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July 05, 2005



It has occurred to me that a work of art that I take for granted is not as widely familiar as it used to be. Known by two names, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, this comedy, created by George Bernard Shaw and adorned with songs written by Jay Lerner and composed by Frederick Lowe, is both highly entertaining and extremely illuminating. In the Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor whose most beautiful marble came to life as Galatea. In the comedy, elocutionist Henry Higgins wagers that he can transform a guttersnipe into a lady, simply by teaching her how to speak. As befits such arrogance, he is confounded by his success.

You will ignore the film adaptation of the musical - except, of course, as a reflection of the stage musical's structure. It is a camp curiosity that dates from Hollywood's darkest hours. If you want to know what Rex Harrison was like in the role, watch Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours, which will strike anyone who remembers the original Broadway production as a dress rehearsal for My Fair Lady. As for seeing what Julie Andrews was like, I can't say, because she was already out of the show by the time I got to see it, but I doubt that she was better as an actress than Wendy Hiller is in Pygmalion, the 1938 adaptation of Shaw's play. Shaw himself worked on the screenplay, and the whole business was authorized by him. Leslie Howard is quite good enough as Henry Higgins to put Rex Harrison out of your mind, at least for as long as he's on screen; he's a craftier, geekier Higgins, and he is more obviously vulnerable to the surprise of love than Harrison's good doctor does.

You will also read the play, because Shaw's stage directions, which often seem to equal the word-count of the dialogue, will help you to bring the play to life. Theatre people, who regard the stage directions as a frightful usurpation by the playwright of other professions' work, don't understand how hard it is for the general reader to read a play. Here's a brief sample:

Mrs Higgins [calmly continuing her writing] You must have frightened her.

You can imagine how directors feel about such poaching. But never mind, it's part of the fun of the play for you.

Notwithstanding the great fun of the piece, Pygmalion is entirely without farcical complication.

Continue reading about Pygmalion at Portico.

Posted by pourover at July 5, 2005 12:00 AM

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The cool blue background goes well with your clear style. You remind me that I haven't read an actual play script with the stage directions in years, perhaps decades. I will take your advice and find a copy of Shaw's original. Thanks.

Posted by: George at July 5, 2005 12:41 AM

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