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. Two gentlemen, strangers to each other, meet each other in Covent Garden, where one of them is assiduously writing down the cockney talk going on all round him in a script that no one else can decipher. This frightens one of his subjects, a flower-seller, and she raises a ruckus. The notetaker asserts that he could have the flower girl talking like a lady in three months. The two gentlemen now discover that they're known to one another by reputation: the notetaker is eminent philologist Henry Higgins, and his new friend is a dialectician from India, Colonel Pickering. Showering the flower girl with all his loose change, Higgins goes off to dinner with Pickering. The next morning, the flower girl presents herself in Wimpole Street, where Higgins lives, and asks for a lesson. Higgins makes fun of her, and the encounter becomes terrifying for Eliza, but she holds to her dignity in the teeth of Higgins' habit, which will not wear off during the play, of regarding her as subhuman. Precisely because her life has no importance to him, he decides to take his bet seriously and make a lady of Eliza. Higgins's housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, is scandalized, but the Colonel's assurance that no harm will come to Eliza overcomes all resistance. Hardly has Eliza been carted off to the bath than her father shows up. A smooth-talking operator, he pretends to have come to rescue Eliza, but is actually after a bit of cash, as Eliza points out when she reappears, all cleaned up, at the end of this interview.
After the passage of some time, Higgins takes Eliza to his mother's flat on her at-home day. Mrs Higgins's other guests turn out to be the squabbling mother, son, and daughter whose attempt to get a taxi after the opera frame/ the first act. There's no question but that Eliza's début as a fine lady is the comic peak of Pygmalion. Her vowels perfectly shaped, her consonants firmly pronounced, her language, alas, remains unreconstructed. She has been instructed to stick to "two subjects: the weather and everybody's health. Fine day and how do you do, you know." But Eliza is soon led astray by her own natural talkativeness. You must imagine the following as if Her Majesty the Queen were reading Liza's lines; the tremendous humor is the combustion of vulgar suspicions in plummy accents.
Liza [darkly] May aunt died of influenza; so they said.
Mrs Eynsford Hill [clicks her tongue sympathetically]!!!
Liza [in the same tragic tone] But it's my belief they done the old woman in.
Mrs Higgins [puzzled] Done her in?
Liza. Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you. Why should she die of influenza. She come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.
Mrs Eynsford Hill [startled] Dear me!
Liza [piling up the indictment] What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.
Mrs Eynsford Hill. What does doing her in mean?
Higgins [hastily] Oh, that's the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them.
Mrs Eynsford Hill [to Eliza, horrified] You surely don't believe that your aunt was killed?
Liza. Do I not! Them she lived with would have killed her for a hat-pin, let alone a hat.
There's more, but the last line is to perfect not to stop. Every time I heard Wendy Hiller deliver it, I squeal with delight, as inwardly as possible. The only thing that happens, in a dramatic sense, in this act is that Freddy Eynsford Hill, a perfect twit, all but falls in love with Eliza. He will not, however, have a chance in the play to deliver a monologue that might be fashioned into "On The Street Where You Live." Nor is there an opportunity for Eliza to prefigure "Show Me!" Of Freddy we see no more, although we hear plenty.
The fourth act is quite brief. It opens as the Colonel, Higgins, and Eliza are returning from a ball, at which Eliza was a complete triumph, fooling everybody into thinking her a princess. The men are in such an extremely self-congratulatory mood - Higgins exultant, the Colonel amazed - that they ignore Eliza altogether. Higgins's elation sours into contempt, and when he snaps that at least its over and won't be hanging over his head in the morning, Eliza begins to revolt. The stage direction is one of Shaw's doozies: Eliza's beauty becomes murderous. In a moment or so, she is throwing slippers at him and charging him with using her to win his bet and not caring about her at all.
Higgins. You won my bet! Presumptuous insect! I won it. What did you throw those slippers at me for?
Liza. Because I wanted to smash your face. I'd like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn't you leave me where you picked me out of - in the gutter? You thank God it's all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you? [She crisps her fingers frantically].
At the height of her fury, Eliza takes a ring off her finger - it is a jewel that Higgins bought for her, not one of the rented gems worn for the ball - and hurls it into the fire, but at the end of the act, alone onstage, she is on her knees combing the ashes for it.
The structure of the fifth act echoes that of the second, with Higgins confronting first Doolittle, now helplessly grand and respectable - see below - and then his daughter. Final acts are for resolution, but Shaw is quite determined to hold out on providing one. We return to Mrs Higgins' drawing room, to find Higgins fulminating about Eliza's disappearance from Wimpole Street. His mother lets him rattle on for a while before telling him that the girl has been staying with her. Eliza duly presents herself and the two principals argue without getting anywhere; finally, Eliza "sweeps off" to her father's wedding. The text of the play ends two lines later, but it is followed by an essay of a dozen pages in which Shaw sketches his characters' futures, and one senses that the idea for behind his play of brief and classical proportions is spilling beyond its confines. Shaw appears to have wanted to do more with Pygmalion, and a quarter of a century later, he would have the chance.
