The Scandal That Shocked the World: This 30-Year-Old Play Continues to be Timely and Timeless

Words by Micah Avry Guiao

Photos by Caitlin Rodil

Based on the intriguing real-life espionage love affair in 1986, M. Butterfly explores the relationship dynamic between French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Olivier Borten) and Chinese opera singer Song Liling (RS Francisco), and what ultimately becomes of them after a series of scandalous revelations.

Thirty years have passed since the Tony Award-winning play by David Henry Hwang has set its foot on Broadway and it’s no longer a secret that Song Liling is actually a man under a woman’s guise. It is said that M. Butterfly “reveals where we have been and where we are going.” Today, a re-staging of this classic will be held at Maybank Performing Arts Theater this September 2018.

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However, M. Butterfly is more than just a tragic love story. It proves to be more relevant than ever as it tackles issues related to gender identity and power play, as well as the disparity of portrayal between the East and the West.

It must be confusing to most how a man has come to fool another for 20 years. History tells us that for far too often, the East has been trained to succumb to the West. Likewise, the women are treated no differently. Once they play their part properly, everything falls into place despite deception being ever-present.

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Back in the day, it was uncommon for ‘butterflies’ to sacrifice themselves through death at the expense of their lover. Song questions this status quo, begging Rene and the audience alike to ask the question: if it were the other way around–if a Western man were to kill themselves for an Eastern woman–would it be as drastic and profound? Would it be a celebrated act, despite its tragedy? An unsettled Rene answers, “I suppose not.”

As the M. Butterfly cast put it, does being a female Asian make you an inferior character? Song Liling faces the reality of being a double minority as she seems to fit in the gender and racial stereotypes–even in her own country.

Why are aspects of femininity and codependency on the butterfly’s part an integral theme to her being? Is it because she’s Oriental, or because she’s a woman, or perhaps both?

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Song summarizes this romanticization of the dominant West and the submissive East in her dialogue in Act 1: “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel White man.

Never mind his suspicions of it all, Rene has come to own Liling as his “perfect woman.”

Towards the end, as Rene Gallimard is dragged away, he renders Song Liling his final thought on the revelation that is presented to him: “Tonight, I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy and reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.”

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Furthermore, toxic masculinity is embodied in the form of Rene’s best friend, Marc (Lee O’Brian). Throughout the play, the choice of words in which Marc uses to depict women aren’t just objectifying, it perpetuates ideas about the male gender role, defining masculinity in exaggeration. It sets an image that men must always be sexually aggressive, lest there is something wrong with them.

As someone who has an inclination towards contemporary musicals, M. Butterfly was the variety I never thought I needed. It opened my eyes to the realities of the past, all the while telling a tale of passion and betrayal.

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What’s more, all proceeds go to charities geared towards the education and the arts. Each performance will be donated to a beneficiary of their choice, some of which include Hope for Change, Love Yourself Foundation, Teach for the Philippines, Philippine Stagers Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, 1Meal Foundation, Philippine Animal Welfare Society, and Love is All We Need Organization.

Catch M. Butterfly’s 3pm and 8pm shows at Maybank Performing Arts Theater, BGC Arts Center, Bonifacio Global City! The play runs from September 13 to 30, 2018. Tickets can be purchased from TicketWorld. Ticket are priced at ₱2,000, ₱1,750, ₱1,500, ₱1,250, and ₱1,000.

Will you be seeing this show? Let us know in the comments!