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Scene 1 is set in the present, in Gallimard’s prison cell in Paris. Gallimard reads a critic’s review of Madame Butterfly. The critic expresses deep sympathy for the Butterfly and calls Pinkerton, the main character of the opera, a cad. Gallimard agrees but quips that very few men would pass up the opportunity to be Pinkerton.
Scene 2 is set in 1960, in Gallimard and Song’s flat in Beijing. Gallimard has secured this flat for Song, and he visits Song, his Butterfly, a few times each week. Song explains that being with a Western man is exciting because Western men are not threatened by a women’s education. Song then asks Gallimard for his ideas on what is happening in Vietnam. Gallimard protests that he doesn’t want to bring his work home, but Song wants to be able to imagine Gallimard as a man making important decisions. As the scene ends, Toulon, the French consul, enters and sits at a desk.
The setting is the French Embassy, Beijing, in 1961. The set change from Scene 2 happens when Gallimard crosses downstage and the spotlight shifts to Toulon at the desk. Song stays upstage, watching. Toulon asks Gallimard how he thinks the Chinese would react if the United States were to bomb North Vietnam. Gallimard thinks the Chinese don’t really like Ho Chi Minh. Toulon complains that the United States did not help France hold on to Vietnam and now they want to take it for themselves. Toulon then repeats rumors he’s heard about Gallimard’s gorgeous “native mistress,” which Toulon thinks gives Gallimard inside knowledge. Gallimard claims that Asian people want to associate with wealth and power and predicts that the Vietnamese will welcome the Americans. Gallimard worries about the gossip about himself and Song but then realizes he now belongs to an exclusive club. Toulon leaves the scene, and Gallimard moves toward Song. Just then, Comrade Chin enters. Gallimard protests, but Song insists that the audience needs Comrade Chin to understand the story. Gallimard resigns himself to being laughed at.
The setting is Gallimard and Song’s flat in Beijing in 1961. Comrade Chin interviews Song and writes down the information Song has extracted from Gallimard, listing American plans for increasing the number of troops in Vietnam. Comrade Chin asks why Song is wearing a dress. Song says the dress is a disguise. Comrade Chin warns Song against violating Communist Party principles and reminds Song that there is no homosexuality in China. Gallimard emerges from the wings as Comrade Chin leaves.
The scene takes place in Beijing between 1961 and 1963. Gallimard lies down in Song’s lap, and Song strokes his forehead. Gallimard addresses the audience and describes their intimate routine of sexual pleasure and talking about Gallimard’s life. Helga, Gallimard’s wife, enters and plays a scene with Gallimard downstage. Song remains upstage, listening. Helga wants Gallimard to visit Dr. Bolleart for tests to determine why they have been unable to conceive a child. Helga reminds Gallimard that time is running out and exits the stage. Song reminds Gallimard that in Imperial China, a man could replace an infertile wife. Song admits to wanting to have Gallimard’s child. Song makes Gallimard promise not to go see Dr. Bolleart, the “Western quack.”
The scene takes place in Beijing in 1963. At a party at the Austrian embassy, Gallimard meets Renee, a young woman in a revealing gown. He brags about advising the Americans that “Diem must go” from Vietnam. Renee tells him she’s a student and that her father exports useless stuff to the Third World. Renee asks Gallimard if he wants to fool around. Gallimard begins what he refers to as his first extramarital affair. Renee is beautiful and uninhibited—a bit too uninhibited for Gallimard’s approval. She talks about penis size and its inverse relationship to ego size. Gallimard keeps up the affair with Renee partly because he knows Song, his Butterfly, is at home waiting for him, alone and crying.
Toulon enters the scene. As he and Gallimard talk, Song enters the scene and begins a drunken dance. Toulon confides to Gallimard that the United States is backing an assassination attempt on President Diem of Vietnam. Gallimard considers that a wise move. Toulon orders Gallimard to enter that opinion into his report. Gallimard is furious because he realizes Toulon has shifted responsibility onto Gallimard’s shoulders. Gallimard storms off to see Renée but realizes he needs Song’s wiser advice.