Let us consider some of the famous scenes in later adaptations that have no provenance in the 1912 play. There is no ball scene, nor is there a day at the races. Nor do we ever see Professor Higgins at work with Eliza. Here's what we do have: The encounter in Covent Garden, more or less as in the 1938 film; Eliza's father's attempt, the next morning, to sell his daughter to Higgins, more or less as in the film; the original of the musical's Ascot scene, which is a tea party at Mrs Higgins's to which her son has brought Eliza, as a sort of trial run, the after-the-ball collision of Higgins's egoism with Eliza's heartbreak, and a final but inconclusive encounter that refuses to settle the romance - for by now it is clear to everyone, including the principals, that Eliza and Higgins are powerfully drawn to one another. This amounts to a lot of conversation and not much action - which is why, you may take it from me, nothing is deadlier than reading one of Shaw's plays shortly before seeing it on stage. (I did this once, with Don Juan in Hell, and it ruined an amazing performance by a cast of three that included Myrna Loy.) There's nothing that an actor can do to make recently-sampled chit-chat entertaining.
Where the play differs from all of its adaptations is in the importance of Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father. A comic accessory in the musical, Doolittle is a radical figure in the play, and I don't think that it's going to far to see him as Higgins's twin, separated at birth. The two men share a fundamental amorality, and "behave themselves" only when it suits them to do so. They are both clever and fond of making shocking statements. Where they differ, of course, is in industriousness: there is no doubt about Higgins's willingness to take infinite pains, and Doolittle may be the first representation of the shirker in theatrical history.
Higgins [troubled] I don't know what to do, Pickering. There can be no question that as a matter of morals it's a positive crime to give this chap a farthing. And yet I feel a sort of rough justice in his claim.
Doolittle. That's it, Governor. That's all I say. A father's heart, as it were.
Pickering. Well, I know the feeling, but really it seems hardly right.
Doolittle. Don't say that Governor. Don't look aat it that way. What am I Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to me as a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week at the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don" eat less hearty than him,; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that's the truth. Will you take advantage of man's nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he's brought up and fed and clothed by the seat of his brow until she's growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentleman? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.
Higgins [rising, and going over to Pickering] Pickering: if we were to take this man in hand for three months, he could choose between a seat in the Cabinet and a popular pulpit in Wales.
Pickering. What do you say to that, Doolittle?
Doolittle. Not me, Governor, thank you kindly. I've heard all the preachers and all the prime ministers - for I'm a thinking man and game for politics or religion or social reform same as all other amusements - and I tell you it's a dog's life any way you look at it. Undeserving poverty is my line. Taking one station in society with another, it's - it's - well, it's the only one that has any ginger in it, to my taste.
Higgins. I suppose we must give him a fiver.
Doolittle's cheekiness is a wonderful set-up for his transformed reappearance in the final act, when he reveals that, thanks to a careless remark that Higgins has made, he has been named in a millionaire's will and shackled to "middle class morality."
Mrs Higgins. But, my dear Mr Doolittle, you need not suffer all this if you are really in earnest. Nobody can force you to accept this bequest. You can repudiate it. Isn't that so, Colonel Pickering?
Pickering. I believe so.
Doolittle [softening his manner in deference to her sex] That's the tragedy of it, ma'am. It's easy to say chuck it; but I haven't the nerve. Which of us has? We're all intimidated. Intimidated, ma'am; that's what we are. What is there fore me if I chuck it but the workhouse in my old age? I have to dye my hair already to keep my job as a dustman. If I was one of the deserving poor, and I had put by a bit, I could chuck it; but then why should I, acause the deserving poor might as well be millionaires for all the happiness they ever has. They don't know what happiness is. But I, as one of the undeserving poor, having nothing between me and the pauper's uniform but this here blasted three thousand a year that shoves me into the middle class (Excuse the expression, ma'am: you'd use it yourself if you had my provocation.) They've got you every way you turn: it's a choice between the Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class; and I haven't the nerve for the workhouse. Intimidated: that's what I am. Broke. Bought up. Happier men than me will call for my dust, and touch me for their tip; and I'll look on helpless, and envy them. And that's what your son has brought me to. [He is overcome by emotion.]
One wonders how on earth Doolittle ever picked up Scylla and Charybdis.
It was in a revival of Pygmalion that Shaw discovered Wendy Hiller. Dissatisfied with a German film adaptation of 1935, Shaw threw himself into adapting his own dialogue and presumably providing more for the scenes sketched by scenarists W P Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis. (If you can shed any light on the popularity of Pygmalion as a play between its première and its adaptation for film, I should be very grateful if you would do so.) Here that oleaginous character, Aristid Karpathy, Higgins' former pupil and current rival, appears for the first time, as do all the guests at the embassy ball, with a waltz scene to boot. (Karpathy becomes Zoltan in the musical.) In the film, Freddy has a lot more to do - although he's still far from the romantic baritone that the musical would make of him. It is the film Pygmalion that serves as the template for the musical, which was undertaken after the playwright's death in 1950. The one real innovation of the musical is the spectacle-suitable transferal of the third-act tea party to Ascot Opening Day - no doubt with the idea of exploiting the play's 1912 costumes, to which it returns from the film's modern-day clothes.
If I have said little about the substance of Pygmalion, that is because it is so beautifully rehearsed in the play itself; there's no need to paraphrase Shaw. I urge you to read the play if you can, and, even if you can't, to see the 1938 film. Then you can watch George Cukor's plush Technicolor transfer. It is very hard to forgive a production that overlooked the most gifted musical theatre of her age and the woman who had created the role, Julie Andrews, in favor of a totally miscast Audrey Hepburn, whose singing had to be dubbed. If there's an irony here, it's not a pleasant one: Hollywood would do the same thing to Mary Martin when it came time to make a film of The Sound of Music. (July 2005)
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