M. Butterfly is a tragic love story between two people from disparate cultures, an espionage thriller, a commentary on sexuality, and a plea for human love and intimacy. The play uses modern staging to create twists on conventional theatrical devices, such as cross-dressing and plays within plays.

The play’s language is notable for its compression and economy. Very short lines evoke wide ranges of meaning, and no line is wasted. For example, in Act One, Scene 2, three Parisian partygoers gossip about Gallimard’s criminal trial. They discuss Gallimard’s claim that he thought Song was a woman. The woman asks, “Isn’t it mad?” and suggests that Gallimard acts “to protect the National Security.” Man 1 asks, “How could he not know?” These casual lines raise questions that are not resolved by the play’s emotionally ambiguous ending. After Gallimard’s suicide, the audience still does not know if Gallimard was insane or simply ignorant. The plot never explains the role of national security in Gallimard’s plea, although it would seem logical that the French government would squelch a homosexual scandal and give national security as an excuse. In addition, because of the fifteen-year gap between Song’s arrival in Paris and Song’s testimony in court, the audience remains ignorant of exactly what Gallimard knew about Song’s gender and when he knew it.

In another example, Gallimard tells his wife, Helga, about hearing a Chinese diva perform the Butterfly role in Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. Helga asks idly, “So, what’s in their opera?” Gallimard does not know. The exchange injects irony into the plot. If Gallimard had been less ignorant about Chinese opera, he would have known that in Chinese opera, men play the women’s parts, so it would have been much harder for Song to seduce him.

The play has only two major roles, Gallimard and Song, but they are among the most complex in modern theater. Both characters hide their true selves and act out false roles to capture the other’s attention. Both also have hidden agendas. Gallimard longs to feel like a “real” man, while Song needs to extract enough information to keep his handlers happy. Song’s agenda is the more desperate one because he has more to lose. When outside events break up their affair, Gallimard gets demoted and sent back to Paris, while Song is beaten, rehabilitated, exploited, and sent to hard labor on a rural commune.

Gallimard and Song are two men whose love affair lasts twenty years, so homosexuality provides an undercurrent of prurient curiosity that runs throughout the play. The question of exactly what they did in bed is only partly answered, and the characters and circumstances allow for more than one interpretation of their relationship. Gallimard builds his entire fantasy life on his self-image as a heterosexual male—a super-male, really—whom women cannot resist. Song is officially allowed to dress as a woman in order to play women’s roles, but his wearing a dress at home is highly suspect. Comrade Chin seems to threaten Song when she reminds him homosexuality does not exist in China, and she carries out her threats by punishing Song for homosexual behavior. Song’s act of insisting that Gallimard see him naked in the end of the play can be interpreted as a coming-out scene or as an attempt to force Gallimard to stop deluding himself.

The most emotionally powerful scene in the play comes immediately after the climax, the moment when Song literally bares himself to Gallimard. Gallimard responds by laughing hysterically. Song tries to make Gallimard recognize the same face and body he’s been in love with for years. Song clearly wants Gallimard to put aside his pride and admit he loves a man. Song tenderly addresses Gallimard as “little one” and admits to hoping Gallimard would become like a woman. When Gallimard chooses his own fantasy instead, Song leaves in hurt and anger. This intense scene transcends the issue of homosexuality and turns Song and Gallimard into universal lovers, forever struggling with desire and self-delusion, pretense and reality.

The staging of the play also contributes to the emotional and sexual ambiguity of the ending. In the play, Song’s revelation occurs after the courtroom scene, which would not be likely in logical chronology. Gallimard is in prison during this scene, and he’s only recalling or imagining what Song did and said. There is no indication as to when or even if Gallimard first sees Song naked. The revelation could have taken place at any time during the fifteen years between Song’s arrival in Paris and Song’s appearance at the trial. The dialogue that follows might have happened once or might have been repeated many times over the lovers’ years together. Perhaps the long arc of their relationship was Song’s coming out to Gallimard in Paris followed by years of Song begging for an honest love affair. Perhaps Song blackmailed Gallimard into photographing the secret government documents. Gallimard’s rejection of Song and his insistence that he thought Song was a woman could be due to Gallimard’s personal shame over his own homosexual longings, or perhaps the French government prefers a diplomat who is a sexually ignorant fool to one who is gay.

The play acquires additional layers of nuanced meaning from the staging and from the manner in which the actors deliver their lines. Gallimard and Song reveal some aspects of their personalities when they address the audience and other aspects when they address each other. The audience is left guessing which aspects are real and which are artificial. Song and Gallimard are left guessing as well. Gallimard’s suicide at the end is cathartic and the logical, albeit tragic, outcome of the emotional developments between the characters, as befits a great romantic tragedy.