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]


The play was inspired by Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. The first act introduces the main character, Rene Gallimard, who is a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who is actually a man masquerading as a woman. In traditional Beijing opera, females were banned from the stage; all female roles (dan) were played by males. 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.

Act two begins with Song coming to France and resuming the affair with Gallimard. 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 actually a man, that has been posing as a woman for 20 years to be able to spy, 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.

The third act portrays Gallimard committing seppuku (also known as harakiri, ritual Japanese suicide through self-disembowelment) while Song watches and smokes a cigarette.

Film adaptation

Main article: M. Butterfly (film)

Hwang adapted the play for a 1993 film directed by David Cronenberg with Jeremy Irons and John Lone in the leading roles.[8]

Awards and nominations




  1. Hwang, David Henry. "Foreward", 'M. Butterfly': With an Afterword by the Playwright, Penguin, 1993, ISBN 1101077034
  2. The Broadway League. "M. Butterfly - IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". 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. sagg928 (1 October 1993). "M. Butterfly (1993)". IMDb. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  9. "'M. Butterfly' Production Broadway" playbillvault.com, accessed October 11, 2015
  10. "David Henry Hwang". playscripts.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
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