Pulling the wings off M. Butterfly: Dramatic Irony, Performance and the Third Space in Hwang’s dramatic script and film adaptation

By Leah Knapp

M. Butterfly is, by nature, “deconstructivist” (95), at least as Hwang describes it. Of course, authorial intent factors into an interpretation of a work, however it ultimately comes down to whether or not he accomplished his goal. I believe he has. In creating a labyrinth of gender, eroticism and sex, Hwang effectively incorporates various methods of deconstructing binary oppositions in both the dramatic script and film adaptation by the same name. Moreover, the differences in the film and text facilitate irony in both their comparison and in the works themselves. Specifically, dramatic irony, gender bending and transvestism perpetrate the subversion of not only the gender binaries, but the cultural dichotomies.

It is important, however, to delineate the experience of reading a dramatic script and contrast that with the encounter with the film version. Let us begin with the obvious: the physical representation of the characters, including their appearance and the literal blocking of their actions. The nature of M. Butterfly revolves around deception and concealment of Song’s biological sex. Thus, it would appear that the text version would reveal itself as the more credible version of the two. After all, it is fairly difficult to imagine a Chinese man dressed in drag performing convincingly enough to pass for a woman in the eyes of a French diplomat. Rather than relying on the performance of an actor or a director’s influence, the reader becomes responsible for bringing to life the intertextualities. Along the same line, the character’s mannerisms, how they stand, how they walk, all of those are actualized in the reader’s mind, providing an engaged, active and critical response to the dramatic script.

Because of that response, the dramatic irony in Hwang’s play does not go unrecognized. From the beginning, Gallimard acknowledges he “makes[s] people laugh” (2) because of his folly and goes on to identify himself as the “patron saint of the inept” (4). Already Hwang characterizes Gallimard as a simpleton through the eyes of his fellow French, and thus the audience becomes one of those observers.

As Gallimard recalls the linear action that took place to lead to his eventual imprisonment, the reader does not experience them neither like nor as (Fuss 23) Gallimard but as a separate, detached entity. It is as if we are looking in on bystanders, having full disclosure while they interact in ignorance. Thus, Hwang’s dramatic irony evinces voyeurism, as espoused by Haedicke. In her article, she elucidates on this concept, articulating that the aforementioned voyeurism “subverts the reality” (31) and that “Gallimard directly forewarns the audience the illusion of unmediated subjectivity constitutes performance” (30). This subjectivity and disunion ultimately generate the majority of the comedy. Because Gallimard’s foolish mistakes belong only to him, we are merely observers. Therefore, his situation becomes even further removed from our own, making it less likely that such a mistake will ever occur in our own lives. Thus, we feel safe and even reassured in mocking him, as per the social psychological concept of the self-serving bias, because it allows us to remain secure in our station as a superior social creature. In brief, dramatic irony works here because the “audience see[s] in the book two or more time-place-action complexes at once… and through comparing and contrasting the two gets the sense of irony.” (Sharpe 46) Per such, the rift in the audience and the characters allows space for the comedy to proliferate.

On the other hand, the film version of M. Butterfly lacks the separation of audience and character. Mulvey’s theory initially implies that the viewing experience is a form of active voyeurism, similar to engaging in literature, but then goes on to expound that said voyeurism must be reconciled with our desire to superimpose our self on to the lead male character, in this case Gallimard. Regardless of the audience’s sex, this projection occurs and as such, the female is the reflection point for the reconciliation of the two attitudes.

This is especially pertinent in M. Butterfly because of Song’s eventual revelation as a man. For the majority of the film, we experience the action as Gallimard due to our erotic projection. Consequently, when Song finally reveals herself to be male, the tragic ironic shock that Gallimard experiences, so do we. Again, according the Mulvey, Song’s transvestitism is a cause of psychic unrest. Because for nearly the entire film, we relate to Song as a woman, the cinematic climax of our discovery that she is, in fact, a man, causes erotic tension. In traditional psychoanalytic film theory, the male is the active looker and the female passively receives that look. Once Song exposes her biological sex, the audience has no idea how to relate to her character, or Gallimard’s.

Ultimately, Gallimard resolves this conflict via his suicide, the “tragic catharsis… the climax of all dramatic irony” (Sharpe 87) and the audience empathizes with his actions, while still experiencing disquietude at the abrupt reversal of gender roles. Hwang’s conclusion brings out this switch with Gallimard’s last words: “My name is Rene Gallimard- also known as Madame Butterfly” (93). A persistent allusion to Puccini’s opera, Hwang makes known that he has intended the entire time to make Song into the male and Gallimard the female.

Additionally, while the play allows readers the active and engaging opportunity to create landscapes and planes of interactions for the character, that activity limits the empathy and creates the aforementioned voyeuristic tendency. The film, however, while still advocating a certain amount of socophilia, encourages viewers to become absorbed in a passive manner, empowering a highly charged erotic and emotional connection to the characters. Because Gallimard, Song, Comrade Chin, Rene and Helga are visually displayed, the film leaves no room for speculation, uncertainty or guesswork. The director makes clear assertions concerning the physicality of each and every character, furthering the passivity of viewing.

Another noteworthy difference between the play and the film is the narrative presence of Gallimard himself. In the play, Gallimard appears in two capacities- the 1960s Gallimard and the present day narrator who beings the play. Essentially, in constructing a play-within-a-play, Hwang “produces ironies by projecting through a veil of pretense the deeper meanings and intentions of the characters” (Sharpe 48) as well as presenting a rather skewed view of the events that occurred. Because the projection and course of events stems from a mere recollection rather than the impression of accurate recall, the audience should see only what Gallimard sees, experience what Gallimard experiences. However, there is a lack of congruity on the audience’s part, because of that dramatic irony. We know Song’s female character to be a façade, so we can never empathize with Gallimard’s choices. In this way, while being somewhat biased in presenting only Gallimard’s view on the events, the play does more to illuminate other perspectives and the “reality” of the situation as it was unfolding. Gallimard’s supplications to Song at the conclusion of act Two reveal his vulnerability and epitomize the tragicomedy. He asks Song, outside of the linear narrative, “Can’t we show them how we embraced that evening?” (78) and when Song refuses to acknowledge his pleas, he gets angry and complains “You have to do what I say!” (78) This defenselessness leading to frustration and finally to resignation, falls rather flat and rather than being a poignant plea only rings in the ears of the audience as more evidence of Gallimard’s immature naiveté.

The film version, however, manages to execute the tragedy of Song’s transformation perfectly. Because of the Mulveyian self-imposition and the necessity for a female erotic object to receive the active gaze, we truly embrace Gallimard and make his desires our own. As the literature intends to be subjective, the film legitimizes this goal and offers an extremely limited view of the events. Gallimard does not exist outside the linear plot and there are no chances for Song’s falsehood to be “played off ironically against the true or original character” (Sharpe 38). Irony makes the first and notable showing in the film when we discover Song’s biological sex. At that point, the audience, stunned, racks their collective mind and sees the hints that we refused to accept while we were in the situation. Like Gallimard, our drive to fall in love with an Oriental woman was strong enough to supersede reality.

Of course, in making definitive assertions, the film clears up some rather ambiguous sexual questions. For instance, is Song gay? Is Gallimard? How do they interact sexually? The film literally shows their erotic interactions and makes a fairly strong claim that Song is a homosexual, and that Gallimard is a heterosexual. In direct contrast to this, the play is much more ambiguous, and thus creates more room for ironic and gendered confusion.

As far as both Gallimard and Song’s sexuality, Hwang offers little to no evidence to support either heterosexuality or homosexuality in each of them. The scene where Song strips naked and tries to convince Gallimard that he is “not just any man” (88) resonates with uncertainty. Gallimard is certainly revolted by Song’s manhood, and goes so far as to actually laugh at the moment when Song finally stands in front him completely nude. In fact, the only way that he is able to find Song’s presence bearable is when he feels around his face “like a blind man” (89). However, this surface revulsion could be an expression of his repressed homosexual impulses, especially considering his willingness to enter back into the illusion of Song-as-Butterfly. Concerning Song, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate assertion concerning his sexuality because he is an actor and a transvestite.

The film, however, offers a different interpretation and that same scene contains definite homoerotic overtones. When Song strips, he literally gets on his knees at Gallimard’s feet, in a corporeal expression of his need for acceptance. This is a scene where the physical blocking and nuances of a concrete acting make for a more convincing and assertive interaction, and thus Song’s gestures and pleading come off as just that- pleading. He begs Gallimard to re-enter the illusion he worked so hard to maintain, and to overcome the barriers of biological sex. Gallimard, however, rather than appearing sexually ambiguous appears certainly disgusted by Song’s pleas. Knowing that the delicate woman he once loved is now nothing more than a pathetic and submissive male only furthers his distaste for his ex-lover.

