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The scene is set in a prison in Paris, at the present time. René Gallimard sits in a prison cell, looking old and tired. Song appears as a beautiful woman dressed in traditional Chinese costume. Song dances to music from the Chinese opera. The music dissolves into the “Love Duet” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Gallimard calls out the name “Butterfly” and then turns away. As Song’s image fades, Gallimard turns and talks to the audience. Gallimard shows the audience his jail cell and describes his daily routine. He assures the audience that he is not an ordinary prisoner, but a celebrity who makes people laugh. As a young boy, he was voted “least likely to be invited to a party.” Now he is the life of every social function in Paris and in the world’s smartest parlors.
At a chic cocktail party in Paris, two men and one woman gossip about Gallimard. They wonder how he could still refuse to believe the truth, even after “the trial.” They make fun of his sexual ignorance. Man 1 wonders, “How could he not know?” The woman says she feels sorry for Gallimard, so they all drink a toast to him.
Gallimard sits in his cell and dictates his story into a tape recorder. He introduces his favorite opera, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, to help his audience understand what he did and why. He summarizes the opera’s plot: a beautiful heroine, Cio-Cio-San, or Butterfly, gives up everything for an ordinary looking, not very bright U.S. naval officer, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. At the start of the opera, Pinkerton buys a house for one hundred yen, a price that includes a wife, Butterfly.
Gallimard assumes the character of Pinkerton. Marc, Gallimard’s friend from school, enters the scene in the role of Sharpless, the American consul. Sharpless is there to witness the marriage. Pinkerton shows off the house as they talk about Pinkerton’s marriage. The marriage contract states that the marriage will be annulled if Pinkerton leaves for one month, so his plan is to leave Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly, behind when he returns to the United States. Pinkerton (Gallimard) and Sharpless (Marc) then sing “The Whole World Over” from Madame Butterfly, about Yankee sailors who womanize around the world.
The scene now flashbacks to the Ecole Nationale in Aix-en-Provence in 1947. Marc invites Gallimard for a weekend at his father’s condo in Marseille. He promises that there will be “babes” by the truckload, all splashing naked in the pool, and that Gallimard can join them for as much anonymous sex as he can stand. The girls won’t care that Gallimard is clumsy and has zits. Gallimard turns down the invitation. Marc calls him a wimp, makes lewd gestures, and strolls off in search of more girls.
From his prison cell, Gallimard resumes his summary of Madame Butterfly. As Gallimard introduces the fifteen-year-old heroine, Song appears, dressed as Madame Butterfly and moving to the “Love Duet” from the opera. Gallimard explains why men sigh with hope at Song’s appearance: Every man believes he deserves a Butterfly, a woman with whom he can do as he pleases. But in real life, Gallimard explains, women like that exist only in girlie magazines. As Gallimard pages through his magazine collection, a pinup girl in a sexy negligee appears upstage. The pinup girl stands in the cell’s window and strips for Gallimard. She convinces Gallimard that she desires him, but he is unable to respond sexually.
Gallimard puts away his magazines and addresses the audience again, picking up the plot of Madame Butterfly. In Gallimard’s version, Song plays the role of Cio-Cio-San/Madame Butterfly, Comrade Chin plays Suzuki, and Marc plays Sharpless. Pinkerton has now returned to the United States and has been gone for three years without even a word to Madame Butterfly. Madame Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, nags her to move on to another lover. Sharpless, the American consul, arrives with the official notice that Pinkerton has abandoned her. Madame Butterfly threatens to kill herself, and Sharpless hears a baby crying. He exits swiftly.
Madame Butterfly spots an American ship in the harbor. To the music of Puccini’s “The Flower Duet,” she excitedly changes into a wedding dress. As Suzuki helps Madame Butterfly change costume, Helga appears onstage and helps Gallimard change into a tuxedo. Helga, Gallimard’s wife, is the daughter of a diplomat. Gallimard married Helga for practicality, not passion, and the marriage has given him “a quick leap up the career ladder.” Gallimard explains that he was faithful to his marriage for eight years until the day in Peking when he saw a woman singing the death scene from Madame Butterfly.
The opening scenes of the play introduce the two main characters, the two most important threads of the plot, and the play’s major themes. The scenes focus on the protagonist, Gallimard, who is also the narrator for the play. The antagonist, Song, appears in these scenes in the character of Madame Butterfly.
The play’s two main plot lines, which are heavily intertwined, are the romance between Gallimard and Song and the espionage between China and France. Gallimard’s direct addresses to the audience make it obvious that the romance is the part of the story that matters to him. He boasts that he has “known, and been loved by . . . the Perfect Woman.” The espionage plot is barely suggested, but appears in gossip that refers to National Security.
The themes of love, sexuality, masculinity, and theater all make their first appearance in these scenes. Scene 3 reveals Gallimard’s capacity for self-delusion. He admits that he is constantly rewriting the love story between himself and the perfect woman. Scenes 4 and 5 hint at Gallimard’s ambiguous sexuality. As a college student, he turns down Marc’s invitation to a pool party, and as an adult, he does not respond to a pinup girl’s dance. He also explicitly states that his fantasy woman will do exactly what he wants. For Gallimard, masculinity means domination. Gallimard dictates his memories into a tape recorder, reminding the audience that his narrative is an act of theater.
The opening scenes also introduce the play’s stark, minimalist staging. All the action takes place under spotlights, with changes in place indicated by only a few props. Often more than one spotlight shines, showing two characters in separate but parallel actions. The author uses this staging device to portray Gallimard’s projections, memories, and fantasies and to shift the action back and forth in time. For example, Scene 1, set in the present, shows Gallimard in jail and he addresses the audience directly. In the last line of the scene, Gallimard says, “Listen to them! In the world’s smartest parlors! I’m the one who lifts their spirits!” In Scene 2, the spotlight shifts to three anonymous people at a cocktail party, gossiping about Gallimard. The staging implies that the cocktail party scene is a projection of Gallimard’s mind and how he imagines people are talking. In Scene 3, Gallimard is still alone in jail. Speaking into a tape recorder, he introduces Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. His friend since school days, Marc, appears onstage to help Gallimard act out a scene from the opera. The audience understands that Marc is present only in Gallimard’s mind. The implication is that the music and the appearances of Song and Helga, which the audience hears and sees, are also Gallimard’s memories and projections.
Gallimard’s reenactment of Madame Butterfly is a play within a play. Hwang does not rely on the audience’s knowing the plot and setting of Puccini’s work. Instead, he provides clues, such as the words yen, rickshaw, shoji screen, and geisha girls, to indicate that Madame Butterfly is set in Japan. The fact that Gallimard acts the part of Pinkerton reminds the audience that the reenactment is another projection of Gallimard’s mind. Gallimard’s reenactment reveals his racism and sexism, as well as his equation of masculinity with domination. In character as Pinkerton, Gallimard claims he believes that Asian women want to be treated poorly. Gallimard’s imaginary reenactment of Madame Butterfly ends in Scene 5, with Cio-Cio-San, or Butterfly, changing into her wedding dress, expecting Pinkerton to arrive at last. At the same time, the stage directions call for Helga to appear and help Gallimard change into a tuxedo. This double spotlight and costume change signals a shift from Gallimard’s imaginary world back to the “real” world and the narrative of what actually happened. However, by now the audience understands that the narrative exists only in Gallimard’s memory.
The opening scenes raise many questions that will not be answered until later in the play. The audience knows that Gallimard is in jail and that people are laughing about him because of some scandal involving sex, National Security, and the Church. Gallimard wants the audience “to understand what I did and why,” but the audience does not yet understand what he did.