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The protagonist, a minor French diplomat stationed in Shanghai. Gallimard is an ordinary, rather dull man with many sexual inhibitions. His ideal woman is Cio-Cio-San, also known as Madame Butterfly, the heroine of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, a sweet, submissive Japanese woman who kills herself when her lover rejects her. Gallimard has a practical marriage to a fellow opera lover, Helga, who has helped his career, but Gallimard’s passionate and ultimately catastrophic love affair with Song Liling forms the heart of the play.
Read an in-depth analysis of René Gallimard.
The antagonist, a male actor of Chinese opera who dresses and performs as female characters. Song also performs Western music at events such as diplomatic receptions. Song appears as a woman for most of the play and deceives Gallimard to exploit their affair for classified information he can pass to the Chinese Communists. Song appreciates some Western values, such as education and freedom for women, but opposes Western imperialism.
Read an in-depth analysis of Song Liling.
Gallimard’s friend from school. Marc is a party boy and womanizer who believes himself to be sophisticated and cool. He invites Gallimard to his father’s condo in Marseilles, promising promiscuous pool sex, and sets up Gallimard’s first sexual encounter with a woman. Marc thinks of sex only in terms of his own pleasure.
Song’s handler. Comrade Chin is the Chinese government official to whom Song Liling reports. Comrade Chin instructs Song about which information to gather from Gallimard. Song then passes the information to Chin. In Gallimard’s imagined staging of Madame Butterfly, Comrade Chin plays the role of Suzuki, the maid and confidante of Cio-Cio-San.
The head of the French delegation in Peking. Toulon is a wily operator, eagerly looking out for his own career. Toulon promotes Gallimard to the post of vice-consul, in charge of gathering intelligence, and makes sly references to Gallimard’s Asian lover. Toulon later gets Gallimard to sign a report about Vietnam, setting Gallimard up to take the fall if the intelligence is faulty.
Gallimard’s wife. Helga and Gallimard have a comfortable, civilized, and practical marriage in which Helga helps advance Gallimard’s career. They share condescending attitudes toward Chinese culture as well as a fondness for Madame Butterfly. Helga knows her marriage is lacking something, which might be a child, but she enjoys the prestige and pomp of being a diplomat’s wife.
Gallimard’s lover. Renee is a student whose wealthy father sells junk to the Third World. She is loud, uninhibited, and sexually aggressive. Renee is the female equivalent of Marc—a person whose primary goal in sex is pleasure or at least relief of boredom. Like Marc, Renee attempts sophistication but cannot hide a shallow and conventional personality.
Three Parisian partygoers who gleefully gossip about Gallimard and make fun of his manhood.
Song’s servant girl. Shu-Fang appears only briefly, bearing a tea tray. She is startled to see Gallimard visiting.
Dancers appear onstage to perform a scene from a Chinese opera, to enact Song’s punishment and reeducation, and, later, to help Gallimard commit suicide.