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The setting is the German ambassador’s home in Beijing in 1960. Gallimard, Marc, and Toulon, the French consul, are among the seated audience members. Song, dressed as Butterfly, appears next to a piano. Gallimard explains that the ending of Madame Butterfly is pitiful. Song sings lines from the death scene of the opera, about preferring death with honor to life without honor. Song’s performance makes Gallimard believe in the character completely. When Gallimard compliments Song on the performance, Song debates him on the merits of Madame Butterfly. Song criticizes the opera as a fantasy about a submissive Asian woman and a cruel white man. Song challenges Gallimard to come to the Peking Opera and expand his mind.
The setting is Gallimard’s apartment in Beijing in 1960. Gallimard returns home after meeting Song and discusses the event with his wife. They joke about how proud the Chinese are that their civilization is old. After hearing about Song’s performance, Helga hums the music and dances around the room. Gallimard tries to explain why Chinese people actually hate the opera. Helga wonders why they can’t just hear it as beautiful music. Then she asks, “So, what’s in their opera?” Gallimard doesn’t know, but he’s sure it must be old.
The setting is a Chinese opera house in Beijing in 1960. It takes four weeks for Gallimard to locate the Chinese opera and attend a performance. The room is hot, full of smoke, and crowded with unwashed people. After the performance, Song and Gallimard walk to Song’s home. Song asks Gallimard for a light, but Gallimard doesn’t smoke. Song lights the cigarette and talks about the fascination Caucasian men have with delicate Asian women. Gallimard reminds Song that such fascination is imperialist. Song replies that “sometimes, it is also mutual.”
The setting is Gallimard’s apartment in Beijing in 1960. Gallimard returns home after his visit to the Chinese opera. He lies to Helga and tells her that he’s been at a reception for a visiting scholar. Helga replies that she’s been to a martial arts exhibition. Gallimard wonders why he has lied to his wife. That night, Marc from school appears in Gallimard’s dreams. Marc assures Gallimard that Song’s words (“Sometimes, it is mutual”) are a direct invitation from Song. Marc reminds Gallimard of his lifelong hopes for a beautiful girl who wants him and urges Gallimard to act. Marc leaves, and Song appears onstage, starting to disrobe. Song calls Gallimard early the next morning and asks him to return to the opera the next Thursday.
The scene is set in Song’s apartment in Beijing in 1960. Gallimard explains that he’s had short meetings with Song for several weeks. This is his first invitation to enter Song’s apartment. Song, wearing Western clothing – an elegant gown – from the 1920s, shows Gallimard a photo of Song’s father and offers Gallimard tea. But then Song becomes shy and expresses fear of scandal. Song explains that wearing Western dress and entertaining a man alone are forward actions and then claims to be a modest Chinese girl. Gallimard leaves. He consoles himself with the evidence that Song feels inferior to him.
The setting is the French embassy in Beijing in 1960. Gallimard recalls an image from Madame Butterfly, of a butterfly pinned through its heart and left to die. He decides to find out if Song is such a butterfly. He doesn’t call or write Song for five weeks. Marc reappears in Gallimard’s mind and reminds Gallimard of Isabelle, a girl everyone wanted but only Gallimard got “to ball.” Gallimard recalls how Isabelle, during sex in the bushes one night, got on top and pounded him “into the dirt,” a horrifying experience. Nevertheless, Gallimard assures Marc, the sex was great. Six weeks later, letters from Song begin to arrive. The letters grow more desperate. When Song writes, “I have already given you my shame,” Gallimard knows Song is turning on his needle. Gallimard has finally gained power over a beautiful woman, but it makes him feel sick.
The setting is Ambassador Toulon’s residence in Beijing in 1960. Ambassador Toulon asks Gallimard for a word. Toulon expresses regret that France has lost Indochina, or Vietnam. Toulon then promotes Gallimard to the position of vice-consul. Toulon explains that he’s heard rumors that Gallimard gets along well with the Chinese. Gallimard realizes that, in the eyes of his colleagues, his visits to Song have initiated him into the way of the world.