Conclusively, despite the glaring disparities between the textual experience and film, both make liberal use of dramatic irony as an instigator for comedy or tragedy and also effectively employ Garber’s third space to successfully subvert traditional gender and cultural binaries. Garber’s argument in Vested Interests boils down to the role of the transvestite in modern culture. She theorizes that the third space the transvestite occupies outside of the traditional binary causes sociocultural shifts. While I believe that this allegation lacks credibility in its entirety, certainly a portion of her theory embodies perfectly the situations played out in the film and text of M. Butterfly.

Garber introduces the idea of the third sex or third actor (I will be using the term third space) in the introduction, saying that, since the transvestite does not expressly fall under the binary categories of “man” or “woman”, it makes sense to appropriate a “third sex” to accommodate the gender fluctuations inherent in transvestism. She also states that “the current popularity of cross dressing as a theme in art and criticism represents, I think, an undertheorized recognition of the necessary critique of binary thinking” (Garber 11). Basically, not only does a transvestite represent a gender possibility outside the dichotomy of man and woman, but a vitiation of that restrictive coupling.

Per Garber’s logic then, Song fills the third space quite effectively, causing both dramatic irony and the didactic. In this view, our attention should not focus on either object’s sexuality or erotic choices, but on the transvestism itself. For Garber, the transvestite is both “personal and political” (10), perfectly suited for either Hwang’s play or the film version. The questions of discrepancy, then, become irrelevant and inconsequential when discussing their respective impacts.

Song’s cross-dressing, however, also has another component aside from the obvious purposes of disguise for political reasons. In his portrayal of Gallimard’s Butterfly, he not only imitates the perfect woman, but the perfect Oriental woman. Hwang is careful to explicate the term “oriental” in the author’s notes on the play, and states that he employs the term “specifically to denote and exotic or imperialistic view of the East” (95, Afterword). Both Gallimard and Song incorporate cultural notions into the performance and perception as well. According to Kaal, Gallimard’s “reading of Song Lilling as Butterfly and his enactment of Pinkerton are initiated and regulated by his male Western upbringing and culture… Song performs by consciously exploiting just those conventions, norms and desires that constitute Gallimard’s identity” (Kaal 635). Ergo, it is not enough that “Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (Hwang 63), but even more, it is only a Westerner that knows how the Oriental should act. Song expounds on this point during his trial, taking a step further. According to him, since the West at large views the East as feminine, submissive and docile, there was no psychic room in Gallimard to interpret Song as an “Oriental man”. In short, “Men always believe what they want to hear. So a girl can tell the most obnoxious lies and the guys will believe them every time” (82).

Saal, like Mulvey, goes on to suggest that, “male performance is only effective in front of a real or imaginary female audience that functions as a mirror and reflects the performance back to the performer” (636). Here, there are two levels of audience, and thus two mirrors. Gallimard and Song, Gallimard and the audience and Song and the audience all comprise this system of interrelations that must be examined. In the play, we are much more liable to confuse the role of masculinity, having already known that Song is, in fact, a man. This complicates the interpersonal dynamic because of the homoerotic implications the male-male pairing conjures. In the film, however, Gallimard is certainly the one performing the male gender, and relies on Song to reflect that maleness back to him. When he demands she strip, and she submits, telling him she is pregnant, he relents. He can only feel fulfilled when he feels power and control over their relationship. It is when Gallimard first exploits Song’s “essential Oriental nature” in not attending the opera, that he experiences “for the first time that rush of power- the absolute power of a man” (32). Now, despite our conventional belief that Gallimard has and always will be a biological man, “he can only acquire the ‘absolute power of a man’ in contrast to [Butterfly]” (Kondo 17).

However, ultimately M. Butterfly is not the story of a transvestite deceiving a Frenchman, but of a transvestite deceiving a Frenchman who becomes a transvestite himself. Song may be more than capable at maintaining the illusion of the perfect Oriental mistress, but because of Gallimard’s Western mentality and his deeply rooted subconscious feelings towards the East make him an even more perfect candidate at performing that role. Consequentially, at the conclusion of both the play and the film Gallimard is cross-dressed in Song’s discarded wig and kimono, dead, and Song stands in masculine attire.

This is where Saal’s interpretation lacks. Because Song still stands outside of the binary of man/woman and West/East as an Oriental man, there exist two transvestites, two members of the third sex at the resolution. Therefore, it is impossible to argue that Hwang “ties all loose ends neatly up in a perfect role reversal… the binary structure remains intact after all” (Saal 629).

