Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 1993

Fact is definitely stranger than fiction. A weird little story in the New York Times (May 1986) inspired playwright David Henry Hwang to write “M. Butterfly”, the Tony-Award-winning Best Play of 1988. The North Coast Repertory Theatre is the first local company to produce this brilliant, beautiful play (August 12-September 19).

Billed as “a story so bizarre it could only be true”, the piece concerns Gallimard, a French diplomat who falls in love with Song Leling, a Chinese opera star embodying his fantasy of the Oriental woman.   They have an affair that spans twenty years, after which Gallimard learns that Song is a Communist spy — and a man.

“At the core [of the play],” playwright Hwang told me last year, when the national touring company came through, “is the self-delusion.   The degree to which we seduce ourselves in love… ” According to Hwang, the drama is a “deconstructed” version of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. “The Frenchman fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and his lover is Butterfly.   By the end of the piece, he realizes that it is he who has been Butterfly, in that the Frenchman has been duped by love; the Chinese spy, who exploited that love, is therefore the real Pinkerton.”

But as strange as the tale is in dramatic form (Hwang also wrote the screenplay, currently being filmed by David Cronenberg), the true story is far more outrageous.   The real cast of characters comprises Bernard Boursicot, age 20, who met Shi Peipu, age 26, in 1964.   Although Shi had been a singer in the Peking Opera, Boursicot had never seen him perform.   Not only that, but he’d never seen his lover dressed as a woman.   Boursicot believed that Shi was brought up as a boy because of family pressure about producing sons.   Shi insisted that he never told Boursicot he was female; it was a misunderstanding he never corrected.

When they began having an affair, they made love rarely, and only in the dark.   Boursicot thought his lover’s extreme sexual shyness was Chinese custom. In 1965, Shi claimed to be pregnant. Several months later, Bertrand appeared (probably a black-market baby).    Soon after, Boursicot left China , but maintained contact with Shi for many years.  

During the Cultural Revolution, Boursicot passed classified French documents to the Chinese, in an effort to protect his lover and son.   In 1982, he managed to get Shi and Bertrand, then 16, out of China .   They came to Paris , where both “parents” were arrested for espionage.   During the trial, while Boursicot was in prison, he learned that Shi had been identified as a man.   For six months, he refused to believe it.   Finally, when they were placed in a small room together, Boursicot asked for direct evidence.   Shortly afterward, he slit his throat.   But he survived, to become the laughingstock of his country, which is how the play begins.

Theatrically speaking, both leading roles are daunting. British-born Ron Choularton, who’s triumphed in a number of challenging parts around town, from comedies (“The Foreigner”) to playful mysteries (“Sleuth”, “Corpse”) to searing dramas (“Breaking the Code”), plays Gallimard.   Taiwan-born Peter Smith plays Song.

“I fear for both of us,” Choularton confesses, and Smith nods.   They animatedly discuss whether Gallimard really knew about Song, and whether Song really loved Gallimard.    They’re working hard to get to the bottom of these enigmatic characters. Smith faces a number of firsts: he’s never played an Asian (“non-traditional casting has worked to my advantage”), he’s never done drag (“I worry about sustaining a woman’s voice for that long”) and he’s never done a nude scene.   Two months before the opening, he’d already shed eleven pounds. And Choularton was being fitted with lifts, since both men are about the same height.

All that doesn’t bother director Olive Blakistone, who cast the two after seeing them together once during audition. But the production is “a little scary” for her, too.   She’s taking a chance on the nude scene (when Song reveals himself to Gallimard). “Our chance-taking [at North Coast Rep] usually pays off,” she avows. Blakistone is unequivocally confident about her actors.   “Ron is somewhat slight,” she admits, “but he has a tremendous presence onstage.   And I have no doubt that Peter can be soft, feminine; they work wonderfully together.”

Everyone obsesses about making the self-delusion believable.   Choularton harks back to his former marriage.   “Even with me friends,” he says in his thick Manchester accent, “people do things you don’t like, and you just phase it out and totally forget it.” Smith picks up the thread: “If you can believe in the power of the mind to move objects, it should be easy to believe in something like this.”

True-story post-script: Both Boursicot and Shi served time in prison; both have since been pardoned.   Boursicot lives with a gay lover; son Bertrand lives with, and supports Shi, serving as his dresser. Contact among the three is rare, but apparently no one has any regrets. “When I believed it,” Boursicot is quoted as saying, “it was a beautiful story.”

©1993 Patté Productions Inc.