Strange Butterfly: Fritz Lang's Harakiri (1919)

by John Mucci and Richard Felnagle
Part 4: David Belasco's “Madame Butterfly” (1900)

David Belasco was (at least in his own estimation) the most important producer/playwright of the American theatre at the turn of the century. According to The Life of David Belasco, written by his son,

Some little while before the production of "Naughty Anthony," Belasco had received from a stranger a letter in which he was urged to read a story called "Madame Butterfly" by John Luther Long, with a view to making it into a play. When anxiously casting about for some means of providing required reinforcement for his farce ["Anthony"] he chanced to recollect that suggestion, procured a copy of Long's book containing his tragic tale, read it, and was so much impressed by the possibilities, which he perceived of basing on it a striking theatrical novelty, that he entered into communication with Long and arranged with him for the use of his story. (477)

Belasco kept much of the dialogue in Long’s story but cleverly compressed all the key incidents into a single location over a twenty-four hour period.
A young David Belasco (1853-1931), nicknamed "The Bishop of Broadway" because he liked to wear his collars backward to appear as if he were a cleric.
​​In the play, the curtain rises on Madame Butterfly and her servant Suzuki. Butterfly is complaining that she is running out of money and we hear again how Pinkerton promised to return when the robins nest again. The American consul, Sharpless, arrives with the marriage broker Nakodo, representing a rich client, Yamadori. Sharpless asks Nakodo about Butterfly's family, but Nakodo reveals that they have rejected her. She is an outcast (as in Long’s story).

Butterfly then says, “Before I marry Lef-ten-ant B. F. Pinkerton, my honorable Father die – he's officer. These are his sword . . . 'tis written . . .” and Nakodo reads the inscription on the sword: “To die with honor, when one can no longer live with honor.” Butterfly then continues, "He kill' himself accoun' he soldier of Emperor an' defeat in battle. Then we get—O—ver' poor. Me? I go dance liddle. Also I thing if some rich man wish me, I gettin' marry for a while, accoun' my grandmother [ . . . ] don't got no food, no obi." For that reason, she had allowed Nakodo to bring Pinkerton to meet her—all these years ago.
Evelyn Millard, whom Puccini saw in Belasco's play, in London.
Then, Yamadori enters. His speech is refined, and he greets Sharpless, saying, “Always a pleasure to meet you here or in New York.” Butterfly observes, “Aevery time he come home, get 'nother woman: must have mor'en eight now.” Yamadori then protests, “But I married them all . . .”

She then explains that her marriage to Pinkerton is really an American marriage. Japanese men can have multiple wives and divorce them at will, but American divorce requires an action by a judge.

All the men chuckle at how stupid she is, and in the middle of all this, she thinks she hears a noise in the harbor. Out of Butterfly’s hearing, Sharpless tells the men that Pinkerton's ship was due the previous day, and Pinkerton is bringing along his wife.
From Opera Lyra Ottawa's 2014 production of Puccini's opera, Prince Yamadori (left) gets a cool reception from Cho-Cho-San as Sharpless and the marriage broker observe.
Yamadori and Nakodo leave, and Sharpless produces a letter that he had previously received from Pinkerton. He reads to Butterfly: “Find about about that little Jap girl. What has become of her? It might be awkward now. If little Butterfly still remembers me, perhaps you can help me out and make her understand.”

[This letter is entirely Belasco's invention, made necessary by the compression of the time period for the action.]

To Sharpless's astonishment, the letter actually makes Butterfly happy. At this point, little Trouble enters, and Sharpless learns for the first time that Pinkerton fathered a child before departing.

Sharpless then leaves, vowing to tell Pinkerton about his child. The boom of a ship's cannon is heard, and Butterfly grabs her binoculars and she sees it is Pinkerton's ship.

Sharpless reads Pinkerton's letter to Cho-Cho-San in a 2009 production of Puccini's opera, produced by La Musica Lirica.
Butterfly orders Suzuki to help her festoon the little house with flowers to make it ready for Pinkerton's return. Then, they begin an all-night vigil.