In the same way, since male performances are only legitimized via a female audience acting as a mirror, it is not only Gallimard’s performance of maleness that deserves scrutiny, but Song’s. It is foolish and naïve to assume that the “end result” genders of both characters are somehow their essences expressed. To make this assumption would be “an underestimation of the object” (Garber 10) and merely essentializing. Thus, while Gallimard depends on Song to legitimize his performance as a masculine male, Song equally depends on Gallimard to validate his male performance. The scene that I discussed previously, when Song removes his clothes and asks for Gallimard to see that he is more than just a man, resonates because Song makes the point that Butterfly was not simply a performance, but “always him, Song, in his full complexity” (Kondo 18)

Decidedly, some of our discomfort with M. Butterfly may result from androgyny and homosexuality. After all, “if there is a difference (between gay and straight) we want to be able to see it, and if we see a difference (a man and woman’s clothes), we want to be able to interpret it” (Garber, 130). However, it is my belief that the majority of unrest we experience derives directly from the transvestism. As Garber so aptly notices, “transvestism tells the truth about gender. Which is why… like Rene Gallimard, we cannot look it in the face” (Garber 250). Transvestism asserts itself outside of the gender binary, and specifically the kinds of transvestism present in M. Butterfly, cross-cultural imitations and performances, do not allow for the simple categorizing present in our traditional thought processes.

Mulvey’s theory does an excellent job of illuminating this point from a Lacanian point of view. While her theory relates explicitly to film, I find it to be pertinent in M. Butterfly because of the aforementioned need for validation from the female perspective. In her Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, she discusses the dichotomy between self-image and image. To be brief, we relate to the characters of Song and Gallimard in an unstable manner. Initially, we relate to Gallimard, to use the language of Diana Fuss, as a man, and to Song like a man. The reason we cannot relate to Song either like a woman, as a man or as a woman is because we know him from his performance as a woman and the only indication of his biological sex is the brief news clipping that appears before the play’s start. However, after Gallimard’s transformation into a woman, and Song’s visual transformation into a male, our parameters of “like” and “as” begin to get conflated and we can no longer tell who is “really” a man and a woman.

Furthermore, near the play’s end, Song scathingly remarks to Gallimard, “In the crush of your adoration, I thought you’d become something more. More like… a woman” (90). Coupled with his pleas to Gallimard, he attempts to convince Gallimard to join him a different sort of relationship, wherein Song will “play” the man, and Gallimard will “play” the woman. At this point, “Hwang suggests that inability of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to account for the multiple, changing, power-laden identities of his protagonists” (Kondo 20). This reinforces Garber’s point that the nature of the transvestite is to invalidate the gender binary, and more evidence that the supposed exact role reversal does not account for neatly situated categorization.

Likewise, if we step back from the actual characters in the film or play and examine M. Butterfly on a holistic level, as a series of performances, it becomes clear that Hwang does anything but perpetuate binary notions. While “both the French and Chinese versions of Butterfly are performed by men” (Saal 634), it is Haedicke that makes the most important assertion: the performances in the play boil down to “an Italian recreation of a Japanese woman is recreated by a Chinese man recreated by a French man recreated by an Asian/American man” (31). Hwang, the Asian/American, based Song’s character, the Chinese man, on Butterfly’s character in Puccini’s Italian opera. Thus, at the resolution of the play, it is not the biological or essential sex of Song or Gallimard that should persist, but their performances of a multiplicitous and many-faceted identity.

I have argued that irony advances the plot, and that the character’s performances foster the subversion of gender and cultural binaries. How, then, does irony assist in the deconstruction of the dichotomy? As previously mentioned, dramatic irony in the play creates space between the action and the audience, letting the spectators observe from a safe distance and facilitating comedy. As per such, “displaying familiar roles… in an unfamiliar way, Hwang interrupts the audience’s automated perception and forces it to see these roles in unfamiliar ways” (Saal 634). This discrepancy functions as the didactic irony, much like the transvestite, and the confusion and thought generated then propels the extirpation of the stereotyped binaries.

As separate entities, the film and text accomplish different things with the same result. In the play, because there exists an audience-action rift from the start, the dramatic irony runs throughout the plot with fair fluidity. Resultant is the tragicomedy, a genre that occupies the third space within the genre binary, and mimics both Song and Gallimard’s role within M. Butterfly as a work of drama for the audience. The audience experiences the same discomfort with the play as they do with Song, initially and Gallimard secondarily. Therefore, as the characters overthrow gender and cultural categories, so does the work itself.

The discomfort of the tragicomedy stems from the comic threads present and their stark contrast to the actual events occurring in the play. In M. Butterfly, Gallimard’s mistake initially seems humorous, and even in his retelling of events, he seems to have a wry sort of wit in his assessment. However, after the scene where Song stands naked for the first time, the audience begins to realize that Gallimard hardly flippant about his confusions. When he finally commits suicide, the audience is torn between sympathy, disgust and scorn.

