M. Butterfly is a 1988 play by David Henry Hwang, which deals with themes about cultural stereotypes of East vs West (see Orientalism), and is loosely based on the real life relationship between Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu.
The play was inspired by the opera Madame Butterfly. Some critics have suggested that the opera is racist and sexist for its portrayal of Asian women as being the 'ideal woman' due to their supposed submissiveness and passivity. The opera fits into a longer tradition, as outlined in Edward Said's Orientalism, for example, of Western writers imaging and shaping the East according to their own prejudices. The play M. Butterfly is an attempt to deal with and subvert these patterns.citation needed
The main character, Rene Gallimard, is a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. He falls in love with a beautiful opera singer, Song Liling, who is, unbeknownst to Gallimard, a man masquerading as a woman. (Note that in traditional Beijing opera, women's roles were performed by male dan, or specialists in feminine roles.) The singer spies on Gallimard for the Chinese government, using Gallimard's own fantasies of submissive oriental femininity to deceive and manipulate him. After an affair spanning twenty years, the truth is revealed and Gallimard is tried and convicted of treason. Imprisoned, Gallimard retreats into a fantasy world rather than acknowledge that his 'perfect woman' is in fact a man, ultimately committing suicide in his cell.
M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Mar 20, 1988. It was directed by John Dexter. The original cast featured John Lithgow as Gallimard and B.D. Wong as Song Liling. David Dukes, Anthony Hopkins, Tony Randall, and John Rubenstein also played Gallimard during the original run.
The play was made into a 1993 movie directed by David Cronenberg.