In great measure, the popularity of Belasco's play had to do with how well he realized this sequence with complicated lighting and sound effects showing the transition from sunset to night to dawn. Belasco was actually famous for his lighting effects. We assume music was played during this sequence—and that sequence is the inspiration for the so-called "Humming Chorus" in Puccini's opera—but for the time, the lighting effects were supposed to have been a real show-stopper.

In the morning, Butterfly wakes and removes herself and Trouble from the scene (“to watch from liddle look out place.”)

Sharpless then enters with Pinkerton, who tries to explain: 

I thought when I left this house, the few tears, sobs, little polite regrets, would be over as I crossed the threshold. I started to come back for a minute, but I said to myself: ‘Don't do it; by this time, she's ringing your gold pieces to make sure they're good.’ You know that class of Japanese girl.

Pinkerton then gives Sharpless an envelope with more money for Butterfly.

Sharpless asks how Pinkerton's wife took the news that he has a child. “Well, it was rather rough on her, — only married four months. Sharpless, my Kate's an angel, — she offered to take the child . . . made me promise I'd speak of it to Butterfly.” However, as Pinkerton hears Butterfly returning, he runs out before she can see him. [This sequence is Belasco's invention. In Long's story, Butterfly and Suzuki see Pinkerton from a distance and Sharpless meets his wife, but otherwise, Pinkerton does not appear again in Long's story after he leaves Japan.]

Butterfly then asks if Sharpless explained to Pinkerton about the baby, and he lies. “You know he can't leave the ship just yet.” He hands her an envelope of money and adds, “This is in remembrance of the past. He wishes you to be always happy, to have the best of luck; he hopes to see you soon — and — ”

Belasco and his lighting technician Louis Hartman working on the special effects for the vigil scene in Madame Butterfly
Cio-Cio-San and Suuki do a little redecorating to spruce up the place in anticipation of Pinkerton's return. From 2016 Golden Gate Opera prouction.
 At this point, Kate enters and asks, unfortunately, if her husband has been there. (This scene is a reduction of the sequence in the consul’s office.) Kate sees the baby and says to Butterfly, “Why, you poor little thing . . . who in the world could blame you or . . . call you responsible . . . you pretty little plaything [referring to Butterfly].”

Butterfly recoils. “No — playthin' . . . I am Mrs. Lef-ten-ant B. F. — No — no — now I am, only — Cho-Cho-San, but no playthin'.”

No. She is not a plaything. And indeed, that is the whole point of Long's story.

Butterfly returns to Kate what is left of the original money Pinkerton left for her (the two dollars) and the money in the envelope Sharpless has given her. Then she tells Kate to come back in fifteen minutes. She then tells Suzuki, who seems to have guessed what will happen next, to leave. Butterfly takes down her father's sword again and reads the inscription out loud and is about to kill herself when an unseen Suzuki pushes the child into the room. Butterfly then puts an American flag in the child's hand. A knocking at the door begins, but Butterfly ignores it and goes behind a screen to kill herself by slitting her throat.

Now, Belasco calls for a shocking ending, one guaranteed to manipulate even the most disinterested member of he audience. The following are Belasco's stage directions:

Pinkerton's haughty American wife calls on Butterfly in this scene from an early production of Puccini's opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
A short pause — the sword is heard to drop. Madame Butterfly reappears, her face deathly white— a scarf about her neck to conceal the wound. Suzuki opens the door, sees the face of her mistress — backs out of the room in horror. Madame Butterfly drops to her knees as she reaches the child, and clasps it to her.

Kate enters the room quickly, urging the reluctant Pinkerton to follow her. Pinkerton grasps what has happened and embraces Butterfly and the child, but Butterfly gets the last line: “Too bad those robins didn' nes' again.” And she dies.


We can imagine that people who knew Long's story and then saw Belasco's play for the first time would have been taken duly shocked by Belasco’s stunning coup de théâtre, but Belasco's reshaping of the short story for theatre was masterful.

Butterfly's suicide made a terridic ending for the play. But someone quickly realized that it would make an even better ending for an opera.

​Part 5: Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904)
The ending, as staged by Belasco in 1900.
Butterfly's horrific death scene from a 1907 prodution.