The stories of Madame Butterfly


1.  John Luther Long, "Madame Butterfly"

Published in The Century; a popular quarterly. / Volume 55, Issue 3 (Jan 1898), pp. 374-393
Online at Making of America (Cornell University Libraries)  

     This long short story begins with an overt imitation of the opening of Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème: two men, in this case Americans, are on a ship arriving in a Japanese harbor, and one of them decides to get married in Japan. There is a cautionary tale, though, in the American story--of the second man's brother having died of regret and remorse when he returned to Japan to look for his abandoned  Japanese wife and could not find her.
      Whereas however Loti's Frenchman observes his wife rather dispassionately and without trying to change her, B. F. Pinkerton revolutionizes his bride's life. He strips her of any pride in her Japanese identity and family. He tries to develop in her a sense of irony (hence her decision to name her child "Trouble"):
...she named the baby, when it came, Trouble. Every Japanese baby begins with a temporary name; it  may be anything, almost, for the little time. She was quite sure he would like the way she had named him—Trouble, meaning joy. That was his own way. As for his permanent name,  — he might have several others before, — that was for him to choose when he returned.
Having taught her to value her relationship with him at the expense of family and personal pride, Pinkerton leaves her and goes home to marry an American woman, Adelaide. He returns after an absence of about a year to Japan, where his wife is determined to adopt the blue-eyed half-caste baby. She meets Cho-Cho-San in a bureaucrat's office without knowing that this is her husband's other wife, and comments blithely: 
"How very charming—how lovely—you are, dear! Will you kiss me, you pretty—plaything."
"No," said Cho-Cho-San, staring at her.
"Ah, well," laughed the other, “I don’t blame you. They say you don’t do that sort of thing. I quite forgive our men for falling in love with you."
Cho-Cho (Butterfly), who understands the situation from Adelaide's conversation with the official, goes home and prepares to commit suicide with her father's sword. However, when she hears her baby crying, she realizes she has something to live for after all and drops the sword; she, her baby, and the servant "disappear." 
     Long's story is satirical rather than tragic. The character of Pinkerton dominates the story, and Long seems to have imagined this selfish, domineering man quite fully; he even appears in the opening pages of Long's novel, Miss Cherry-Blossom of Tokyo, in a passing reference as an officer whose story of  "the Pink Geisha" is so tedious and unpleasant that a fellow officer leaves the ship to avoid hearing it again. 

C. D. Weldon's illustration 
for Long's story 
in The Century, Jan 1898

2. Madame Butterfly, a play by  David Belasco (and John Luther Long)

Produced  March, 1900, New York City

Blanche Bates in the Belasco play
Madame Butterfly
by Sigismond Ivanowski
(Century Magazine, March 1900)
David Belasco was a flamboyant and ambitious playwright and producer, who developed the possibilities for spectacular sets, emotionally powerful lighting, and other stage effects. He was born in San Francisco in 1853 and in the late 1880s moved to New York and by 1895 was famous for his plays. Madame Butterfly, based on Long's story, was an important  triumph. It was a one-act play, the second item on a double bill (preceded by a farce). 

The entire play is set at the time when Pinkerton returns to Japan, after an absence of 2-4 years (depending on the age of the child recruited to play Trouble). Cho-Cho-San, her maid Suzuki, the American consul, and the Japanese marriage broker all discuss her marriage in the opening scene, but Pinkerton himself does not appear onstage until the very end. A striking piece of stagecraft was a long pause during which Cho-Cho and Suzuki watch the sunset, evening, night, and dawn, waiting for Pinkerton to come to visit; this took place on stage with no dialogue, just music and lights to indicate the passage of time. 

The baby "Trouble" is now a girl, and at least a year older than in the story. When Butterfly sees that Pinkerton's ship has returned, she tells the baby, "This is the bes' nizest momen' since you was borned. Now your name's Miss Joy!" (My copy of the play is missing the earlier discussion of the baby's name--see the opera section below for more.)

Butterfly gives her daughter a doll to hold during their night-long vigil. Pinkerton, arriving at the house, expresses surprise and regret that Butterfly has remained faithful; he picks up the dropped doll, explaining that he did not know about the baby until they arrived, when his wife Kate was the first to hear of it:

"Well, it was rather rough on [my wife]--only married four months. Sharpless, my Kate's an angel--she offered to take the child."
Kate confronts Butterfly knowing who she is in the play (by contrast with the story), and when she calls her a "pretty little plaything" and "takes her in her arms," Butterfly replies:
"No--playthin'--I am Mrs. Lef-ten-ant B. F.-- No--no--now I am O-Cho-Cho-San, but no playthin'...."
The most important change Belasco made to Long's plot was the ending: whereas Long allowed Cho-Cho-San to decide to live and take care of her baby, Belasco had her go through with her suicide, so that the half-Japanese child will be adopted by the American couple. The woman's suicide remained in the opera, and became the essential focus of the story as a tragedy.