The film, on the other hand, plays out as a purer tragedy because, as I have already discussed, the tendency of the audience to superimpose themselves on Gallimard. His suicide, then, is much more sympathetic and tragic, despite it’s similarity to Puccini’s opera. However, despite the infrastructure of the genre remaining within binary restrictions, the film’s depiction of Song in the last scene still manages to overturn the traditional roles of the Oriental and the Westerner. Unlike the play, Song does not address Gallimard directly after the suicide. Instead, the film shows flashes him on a plane, gazing listlessly out the window intermittent with the scene depicting Gallimard’s suicide and eventual death. This transposition of scenes visually represents what the play facilitates in a literary way- that is, that Song simultaneously embodies the attitude of a Western man, an Oriental woman and an Oriental man. “The tragedy of the gaze” (Haedicke 41) overwhelms all.

Finally, it is Hwang’s own perspective that aids in the breaking down of cultural and gender binaries. Because he wrote both the dramatic script and the screenplay, I will be discussing the play and film in conjunction. Hwang’s dramatic background centers on illuminating Asian culture and stereotypes. M. Butterfly is no different except that in the Afterword, Hwang details the inspiration for the story. A friend mentioned the scandal of Bernard Bouriscot and a Chinese actress, and Hwang went from there. He did not conduct any extraneous research because he “didn’t want the ‘truth’ to interfere with [his] own speculations” (95 Afterword). He did, however incorporate normative Western cultural attitudes about the East- being an Asian/American, he has experienced both cultures. Therefore, because of Hwang’s life experience, he is able to perfectly deconstruct the binaries of the Orient and the West and the man and the woman in each of those respective cultures.

Particularly in the scenes where Gallimard engages Renee, the Danish student, Hwang’s experience is essential. Gallimard speculates about Renee’s behavior, wondering if it is “possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too…masculine?” (54). Hwang makes explicit Gallimard’s desire for a submissive, placid woman to validate his masculinity, and thus stirs up space for dramatic irony.

To conclude, Hwang’s presence in the script and screenplay comes through in the play between the East and West, helping to begin the upheaval of inherent binaries. As the work progresses, so does the subversion, and what initially appears as a perfect role reversal is revealed as being contradictory and controversial.

Because Hwang chose to include not only one but two transvestic characters in M. Butterfly as well as creating the drama itself within a genre-related third space, it is evident that the cultural and gender limitations are insignificant and insufficient within the drama and film. Specifically, because the play creates a psychic space between the characters and the audience, the audience then can interplay within that space and experience a critical response, dramatic irony and the didactic. In the film, the attraction to Song, the voyeurism and superimposition all coalesce to facilitate a tragic catharsis, leading to an overturning of the gender and cultural norms.

Hwang has created, in M. Butterfly, an intricate masterpiece, resounding with ingenuity and precision. The passion evident in both Gallimard and Song is real and more importantly, human. In both the film and dramatic text, Hwang makes a crucial assertion concerning all of our notions about personhood, cultural identity and gender: we are what we do.

Works Cited

Bollobas, Eniko. “”Making the Subject: Performative Genders in Carsons McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and David Hwang’s M. Butterfly.” Americana E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary IV.1 (2008): n. pag. Web. 27 Nov 2009.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking. London: Routledge, 1990. 23-38. Print.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. 1. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Haedicke, Janet. “David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly; the eye on the wing.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 7.1 (1992): 27-44. Print.

Hawthorne, Melanie. “”Du Du That Voodoo”: M. Venus and M. Butterfly.” Esprit Createur. 37.4 (1997): 58-66. Print.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: Plume, 1989. Print.

Kondo, Dorianne. “”M. Butterfly”: Orientalism, Gender and Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Cultural Critique. 16. (1990): 5-29. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. pp. 438-48 IN: Warhol, Robyn R. (ed. and introd.); Herndl, Diane Price (ed. and introd.) Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP; 1997.

Saal, Ilka. “Performance and perception; Gender, Sexuality and Culture in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.” Amerikastudien. 43.4 (1998): 629-44. Print.

Sharpe, Robert Boies. Irony in the Drama: An Essay on Impersonation, Shock and Catharsis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959. Print.

Wilson, Joyce, Jonathan Wisenthal, Sherrill Grace, and Melinda Boyd. A vision of the Orient. Toronota, Canada: Univ of Toronto Pr, 2006. 227-238. Print.