John Lithgow '67: "M. Butterfly," Then and Now

by Simon de Carvalho '14

In David Henry Hwang's 1988 Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, René Gallimard is a diplomat without much diplomacy toward his wife. He looks back on his life through the lens of Puccini's Madame Butterfly and the character of Cho‐Cho‐San whom he considers ideal -- so much so that he falls in love with the Peking Opera actress Song Liling. Turns out, Liling is not only a spy, but also a man. When Gallimard is convicted of conspiracy, he dons the costume of the ill-fated Cho-Cho-San and kills himself. John Lithgow '67 originated the role of Gallimard, opposite B.D. Wong as Liling on Broadway. The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club is staging four performances of M. Butterfly Nov. 11-13 at the Adams Pool Theatre.Harvard Arts Beat blogger Simon de Carvalho caught up with Harvard arts supporter John Lithgow and e-asked him questions about the play and about Harvard.

How did you approach the complex role of Gallimard in M. Butterfly?

We were directed by John Dexter, the tempestuous, highly theatrical theater and opera director, who worked with lightning speed. We did a run through of the play on our feet five days after we started rehearsing! So "the complex role of Rene Gallimard" started out as a frantic wind sprint. John even told me which words I should scream out in the middle of a speech: "Like a fist!" In truth, I absolutely love to work that way. Subtlety comes later.

How did your time at Harvard shape your decision to pursue a career in acting?

I just had a ball doing extracurricular theater there (and opera, light opera, ballet, acting, directing, singing, dancing, etc.). I probably spent more time at that than at my studies. And as a result, halfway through Harvard I pretty much knew I would go into theater.

What advice would you give to current Harvard students who want to get into acting?

I always tell students not to go into theater, period. It’s a terribly hard life and an impossible profession. But I also add that if they really are going to go into theater, they’ll ignore me, as well they should.

[Caption: John Lithgow '67]