At Song’s apartment, Gallimard finds Song drunk. Song reproaches Gallimard for staying away and complains about being left alone. Gallimard tells Song he wants to see Song naked. Song responds with outraged modesty and challenges Gallimard to strip her like the “cad” he is. Gallimard advances toward his Butterfly to undress her. However, he suddenly experiences “something very close to love.” He kneels and begs Song’s forgiveness. Song tells him she’s pregnant, an announcement to which Gallimard responds, “I want to marry you!”
The staging of Scene 1 in Gallimard’s prison cell reminds the audience that they witness the events of the play through Gallimard’s point of view. Gallimard continues his role as narrator as well as acting the role of his former self. Scenes 2 through 6 are flashbacks presented in chronological order, which develop the rising action of several entwined plot lines: the romance between Gallimard and Song; Gallimard’s career gathering intelligence about Chinese public opinion; and Song’s mission of gathering intelligence through Gallimard.
The love story makes the double espionage story possible. Scene 2 takes place in a flat that Gallimard has rented for Song and where he is a regular visitor. Song flatters Gallimard’s ego by saying, “I want to be impressed by my man.” Gallimard responds by sharing details about his work, underscoring how easily he is swayed by his fantasy of a submissive woman. In Scene 3, Ambassador Toulon and Gallimard discuss the entry of the United States into the Vietnam War. This discussion helps the audience understand why both Song and Gallimard are gathering intelligence. In Scene 4, the espionage plot turns serious. In this scene, Comrade Chin visits Gallimard and Song’s flat and writes down the facts that Song has gathered. Comrade Chin, who is clearly Song’s Communist Party handler, issues a subtle threat by reminding Song that homosexuality is illegal in China. The audience now understands that Butterfly is actually a homosexual man and that he is being pressured into spying on Gallimard. At this point, Gallimard seems unaware of these facts.
Song’s affair with Gallimard continues to mirror the plot of Madame Butterfly. Song acts feminine, submissive, and shy, embodying Gallimard’s perfect woman. By maintaining the Puccini pose, Song keeps Gallimard believing in their romance. Scene 5 adds a subplot: a love triangle among Gallimard, Song, and Helga, based on competition about reproduction. Gallimard’s wife insists on his seeing a doctor, indicating that Gallimard and Helga have been trying to have a child. Therefore, whatever form of sex Gallimard is having with Song, he is also having intercourse with his wife. Gallimard admits to Song: “I feel like God himself is laughing at me if I can’t produce a child.” Song’s response is to urge Gallimard to set aside his wife for a more fertile woman, and Song confesses to wanting Gallimard’s child. Due to the revelations of Song’s gender in Scene 4, the audience recognizes Song’s declaration in Scene 5 as a major complication in the plot to which Gallimard seems oblivious.
In Scene 6, Gallimard has an intense affair with Renee, a strong, sexually uninhibited Western woman. This second romantic triangle serves many functions. Renee, whose father is an exporter, represents a capitalist point of view, in which profit and personal pleasure prevail. Renee excites Gallimard, but her frank sexual talk also diminishes him. Gallimard calls Renee “my first extramarital affair,” a label that makes the audience even more curious about the nature of his relationship to Song. Renee’s forcefulness threatens Gallimard and makes him idealize Song’s submissive femininity even more.
The affair with Renee also sparks Gallimard’s desire to see Song naked. Song manages to refuse Gallimard’s request by accusing him of being a “cad” and forcing him to beg her forgiveness. Gallimard desists because he feels something akin to love for Song. Yet Song recognizes that more is needed to maintain the illusion of femininity. Song claims to be pregnant, and Gallimard immediately wants to marry Song, his Butterfly.
As in Scene 5, the audience knows more about reality than Gallimard does. Gallimard is caught up with the vision of himself as a father, which in his own mind enhances his masculinity. Song counts on that self-delusion and plays the pregnancy card. The audience realizes why Song is desperate to maintain the relationship with Gallimard and wonders how Song will produce a child.