What Vincent Lancisi did on his summer vacation was stumble into the creative scoop of his life.
In June, Lancisi and his wife, Robin, were on the tail end of a two-week tour through France. He had just finished directing “Noises Off” at Everyman Theatre, the Baltimore troupe he founded in 1990. Sitting in the front seat of a van cruising through southern France, Robin casually asked the driver-guide where he was originally from.
Hungary, replied Csaba Meresz. Robin followed up: How did he get to France?
“I was a driver for a famous man,” Meresz said. “There is a movie about him with Jeremy Irons, called ‘M. Butterfly.’ ”
Vincent Lancisi was stunned. “Are you telling me you were the driver for Bernard Boursicot?”
Meresz said, “You know him?”
Lancisi explained that in September he would direct “M. Butterfly,” the 1988 Pulitzer-winning drama based on the true story of the disgraced French diplomat and convicted spy — Bernard Boursicot — who, to the world’s astonishment, learned at his trial that the Chinese woman who had been his secret lover for nearly 20 years was a man. Oh yes, Lancisi knew all about Boursicot.
His head began to spin when Meresz said, “You want to talk to him?”
Within the hour, Lancisi was on the phone with Boursicot. By July, Lancisi had trekked back to France, invited to Boursicot’s spartan nursing home in Brittany with three people from Everyman — including, at Boursicot’s request, the actor who would be playing him in the play, Bruce Nelson.
“They asked me very nicely,” Boursicot says impishly from his nursing home near Rennes. “And I don’t know how to refuse.”
Of course, it’s not precisely Boursicot in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” a play
still so alive with East-West and masculine-
feminine tensions that Clive Owen will star in a Julie Taymor-directed Broadway revival this fall. Boursicot was 20 when he arrived in Beijing in 1964, and the opera performer Shi Pei Pu — Boursicot’s Mata Hari — was evidently a man when they first cast eyes upon each other at a party.
Eventually, Shi suggested he was actually a woman posing as a man for advantage in Mao’s China. Boursicot believed it and took on the role of lover and protector, even to the point of passing minor secrets from the French Embassy through Shi. That, Boursicot testified at his trial, was the price of being able to see and safeguard Shi during China’s restrictive Cultural Revolution.
For the clinical and emotional details of Shi’s years-long deception, see Joyce Wadler’s gripping “he said/he said” 1988 story in People, or her 1993 book “Liaison,” written with Boursicot’s cooperation and excerpted in the New York Times. Wadler also wrote Shi’s 2009 obituary and, days later, a backhanded appreciation of “one of the more maddening subjects I have ever met.” Years earlier, Wadler had been duped into accepting “antique” pearls from Shi that turned out to be fake.
“Rest in peace, Shi Pei Pu,” Wadler concluded. “You told a helluva story.”
The story as played out with Boursicot included a son that the brazen Shi told Boursicot was his. (Boursicot believed it, but the “son” is related by blood to neither man.) As the relationship with Shi waxed and waned, and as they were often separated by thousands of miles, Boursicot took up an openly gay relationship with Thierry Toulet beginning in 1974.
In 1982 Boursicot was finally united in Paris with Shi and the “son,” but the situation looked fishy, and soon the diplomat and his “mistress” were arrested. In 1986 both were jailed for espionage. By 1987, both were pardoned and released.
Hwang tells much of this, but in the guise of the much older Rene Gallimard, who is married and a seasoned 39 when he meets the tantalizing Beijing opera star Song Liling. Hwang apparently is revising the script for Broadway; Lancisi offered Everyman as a lab for changes but will be staging the original version starting Sept. 6.
The play’s end deliberately inverts the famous bloody climax of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Instead of the abandoned Asian woman killing herself over the Western man, it’s the self-important, overly romantic, willfully blind Western-masculine symbol Gallimard who is driven to his doom by the manipulations of his Chinese “Butterfly.”
If Boursicot, 73, is at odds with Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” it has not prevented him from attending a number of international productions. He says he has never spoken about it with Hwang (lawyers negotiated the rights), and he first saw it in the 1989 London production that starred Anthony Hopkins as Gallimard.
“People were crying beside me,” Boursicot recalls. “I told them, ‘Don’t cry so much. I am still alive.’ ”
That’s indicative of the humor that Lancisi and Nelson say they encountered during their welcoming, slightly perplexing July day with the former spy. “His room is a cell,” Lancisi says. “Gray walls, fluorescent lighting, a bed, two chairs, a table, nothing personal on the walls. There weren’t enough places for us to sit.” A radio reporter sat on the floor. Lancisi perched on the bed with Boursicot, close enough to see the scar where the diplomat slit his own throat in prison.
They also encountered an inclination to deflect. “He did not want to talk about Shi Pei Pu, much to my dismay,” Lancisi says. “But I wasn’t surprised. He had put that somewhere in a safe place.”
“He was a gay man who couldn’t be out,” Nelson suggests. “He needed to play this game.”
Did Boursicot agree with that?
“We couldn’t get that far,” Lancisi says. “What I saw was a man who was hungry to talk about this incredible, epic life he has led. This story is 20 out of 50 years of travel through 63 countries. He speaks maybe six languages. He’s carried diplomatic pouches from Beijing through Mongolia, journeys on top-secret missions.”
Nelson adds, “His favorite movies are ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”
“He said, ‘If Shi Pei Pu were a woman, I’d be a hero,’ ” Lancisi says. “It’s in Wadler’s book: Everything he did for her was to get her out of China, because he felt she wasn’t safe there.”
After two hours of talking, Boursicot provided lunch in graceful Continental style. Elsewhere in the building, a table was set for eight: “Wine, appetizer, entree, dessert, cheese,” Lancisi says. “It was a feast.” Less than a third of their entirely pleasant visit, which began with Boursicot presenting his guests with Asian-themed neckties, dealt with deception, resentment, love — issues raised by the play.
“It was hard for me,” is the most Boursicot says, fleetingly, about the arrest, imprisonment and scandal during a phone interview. Meresz says: “If you are in a story like that, I think you are hurt inside. The story was famous, but I think it’s important to say what is inside his soul.”
Is talking with artists and journalists a way of correcting the “M. Butterfly” record? “Non, non, non,” Boursicot says quickly. He speaks in generally clear, French-inflected English, but the voice is weak, and the breathing grows heavy during a 20-minute conversation. Boursicot suffered a stroke about a decade ago.
“Compared to all the people I know, I am very lucky,” Boursicot says as, believe it or not, John Lennon’s “Imagine” plays in the background. “I recovered completely my ability. I go to Paris quite often, every few months. I try to eat good food. Sometimes I go to the cinema, but not as often as I would like. Sometimes I go to the swimming pool. It is very simple, my life.”
Charmingly, and apparently sincerely, he adds, “I am happy you called me.” He explains that he is always pleased to talk to people interested in the play, “because it seems you like the story. So you should like me even better.”