Behind the Truth and Fiction of 'M. Butterfly'

When David Henry Hwang wrote his Tony award-winning play, "M. Butterfly," he had never met the men on whom he based its unusual love story. He had only read about it in the newspapers.

And yet, despite taking some factual liberties--changing names and ages and giving one character a wife--his portraits were devastatingly on target, according to writer Joyce Wadler.

Wadler is writing a book about the real lives behind "M. Butterfly"--Bernard Boursicot, a one-time French diplomat who was jailed for passing secrets to his Chinese lover of 18 years, Shi Peipu.

Boursicot found out in prison that the woman he loved for 18 years was a man. And that he was not the father of the son he believed Peipu bore him when he was away on a trip.

The San Diego Playgoers San Diego premiere of the play opened Wednesday and continues through Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St.

Wadler, whose book is due out from Bantam Books at the end of 1992 or early 1993, said she approached her work as "a psychological mystery."

"We open the book saying we had a man who made love to a man for 18 years and he didn't know, and his life was destroyed. How is this possible?" she said.

Given Hwang's indirect knowledge of the case, his psychological insights amazed Wadler.

In 1990, Wadler took Boursicot to a London production of "M. Butterfly," starring Anthony Hopkins. This was after Boursicot and Peipu had been paroled.

"I thought this might be very difficult for him because the character kills himself in prison," Wadler said. "In real life, he did attempt to kill himself in prison. It wasn't in any of the American papers. Yet Hwang was so psychologically on target; I thought that was one of the wonderful things about the play.

"So we went, and I was curious about how he would feel about it, but it was OK. He was a little apprehensive, but he didn't break down, he didn't cry. He felt that politically the play wasn't what his story was about, and he laughed and said, 'What happened to the kid? Did they just discard the kid?'

"But he liked it and respected it."

Although Wadler has become a close friend of Boursicot and was packing to spend New Year's Eve with him and some friends at the time of the interview, Peipu--who lives separately with the son Boursicot thought was his--is not cooperating with the book.

Still, Wadler met Peipu. She interviewed him for a People magazine article she wrote not long after the Broadway show, which opened in 1988, inspired her to track the story further.

"Peipu never really wanted to discuss his private life," she said. "All Shi really wanted to talk about was opera and performing and being an artist."

One key to the story that Hwang did miss was Boursicot's inexperience at the time of the romance, she said.

"Bernard was not a married middle-aged French diplomat (as in the play). He was a 20-year-old kid on his first diplomatic trip to China who was desperate to lose his virginity. The French had just opened up an office in Beijing. Shi was a great storyteller, a librettist from the Peking Opera."

But what Hwang does get right, she said, is casting Boursicot as a victim of his own romantic fantasies. He had an uncanny ability to believe what he wanted to believe.

He had actually been involved with a woman in Paris, whom he left for Peipu. And, even though he later did move into a homosexual affair with another man during the course of their relationship, he maintains--and Wadler believes him--that he never knew the truth about Peipu.

"The bottom line is yes, I believe that Bernard felt for all that time that he felt he was making love to a woman, and I think Peipu was in love with him also.

"Bernard considers himself a spy for love, who became a spy for the people he loved. Bernard was a guy who grew up on wide-screen movies and wanted to star in a great adventure. He met someone whose profession was being a librettist and told him a wonderful story.

"And kept changing it so he could be the star."

"Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" changed Charles Busch's life.

"It is a miracle," said Busch, who earned his living as an office temp before he penned his bizarrely comic one-act play about an intense rivalry between two vampire lesbians spanning thousands of years.

"Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," which is paired with another Busch one-act, "Sleeping Beauty or Coma," made its San Diego premiere at the Ruse Theatre, formerly known as the Marquis, Tuesday and runs through June 25. In August, Sweetooth Comedy Theatre will present the shows.

"In 1984, I was not the greatest success financially," Busch said on the phone from his New York home. "Ken Elliott, my longtime director, applied to law school to get out of theater. Then, we went to see a friend of ours do a performance art piece at an after-hours bar/art gallery on the Lower East Side of Greenwich Village called the Limbo Lounge. I said, 'Wouldn't it be fun to put on a little skit with our friends?'

"I went for a historical period that would be cheap to costume, so I picked Ancient Sodom because it was mostly G-strings and stuff people had in their closets. We needed lines to say, so I wrote it between phone calls working as a temp receptionist.

"We spent $36 on the whole thing. . . . "People would line up down the block, especially when we did 'Vampire Lesbians.' "

Busch and his friends raised $55,000 to move "Vampire Lesbians" and "Sleeping Beauty" to a real Off Broadway Theatre, where it opened in June of 1985.

Despite some initial setbacks--the New York Times' initial reluctance to run the name of the show (they ultimately did) and their bank's reluctance to put the name of the show on the account (they ultimately did, too)--they were off and vamping.

The show, which drew a rave from the New York Times, ran for five years, becoming the longest running non-musical in the history of Off Broadway.

And, for the way it changed his life, Busch, 37, said he will always be grateful.

He has since written three pilots for CBS, a libretto for a musical and a novel.

But he thanks the good old "Vampire Lesbians" for his success.

"My goal was to be able to earn a living in my chosen profession. And that's something I got from 'Vampire Lesbians.' "

CRITIC'S CHOICE

RINGING IN THE NEW YEAR WITH A LAUGH

When a big-shot tenor passes out before his sold-out performance, what's a theater manager--who doesn't want to return any of the box office money--to do? Find someone quickly who can pass for the tenor. And if in the meantime, the first tenor awakes. . . . "Lend Me a Tenor" may find its laughs in a piffle of a plot--but it does find its laughs. And thanks to some fine performances, it's a sweet, light-hearted way to spend the New Year.

The San Diego Actors Theatre production of "Lend Me a Tenor" closes Sunday with performances Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday performances at 6 and 9 p.m. and a Sunday performance at 7 p.m. The show is at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse, 1620 6th Ave., 235-8025 or 268-4494.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°