The setting is Song’s apartment in Beijing in 1960. Gallimard knocks on Song’s door. Song is taken aback to see him after an absence of eight weeks, but Gallimard insists on discovering if Song is his Butterfly. He declares his love for Song. They begin to kiss and caress. Song insists on remaining clothed, as a modest Chinese girl should. Song turns off the lights and sings passages from Puccini. Gallimard translates some of the lyrics as “All ecstatic with love, the heavens are filled with laughter.”
Scenes 6 through 13, which are set in Beijing in 1960, advance the rising action of both the romance and the espionage plot lines. The scenes also deepen the audience’s understanding of the two main characters. The staging, although still very simple, is more conventional than in Scenes 1–5. Only one scene is on stage at any given time and the scenes take place in chronological order. This conventional staging encourages the audience to perceive Scenes 6 to 13 as reconstructions of actual events.
The romance begins in Scene 6, when Gallimard hears Song, dressed as a Japanese woman, perform the death scene from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Song’s performance moves Gallimard deeply. He believes this girl and wants to take her in his arms. Yet when Gallimard compliments Song for the performance, Song reminds him of Japanese imperialism over China. Song also objects that Madame Butterfly involves a favorite fantasy of Westerners: the submissive Asian woman and the cruel white man. Although Song’s feminist and Communist criticisms directly contradict Gallimard’s ideal of submissive female behavior, Gallimard persists in seeing Song as his Butterfly. In the subsequent scenes, Song plays along with Gallimard’s delusions and acts the part of a modest, traditional Chinese woman whose Western sophistication is merely a veneer.
In Scene 10, Gallimard enters Song’s apartment for the first time. Song has invited him, but once Gallimard is there, Song becomes nervous about being alone with him. Song confesses to never having invited a man to the flat before and asks Gallimard to leave. In Scene 11, it’s Gallimard’s turn to play hard to get. He stops visiting Song and does not respond to Song’s increasingly desperate letters. Two lovers playing hard to get with each other is a standard plot device in romance, and the references to Madame Butterfly have set up audience expectations of a traditional heterosexual love story.
The espionage thread of the plot emerges in Scene 12, when Toulon, the French ambassador, promotes Gallimard to vice-consul. Ironically, Gallimard’s affair with Song has led to this promotion. Gallimard’s superiors notice that Gallimard has a new confidence, and they’ve heard rumors about his beautiful Chinese mistress. Gallimard’s superiors assume he will easily be able to gather information because he clearly gets along with the Chinese. Gallimard seems oblivious to his superiors’ assumptions and his entire focus is on the possibility of a love affair with Song.
By the end of Scene 13 (and Act One) it’s apparent that a love affair is beginning, though the specific sexual activities in the affair are neither named nor shown. Instead, the lovers, Gallimard and Song, express their emotions through music and lyrics from Madame Butterfly.
Scenes 6 to 13 also provide additional information about the personal histories and inner lives of Gallimard and Song. As in the opening five scenes, Gallimard serves as the narrator, and the audience observes the action through Gallimard’s point of view. Scenes 7 and 9 provide glimpses into Gallimard’s married life. He seems to have a friendly, though not passionate, relationship with his wife, Helga. In Scene 9, after seeing Song perform in a Chinese opera, he lies to Helga about where he’s been—a sign that he is already planning to be unfaithful to her. After this lie, he indulges in an imaginary conversation with Marc. This interior dialogue reveals Gallimard’s emotional adolescence. Although he is thirty-nine years old, he still measures his own sexuality against that of his playboy friend from university days.
Song’s comments in Scene 6 seem to conform to Chinese Communist propaganda, but in Scene 8, Song can’t stand to smell the Chinese opera audience and makes disparaging comments about “Art for the masses.” Then, in Scene 10, as Gallimard looks at a picture of Song’s father, Song remarks, “It is very good that he did not live to see the Revolution. They would, no doubt, have made him kneel on broken glass.” Song’s comments are clues that Song might not be totally loyal to the Chinese Communist government.
The twin plots of romance and espionage converge in Scene 13. Gallimard’s new promotion gives him the confidence to visit Song again. As he pleads for Song’s love, he declares that there should be no more secrets kept between them. The fact that Gallimard has just been promoted to a position of intelligence gathering gives this declaration more than one possible meaning.