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M. Butterfly opens in present-day Paris. Rene Gallimard is in a small prison cell. He describes his monotonous daily routine, and then confides that he is no ordinary prisoner, but a celebrity. People talk about him at parties from Amsterdam to New York. Scene 2 shows three people at a party joking about Gallimard, and the joke obviously has something to do with sex. Scene 3 returns to Gallimard's cell, and he confides that he has been loved by the "Perfect Woman." He then says that to understand his story, the audience must know the opera Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. He describes the opera and plays some of the music from it on his tape recorder. His old school friend Marc appears as one of the characters, and Gallimard assumes the role of Pinkerton, the American sailor who wins the heart of Butterfly, the Japanese girl, and then betrays her.
Scene 4 flashes back to 1947, at a school in Aix-en-Provence, France. Marc tries to persuade Gallimard to accompany him to a party, promising that there will be plenty of girls available, but Gallimard refuses to go. He lacks confidence with girls. Scene 5 returns to Gallimard's cell, and Gallimard further explains the plot of Madame Butterfly, commenting that in real life, it is not easy to find a woman who will give herself so completely to a man. The closest to it are the girls who pose in pornographic magazines. As Gallimard pulls some of these magazines out of a crate in his cell, a pin-up girl appears, and tantalizingly disrobes. Gallimard resumes his exposition of the opera, as Comrade Chin plays the part of Suzuki, Butterfly's maid. Gallimard reveals that he married a woman, Helga, for career reasons rather than love. Then he reveals that when he was a diplomat in Beijing, he first saw "her" singing the death scene from Madame Butterfly. He does not explain who the woman was.
Scene 6 takes place in Beijing in 1960, in the house of the German Ambassador. Gallimard has just watched Song Liling sing an aria from Madame Butterfly. He tells her he was moved by the story. Song, however, expresses little enthusiasm for it. She does, however, invite Gallimard to attend the Peking Opera. After scene 7, in which Gallimard and Helga discuss Chinese arrogance, scene 8 shows a meeting between Song and Gallimard in the streets of Beijing after Gallimard has attended the Peking Opera. Song invites him to her flat. In the next scene, Gallimard lies to his wife about having met Song, and Gallimard relates a dream in which Marc urges him to begin an affair with Song. In scene 10, Gallimard relates what happened on his first visit to Song's flat. They drink tea, and Song confesses she is afraid of scandal because she is entertaining a man in her flat, which is against Chinese custom. Gallimard believes she is afraid of him.
In scene 11, Gallimard describes a strategy he devised to test Song. He makes no contact with her for five weeks. Marc reappears and together they recall Gallimard's first sexual experience. Then Gallimard tells the audience that after six weeks, Song began to write to him, pleading with him to visit her. He ignores this and subsequent letters, until he feels ashamed of making her suffer. In scene 12, Gallimard learns from Toulon, the French Ambassador, that he is to be promoted and will be in charge of the intelligence division. In scene 13, eight weeks after he last saw Song, he returns to her apartment and asks if she will surrender to him, just as Madame Butterfly surrendered to Pinkerton in Puccini's opera. Song is reluctant at first, but then they kiss and prepare to make love, although Song protests that she is inexperienced.
Act 2, Scenes 1-4
Act two begins in the present, in Gallimard's cell. Gallimard comments about Puccini's opera. Scene 2 returns to Beijing in 1960, where Gallimard and Song now live in a flat together. Song complains about how, in Chinese society, women are kept down by men, and expresses admiration for the West. The following scene takes place a year later at the French Embassy. Toulon and Gallimard discuss Vietnam. Gallimard says that if the Americans show the will to win, the Vietnamese will submit. In scene 4, Comrade Chin asks Song to find out when the Americans plan to start bombing Vietnam. Song passes on information she has gleaned from an unsuspecting Gallimard. Chin asks why Song is wearing a dress, and Song says it is because she is in disguise.
In scene 5, Gallimard relates the routine the couple settled into from 1961 to 1963. Song says she longs to bear Gallimard's child. In scene 6, Gallimard has an affair with Renee, a Western student he met at a party. Toulon tells Gallimard that the Americans are planning to assassinate the South Vietnamese leader, which is what Gallimard, in his diplomatic capacity, has been advising. But Toulon says that if anything goes wrong, no one will listen to Gallimard's advice again. Humiliated, Gallimard visits Song for the first time in three weeks. At first, he wants to dominate her, but these feelings disappear and he feels genuine love. Song tells him she is pregnant (she is lying), and he says he wants to marry her. In the next scene, Song tells Chin that she needs a baby - a Chinese baby with blond hair - so she can convince Gallimard the child is his. In scene 8, Gallimard promises to divorce his wife and marry Song. Song says she is not worthy and declines. Gallimard informs the audience that Song went away to the countryside for three months, and then returned with a child.
Scene 9 jumps forward three years, to 1966. Gallimard explains that the revolutionary situation in China made contact between Chinese and foreigners impossible. The flat the couple shared was confiscated. Gallimard is sent back to France by Toulon because of the failure of his predictions about the relationship between China and the West. During the cultural upheaval, Song is made to confess that she had been corrupted by a foreigner. She is sent to work in the fields to be "rehabilitated." In scene 10, set in 1970, Chin informs Song that she (although it is now clear that Song is really a man) is to be sent to France to spy, using Gallimard as her source of information. Scene 11 is set in Paris from 1968 to 1970. There are student demonstrations in the streets. Gallimard confesses to his wife about Song, and asks for a divorce. After Gallimard has a brief discussion with Marc, Song appears, and she and Gallimard are reunited. Some time elapses, and Song hints to the audience that she is about to undergo a transformation and that Gallimard must face the truth.
Act 3 is set in a courthouse in Paris in 1986. Song now appears as a man, dressed in a suit. He explains that Gallimard has supported him and his "son" in Paris for fifteen years. He also says that Gallimard gave him copies of sensitive documents. The judge asks Song if Gallimard knew he was a man. Song replies, in a roundabout way, that men believe what they want to believe. In scene 2, Song tries to convince Gallimard that he, Gallimard, still loves him, even though Gallimard now knows Song is a man. Gallimard asks Song why he treated him so cruelly. Song begins slowly to remove his clothes. Donning Butterfly's robes, he tells Gallimard that he is still the same Butterfly that Gallimard loved. But Gallimard, now free of twenty years of illusion, tells Song to leave. Scene 3 returns to Gallimard's cell, in the present. To the audience, he reasserts the vision of love that he had, of the perfect Oriental woman. But he realizes that it was he, not his beloved, who sacrificed everything and was be trayed. He puts on make-up, a wig, and a kimono, and rechristens himself Madame Butterfly. Then he plunges a knife into his body, committing suicide just as Butterfly does in the opera.