(Quotations from a 1935 acting version of the play published by Samuel French)

3. Madama Butterfly, opera by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Based on the play by Belasco and the story by Long
Premiere February 17, 1904, Milan, Italy; revised version premiere May 28, 1904
The opera Madama Butterfly was inspired by Belasco's play, which Giacomo Puccini, already the successful composer of several operas, saw in London in 1900. In developing the libretto, Long's novella was used extensively, so that Pinkerton again became an important character. However, whereas in Long's story his destruction of Butterfly involves trying to make her think like an American (for example, that marriage is not a temporary affair), in the opera it is love more than modern ideas that convinces her that Pinkerton will return for her. Thus the baby's name, Dolore ("Pain") is no longer ironic:
(Butterfly, speaking on the baby's behalf to the American consul):
Oggi il mio nome è Dolore. Però dite al babbo, scrivendogli, che il giorno del suo ritorno, Gioia, Gioia mi chiamerò. 

Today my name is Sorrow. Yet tell my daddy, when you write to him, that on the day he returns, I shall be named Joy--Joy!

(Later, when Pinkerton's ship appears in the harbor, to Trouble:)
Or bimbo mio fa in alto sventolar la tua bandiera: Gioia, ti chiami.

Now my baby, wave your [American] flag on high: I call you Joy!

The confrontation between the two Mrs. Pinkertons is brief and quieter, without the cruel comment that Butterfly is a "plaything." Kate asks Cio-Cio for her hand, which Cio-Cio refuses.

    Puccini of course retained the heroine's suicide from Belasco's play, and wanted also to retain the vigil scene, though after the disastrous first premiere the opera was re-worked and this idea was eliminated.

     The doll prop introduced by Belasco has a more important role in the opera. In the stage directions for the last scene, Butterfly gives her son Dolore a doll to hold as she blindfolds him:

Butterfly prende il bambino, lo posa su di una stuoia col viso voltato verso la parte di sinistra, gli dà nelle mani la banderuola americana ed una puppattola e lo invita a trastullarsene, mentre delicatamente gli benda gli occhi. Poi afferra il coltello e, collo sguardo sempre fisso sul bambino, va dietro il paravento.

Butterfly takes the baby, sits him on a stool with his face turned to the left, gives him the American flag to hold and a doll as distractions, while she gently blindfolds him. Then she takes the knife and, always watching the baby, goes behind the screen.

She then stabs herself with her father's sword. The Americans enter and find her dying, with Trouble sitting waving an American flag and holding the doll.
     In the picture of the "New English Grand Opera Company" production shown here (1), the doll appears to be a Western rag doll. In other productions, a Japanese doll was used. 

There also exist early Japanese photos of a Japanese baby holding an American flag and a blonde doll, which may be yet another interpretation of "Trouble."

Italian quotations from the 1904 libretto, online at

Images 2, 3, and 4 from The Victor Book of the Opera, 3rd revised ed., 1912, 1913, 1915.


1. The suicide scene, with non-Japanese doll. Elizabeth Wolff and Corinne Malvern in the production of an English-language Madam Butterfly by Henry Savage's "New English Grand Opera Company," at the Garden Theatre in New York City, 1907.

Thanks to David Foy for information about Savage's company.

2. Butterfly and Dolore, with Japanese doll. Opera production, before 1915 (probably Geraldine Farrar)
3. The suicide scene, with Japanese doll; opera production before 1915, probably Farrar.
4. Setting for Act II at the Metropolitan Opera with Geraldine Farrar.
5-6 Two more Dolore with doll examples, from European productions, probably in the 1920s.:

Title Heroine's Japanese name Her American husband his wife "Trouble" at end of play
John Luther Long's story Madame Butterfly Cho-Cho-San Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton Adelaide boy, under 1 year old
David Belasco's play Madame Butterfly Cho-Cho-San Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton Kate Girl, 2 or  3 years old
Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly
(in English, often
Madam Butterfly)
Cio-Cio-San Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton Kate Dolore, boy, 2 1/2 years old

"Madame" is of course a French form, and the title is a compliment to Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème. Like Loti, the authors give the heroine's name in two forms: the Japanese name and the English translation of the object it refers to as a common noun (Kiku meaning chrysanthemum, Cho-cho meaning butterfly), plus a title of honor (-san in Japanese, Madam or Madame in English or French). The Italian title retains the English word Butterfly instead of translating it, presumably because Pinkerton speaks English; however, the word Madame is given an Italianate form as Madama (not a usual Italian word). The Japanese word for "butterfly" is given as Cio-Cio, which is the Italian spelling of the sounds represented in English by Cho-Cho.

For an interesting look at the evolution of the story and opera, and possible Japanese prototypes for Butterfly and Trouble, see Madame Butterfly : Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, by Jan van Rij (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2001).