PYGMALION REVISITED

In my previous post on “My Fair Lady Revisited,” I described how, along with the writer and the actor, the audience also has an immense influence on the screenplay/play.  (Of course, the director also has a significant influence—indeed he or she may be a credited/uncredited writing collaborator—but I reserve that subject for another blog post.)  On the influence of the audience (particularly their expectations), I used the example of My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play/screenplay entitled Pygmalion. In the aforementioned post, I recounted how the interpreters and audiences of Shaw’s famous play demanded a different outcome for the characters, particularly Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, than the playwright had envisioned.  However, I may have given the erroneous impression that the audience was right and the writers and interpreters and adapters of the work were wrong.  In fact, what I do believe is that they were all wrong.  Why do I believe so?  It is simple if you heed what the very perceptive dramatic theorist Lajos Egri advocated most strenuously in the previous century:  When it comes to character ask not what you the playwright would do or what the audience would want the character(s) to do, but instead ask the character what he or she would do.

As I have pointed out in an earlier post, according to Egri, if you know your characters well your play will write itself.  Very simplistically, what Egi is saying is what a character is will determine what he or she will do.  For example, if a character is a coward, he or she will do cowardly things in a crisis; on the other hand, if the character is brave, he or she will do heroic things.  An example of how this relates to Pygmalion can be found in a comment by the late Anthony Asquith, the co-director of the 1938 eponymous film adaptation.  Asquith related how he had asked Shaw to write a scene depicting the ball at which Eliza Doolittle passes herself off as someone of aristocratic blood, the depiction of which was not included in the original play.  Asquith’s thinking was that the audience would have felt cheated if they did not witness Eliza’s greatest triumph.  Indeed, the audience would have felt cheated if such a scene wasn’t included.  However, what Asquith failed to realize was that this was not Eliza’s greatest triumph or a triumph at all; it was Professor Higgin’s, her Svengali,  greatest triumph.  There was no glory for her to be an imposter, to pull off a grand hoax in which she reverts back to being Cinderella when the clock strikes twelve.  Yet Asquith would have known this if only he had bothered to ask the character, Eiza.   Of course, we cannot ask such questions of fictional characters because they don’t actually exist.  What we can do is the next best thing: study the text and draw inferences.  In examining the text we will rely on the 19 12 version of Shaw’s play (first performed in German in 1913), along with the epilogue which was published a few years later.  (It is important to bear in mind that audiences would have been unaware of this epilogue unless they had read the published play beforehand.)

The essential question that I wish to address here (as I did in the prior post on My Fair Lady) is whom should Eliza choose to marry:  Professor Higgins or Freddy Einsford Hill?  Shaw in his epilogue and in his screenplay for the 1938 eponymous film was emphatic that Eliza marry Freddy not Professor Higgins.  However I  indicated in my prior post that the central premise of My Fair Lady is that Eliza is indeed mi love with Professor Higgins, which is undeniably indicated when she sings the musical number “I could have danced all night,” after having just danced with the Professor.  But whether Eliza was ever in love with Professor Higgins, or he with her, is irrelevant to the present discussion; what is relevant is whom she chooses to marry: Freddy, Professor Higgins or anyone else?

Shaw settles that question in his epilogue:   Eliza marries Freddy, who I indicated in my previous post was not the audience’s choice.  Shaw’s reasoning follows:

Because Eliza possesses such a strong personality (Shaw’s opinion, not necessarily mine), she could never marry a man similarly strong willed such as Professor Higgins.  As Shaw points out, when one has strength enough for two, they never seek out such a quality in a partner.  And who could be more devoid of strength than Freddy: the epitome of a weak man.  Or as Shaw puts it, “Will she [Eliza] look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers?” To Shaw, it is obviously the later. Or as Professor Higgins’ mother points out (in Shaw’s 1938 screenplay), after living with her bully of a son, “Eliza wants the kindly little baby man whom she can bully.” Shaw is absolutely right: Eliza will marry Freddy.  In fact she couldn’t have made a better choice, but not for the reasons that Shaw gives.  You see, Eliza is not looking for someone to use as a punching bag—someone that she can bully the way Professor Higgins bullied her.  What she is looking for is a kindred spirit: a soulmate that she can share her life with.  How do we know this?  From the text itself, which I refer to mow. It is important to understand that Eliza and Freddy are very much the same.  They are both what Shaw would refer to as “disclassed.”   And what does that mean? It simply means they both don’t “fit in” in their original social classes or any other class for that matter.  Eliza is from the lower class, and she can never forget it.  For example, after her “triumph” at the Embassy garden party/ball, she reverts back to her true class, addressing Professor Higgins as “Sir,” and expressing a fear of the police because they are prone to look at any member of the lower class with suspicion.  Yet she knows that after having lived with Higgins and Colonel Pickering for six months, she can never ever live with a “common” man.  And as for Freddy, although he comes from the Upper Class by birth, he is a total social failure with no talent for work and no inherited money.  And for just these reasons they are a perfect match.  He accepts her for what she is and is madly in love with her; and she accepts him for the penniless social failure that he is—at least he is not a “common” man and  he is completely devoted to her.  And as Shaw indicates, their marriage is completely blissful except for the fact that they have no money.  But thanks to Eliza’s kindly and wealthy benefactor, Colonel Pickering, that “minor” impediment is effectively removed.  Pickering provides them with a sizable wedding gift (a large sum of money) and then sets them up in a small shop.  Unfortunately, the two have no head for business and would surely have faced bankruptcy after a few months if it had not been for the generosity of Colonel Pickering, who continued to bail them out financially.  Despite the fact that the Colonel has very deep financial pockets, he finally tires of saving Eliza and Freddy from bankruptcy over and over again, and gives them an ultimatum:  They must hire people who know what they are doing to help them run their modest flower shop/green grocery.  This they reluctantly do, and, voila, the business begins to prosper.

PS.  I do not wish to end this post leaving you with the impression that although the marriage of Eliza to Freddy for the aforementioned reasons was perfectly consistent with her character as presented in the text, I necessarily endorse her decision.  I think that it is a shame that Eliza was never able to figure out Professor Higgins, assuming that she attempted to figure him out at all.  As Show points out, “Eliza was incapable of thus explaining to herself Higgins’s formidable powers of resistance to the charm that prostrated Freddy at the first glance.”  Frankly, I am incapable of explaining it either; but it might have been in her interest to try to find out.  Eliza believed that Higgins, like her father, didn’t need her; but in fact, he did.  Unfortunately when Higgins attempted to convey that to her, she misconstrued it as an attempt to lure her back to be nothing more than a domestic servant  .Eliza wasn’t the only character that Higgins played the role of Pygmalion to.  There was her dustman father, Alfred P. Doolitle, who as a result of the Professor’s whimsy, obtained modest wealth and became a minor celebrity.  Mr. Doolittle was well aware that by accepting this good fortune and the obligations it entailed, he was leaving his “undeserved poor” comfort zone.  Nevertheless, he fully embraced his new role in life and became the darling of the highest levels of society, even becoming someone who was frequently consulted by Cabinet Ministers.  For better or worse, this ability to move effortlessly from social class to social class was not something that Eliza inherited from her father.  In the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, Doolittle tells his daughter, “You’re a Lady now.  You can do it!”  But, alas, she couldn’t do it, nor had she any desire to do so. Contrary to the way she was depicted in the eponymous 1938 film and in My Fair Lady, Eliza was no dummy.  In fact she was rather bright and, according to the Professor, she had a better ear for phonetics than he did.  If the two could have formed a partnership—and I don’t necessarily mean a romantic one—think what they might have achieved together.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *