In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries most of the major European powers were part of this colonial grab for power and territory; and after the American Civil War, so was the United States. Almost immediately this translated into an East/West schism in which both sides harbored bias about each other, never really understanding the motivations of each others actions. This is the world in which Pinkerton arrives — a Nagasaki that has barely opened its doors to the West, but sees Western naivete and cultural values such that it is easy to manipulate them for money. In the case of the French, their long history of conflict in Indochina was seen by the Chinese as a perfect example of the Marxian view of the oppressed. Songs masters thought nothing of using her to glean information as well as disseminate disinformation. After all, Song was two things despised by the current Chinese government: an artist and a homosexual. She was disposable, and only useful to a point. Goro sees Cio-Cio-San as a commodity and has found Prince Yamadori, a wealthy Japanese noble who is somehow entranced by this Americanized Geisha.
And then we have the matter of love; Cio-Cio-San does not “love” Pinkerton in the modern sense; for she does not know him. He is a symbol — a way for a young and naive girl to recapture respectability, and she certainly believes the stories of romantic love and gives herself to him. Suzuki is clearly devoted and loves Cio-Cio-San; Pinkerton, we are not certain, is capable of love, even with Kate, his American wife. He seems to be doing the proper things expected of him as an Officer, but certainly not out of any internal morality. This, however, does not seem to be the case with Song and Gallimard — what began as an obsession, an itch if you will, turns into love, at least on some level — two decades is more than a sexual dalliance. Yet, two things puzzle the audience: how could Gallimard not know Song was a man, even with the lights off, and if he truly loved Song, why would that matter in the end?
Finally, it is in the finale of both works that we find the pathos of similarity. Both Gallimard and Cio-Cio-San must decide to live with dishonor or die with what semblance of honor they can elicit.
This, for both characters, oddly juxtaposed, is their final act of power — and both die for love, albeit love unrequited. Song utters the same words as Pinkerton — “Butterfly, Butterfly,” and both live. Pinkerton will forever be shamed when he looks at his son and realizes his shameful treatment of Cio-Cio-San; Song lives, likely proof that the world is empty without what turned out to be the love of her life.
Groos, a. The Puccini Companion, Lieutenant F.B. Pinkerton, Problems in the Genesis and Performance of Madama Butterfly. New York: Norton, 1994.
Hwang, DH M. Butterfly. New York: Dramatists Play Services, Inc., 1998.
Kebede, a. “David Henry Hwangs M. Butterfly – a Critique of Western Attitudes Towards Asia.” 18 October 2009. Suite101.Com. http://north-american-playwrights.suite101.com/article.cfm/david_henry_hwangs_m_butterfly
Levin, C. “Sexuality as Masquerade: Reflections on David Cronenbergs M. Butterfly.” The Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis 12.1 (2004): 115+.
Long, John Luther. “Madame Butterfly.” 2009. Xroad.Virginia.Edu. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/LONG/header.html
Loti, Pierre. “Madame Chrysantheme.” 1908. Google.Com. http://books.google.com/books?id=iwUMAAAAIAAJ
Puccini, Giacomo. “Madama Butterfly-Synopsis.” 2005. Music With Ease. http://www.musicwithease.com/puccini-butterfly-synopsis.html
Riley, J. Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Madama Butterfly (1898) was a story from John Luther Long, an American lawyer who wrote novels based on the recollections from his sister, Jennie, who had been to Japan with her missionary husband. Butterfly was published by Century magazine, and did indeed deal with the relationship between an American Naval Officer and a Nagasaki Geisha (Long). The 1887 novel was written by Pierre Loti, the pseudonym of Julien Viaud, a French naval officer and writer. Loti was quite a prolific popular novelist, and the theme of West/East interaction was something that attracted Puccini and his librettist, David Belasco. See: (Loti).
In traditional Chinese opera, women were banned from the stage and all roles played by male performers. Female roles were called dan. Chinese opera is quite symbolic, using masks and costumes to portray emotions and behind the scenes intrigue. Often a traditional Chinese Opera will be a “play within a play,” making it the ideal symbol for both intrigue and deceit. See: (Riley).
We have not focused on the theme of sexuality in this essay, but for an interesting look at that aspect, see “Sexuality as Masquerade” (Levin)..