Part of the fun and fascination with seeing “M. Butterfly” when it opened on Broadway in 1988 was the furious spate of questions it triggered once you learned the story was based on a real-life event.
This really happened?
How could he be so blind?
The play — about the scandalous love affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera star, starting in 1960s Maoist China during the tense run-up to the Vietnam War — was written by then little-known playwright David Henry Hwang. It went on to win three Tony Awards (including best play), ran for nearly two years and spawned a film starring Jeremy Irons.
Nearly 30 years later, after turning down various offers to revive it, Hwang has updated the script, and a new production — directed by Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”) and starring Clive Owen as the diplomat, Gallimard — will open at the Cort Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 26.
“It’s always hard to know why something clicks with audiences,” Hwang says. “But there’s a simple yet intriguing question here: How could this man, this diplomat, not have known so much about a lover he had a 20-year affair with?”
Now audiences may have a new question to consider:
Could this ever happen today?
For those unfamiliar with the show and its secret, we’ll keep mum. The actual nature of it is, in some ways, immaterial. Fair to say it’s all tied up with sexist notions of women, Western misperceptions of the East and Asian assumptions of the West. Throw in references to Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly,” some Communist spies and one whopper of a lie, and you’ve got the messy gist of it.
“It’s an astonishing story that seems impossible today given the internet and our globalized world,” says Broadway newcomer Jin Ha, a native of Seoul, South Korea, later raised in Connecticut, who plays the opera star Song Liling.
It’s true — in an era saturated with social media, most secrets can be exposed with a few clicks of a Google search. And yet this story feels more relevant than ever.
“There’s this weird dichotomy today,” says Ha. “We live in a world where the personal, the private, is so public. But what you see on social media — it’s false, it’s all curated. Our ‘public private,’ so to speak, often bears little relation to our actual private life.”
How long one can keep a secret today may still be up for debate. But what’s undeniable is how much more open and frank we are now when it comes to issues of sexuality. Given that, Hwang felt a rewrite of the script was in order.
Over the past year, he collaborated with director Taymor and star Clive Owen, who was eager to delve into his character. Whenever Owen was in New York, the three would gather round Taymor’s kitchen table and review the script. Taymor encouraged Hwang to incorporate more details from the original tale that inspired the play. (Hwang based his story on a two-paragraph news item about a 1980s French court case, but many more details have since come to light.)
“We all shared this idea that nothing in the play was necessarily written in stone,” says Hwang.
Anyone who’s ever known a writer knows how unusual it is for one to be so willing — eager, even — to have others pull apart his work. And to then have to rewrite it.
“Well, it is a little unusual,” says Hwang, chuckling. “People tend to rewrite shows that didn’t do so well. But I don’t know — I feel like theater is alive, and art is about being willing to look at things again, to go on a journey to face the unknown. That’s what makes it exciting.”
In an odd way, too, Hwang felt like he wasn’t alone.
“It was kind of like having a collaboration with me at age 27.”
And what’s his 27-year-old self like as a collaborator?
“There were times I thought, ‘Wow, I’m pretty impressed I thought of that at that age.’ Then there were other times where I’d go, ‘Mmm . . . I could do that a little better today.’ ”
If Hwang needed any more encouragement, the headlines of recent months were enough to confirm that the play seems once again destined to have a real impact.
“If you look at the way our president is talking about North Korea and the need to just sort of be tough — as if somehow that’ll solve everything — that’s very much in keeping with Gallimard’s mindset, and his misperception of both China and Song Liling,” Hwang says. “The way things are going today, it feels very much like an ‘M. Butterfly’ kind of world.”
RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES
The real-life story behind the play “M. Butterfly” comes from a news article David Henry Hwang read in the mid-1980s. His play is largely a work of fiction, aside from the astounding secret at the heart of this tale, and its two main characters.
“But I’ve never actually met them,” says Hwang.
Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu — aka the real Gallimard and Song Liling — met in Beijing in 1964 when Boursicot was 20; Shi, 26. In the play, Gallimard is a high-level diplomat; in reality, Boursicot was a lowly accountant at the French embassy in Beijing. After he and Shi became lovers, they passed French documents to Chinese officials. They were convicted of espionage in Paris in 1986 and served one year in prison, after which they were pardoned. Shi, at age 70, died in Paris in 2009. Boursicot lives today in a nursing home in Brittany, and has been known to show up at “M. Butterfly” productions.
But Hwang has no desire to meet the man.
“There’s a part of me that’s curious,” he says. “And parts of the rewrite are based on the case. But I don’t know . . . going into the rewrite, I think I was enjoying revisiting and spending more time with the Gallimard and Song Liling that were in my mind, as opposed to the real people.”
— JOSEPH V. AMODIO