Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's a Good Ending?

It's kind of mysterious.

I've blogged before about various ways an ending might be 'right' or 'just' or 'apt.'  All these are probably part of a very individual sense of--'yes, that's a good ending, a good movie, a good story.'

Well today I saw the Met HD simulcast of Puccini's Madama Butterfly--that's just plain ol' Madame Butterfly to you.

Puccini was inspired by a stage version of the story which theatrical wunderkind David Belasco had put together.  

The story has been tugging heartstrings for a very long time, across the page, the stage, the opera house and the screen--so there must be something to it.

And it has a very interesting relationship between beginning and ending.

In the opera, American Lieutenant Pinkerton buys a house--and a geisha for a wife.  When the wife Butterfly shows up, she's very charming, and Pinkerton--who seems never to have seen her before--is thrilled (even sexually).

It's clear to us that Pinkerton does not consider this marriage 'real.'  It's a bit of a lark to him, and he has an aria espousing the philosophy that Americans can trot around the globe and do whatever they like, enjoy whatever they like.

For Butterfly, however, the stakes are different.  She has converted to Christianity for this man.  When her family finds out, they disown her.  

Pinkerton and Butterfly are en route to consummating their marriage when the act ends--though not before Butterfly asks whether Americans really collect butterflys by piercing them with pins.

So this is the beginning.  Man wants house and woman, play wife.  Woman buys in, sacrifices and suffers:  she puts something on the line, first her soul, then her body.

Now what are we expecting?  The husband could well abandon her.  Then she might have other options.
That's what happens.  

When Act II opens, Butterfly has been waiting three years for Pinkerton to return.  She is running out of money, but she becomes upset when her servant suggests Pinkerton won't return.  She has unshakeable faith, she says.

Butterfly has options.  A wealthy man wants to marry her.  People urge her to marry, because she has been abandoned, and in Japanese law, they say, that is the same as divorce:  she is free to marry.

Butterfly brings out her blue-eyed child to prove that Pinkerton must love her:  here is the proof.

An intermediary has a letter from Pinkerton, and it's clearly bad news.  

Butterfly rejects other options--she steers herself towards tragedy, towards reliance on someone who is not reliable.  She could make her life better.  But she stays committed.  She's waiting for her husband and raising her child.  When she turns down options, she makes her fate her own.   She makes her bed and will lie in it.  That is the best that can be said for her:  she is committed to an ideal of love and marriage, of devotion.  

She explains that she could go back to being a geisha, to singing for men for money (ahem).   Or she could kill herself (as we learned in the first act her father did), but she cannot abandon her child.  But she seems to find these less noble than remaining true to her husband.

The act ends with Pinkerton's ship arriving in the harbor, and Butterfly and her child and servant waiting for him.

So now the husband could return.  Will the couple be re-united?  Will he come back for a divorce?  What will happen to Butterfly, her husband and child?  

In the third act, Pinkerton does return--but with a wife.  Something utterly new has been added such that the resulting complexities and options are not clearly calculable.  This is something that happens in interesting stories.  At a certain point, even with straight lines and clear forces, we cannot calculate the results.  

Pinkerton arrives, but he cannot face Butterfly and so leaves his 'real' American wife and an intermediary to negotiate with Buttefly.

They want the child.  The child will be 'theirs.'

So there are three horrible twists.  Man marries woman but doesn't plan on honoring their vows.  So he leaves.  That's foreseeable.  The first awful twist is:  the woman has a child.  

Now the man returns.  That is part of the string:  man marries, man leaves, man returns.  

But the man has a new wife.  This is the second twist--more of a complication.  The resolution to the two complications is the third twist:  wife and man take child away.  

In a weird way, the marriage will be 'undone.'  It will be as if Butterfly never got married or had the child.  The child just gets moved from the marriage the man does not consider legitimate to the one he does.  Switcheroo.

Butterfly agrees--because she says she must obey her husband.  She asks that Pinkerton himself return for the child in half an hour.

Butterfly sends them away and bids farewell to her child.

She has said it would be ignoble to return to being a geisha.  She defines herself as a wife--now obeying her husband--and a mother--taking care of the child.

Now these roles are gone.  Obeying her husband means ceasing to be a mother.  Butterfly kills herself with ritual suicide.

Now this is not a 'good' ending in the sense of being happy.

It's a painful 'resolution,' but it does resolve problems the story sets out.
  • A man marries a woman and deserts her.  She has a child.
  • When the man returns, he has a new wife--and that couple want to take the child.
  • The first wife assents, then kills herself.
In this sense, it's very schematic.

But the power on the audience--in part due to expert storytelling--is pretty intense.

--E. R. O'Neill

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