Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Love as Desire and Self-Delusion

Love and romance are central to the plot of the play, but the protagonist, Gallimard, is so seriously self-deluded that he cannot distinguish between his sexual fantasies and his actual desires. Gallimard, a minor diplomat, is something of a nonentity, but in his fantasy life, Gallimard is a successful, good-looking, heterosexual male. The object of his male desire is a beautiful, submissive, perfect woman who does anything he wants and is completely dependent on his love, willing to make any sacrifice for his sake. Thanks to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, a favorite opera, Gallimard’s fantasy woman is Asian and his fantasy self is a dominant Westerner. When Gallimard hears Song perform the title role from Madame Butterfly, Gallimard convinces himself his perfect woman has appeared at last. Gallimard pursues Song, and they begin a love affair.

Song has a different, reality-based agenda for the relationship with Gallimard. Like other women in traditional Chinese opera productions, Song is actually a man. Under the direction of Comrade Chin, a sinister Communist Party official, Song uses Gallimard to spy on the French and extract information about American plans for the Vietnam War. Song carefully maintains the guise of the perfect woman. Gallimard’s desire keeps him in thrall to Song, and Gallimard’s self-delusion makes it easy for Song to keep Gallimard talking.

The love affair between Gallimard and Song stretches over twenty years. For all that time, Gallimard deludes himself into believing that Song is the perfect woman. He loves this self-projected ideal so much that he denies the abundant evidence that Song is a man. Gallimard is unable to give up his masculine self-image and admit he physically loves a man. At the end of the play, Gallimard chooses to deny his own desires and sacrifice himself rather than give up his fantasy.

Sexuality as Domination and Submission

Like Marc, Gallimard’s sexual mentor from school days, Gallimard associates male sexuality with domination over women and associates female sexuality with submission to men. In prison, girlie magazines make Gallimard feel like a man, a role the magazines have been playing since Gallimard was twelve years old. Gallimard’s ideal woman allows him to do anything he wants without demanding anything in return. This prejudice appears in Gallimard’s memories of his first sexual experience, when he felt attacked because the girl liked being on top during sex. Gallimard’s relationship with his lover, Renee, also falters because Renee is too aggressive sexually.

At their first meeting, when Gallimard sees Song perform in Madame Butterfly, Gallimard reacts to Song’s death scene as an example of pure love because the woman sacrifices her life for her lover. Gallimard considers Song his personal Butterfly, so Song plays the role of a submissive woman in order to ensure Gallimard keeps coming back for more loose-lipped discussions of his work life. Ironically, Song gains more power over Gallimard by pretending to have less.

Gallimard’s recognition that Song is actually a man turns Gallimard’s entire worldview upside down. Gallimard has been acting out his own dominance fantasies, but actually Song has been the dominating partner all along. According to Gallimard’s understanding, if Song is a dominant man, then Gallimard must actually be a submissive woman, a person of no consequence except in her ability to serve her master. An honest homosexual relationship, which Song seems to offer at the end of the play, would require Gallimard to equate sexuality with equality, which would be an unacceptable loss of power to a man whose fantasy is one of total control.

Masculinity as Imperialism and Authoritarianism

When Gallimard introduces Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and explains its plot, he makes an explicit connection between sexual and cultural domination. Characters keep making this connection throughout the play. When Gallimard praises Song’s aria from Madame Butterfly, Song points out that a favorite Western fantasy is the submissive Asian woman and the cruel white man. The political opinions of Ambassador Toulon, Gallimard, and Marc make it clear that they equate masculine domination of women with Western domination of Eastern countries. The Frenchmen make no cultural distinctions between Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese people. Renee explains the achievements of capitalist enterprise in terms of male insecurity over the size of their penises. During the trial at the end of the play, Song lectures the judge about the “international rape mentality.”

The play makes less explicit but equally apt connections between masculinity and the authoritarianism of Communist China. Song’s father did not live to see the Revolution, and Song is glad about that because “They would, no doubt, have made him kneel on broken glass.” Song’s comment is a reminder that China’s rulers are brutal authoritarians. Comrade Chin, Song’s handler, is a woman who holds conventional attitudes against homosexuality and sees herself as an extension of Chairman Mao. Comrade Chin’s acceptance of masculine superiority leads her to punish Song with cruelty and exploitation. The audience is aware that when Song returns to China he will face more of the same brutality at the hands of the masculine establishment.

Theater as Expression and Exploitation

M. Butterfly has a play-within-a-play structure, and one of its main characters is an actor, so it’s not surprising that theater itself is one of the play’s major themes. The play examines the ability of theater to make people believe illusions, to reinforce prejudices, and to excite human desires. In the play, characters use theater to express their culture and their personal opinions as well as to exploit and manipulate others.

The most important play within M. Butterfly is Madame Butterfly, an opera by Puccini that is a favorite of Gallimard. The tape recorder in Gallimard’s jail cell plays music from this opera, conveniently providing much of the soundtrack of the play. However, the audience does not see the opera’s action, only Gallimard’s version of it, which is filtered through his own self-delusions. Song has to perform as Butterfly to keep Gallimard hooked.

Another play within the play is The Drunken Wife, performed by Song, a diva of the Chinese opera. It’s a traditional tale that is a big hit with the masses. After the performance, Song remarks on how popular art keeps artists poor. After the Cultural Revolution, Song is stripped of the right to perform and the privileges of being a popular actor. He is humiliated and exploited by being forced to star in a propaganda film about the rehabilitation of a homosexual actor. Song gets a chance at another star turn, as a spy in Paris. Song is arrested and tried, but he cannot stop performing, treating the witness stand as a stage and the judge as a personal audience.