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.




In an earlier post I recognized in a film production the contribution of the actors on the writing of the screenplay.  It is important to remember, which readers of my book should be well aware, that the screenplay is a continually evolving work which is never actually finished until the film is shown to theater audiences, if then.  In the aforementioned post, I gave the example of how the American actress Judy Garland demanded changes in the tone of the story for the film Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which contributed to it being a box-office success.  However, it is not generally recognized that the most consequential influence on the development of the screenplay after that of the writers is often the audience itself.  This is especially true in Hollywood, where it is not uncommon for a film to be screened for a test audience, and from the comments collected, substantial changes made, including reshoots.  One should never lose sight of the fact that in Hollywood the customer—audience in this case—is always right (practitioners of “art for the sake of the artist” need not apply in that town).

For example, if the writer is unsure whom his heroine should choose for a husband, have no fear, the audience will choose for her, and often does.  A writer may fancy himself as “a man of the world” and an expert on human nature; but that counts for nothing to an audience, whose opinion must never be ignored on such matters: case in point is the 1914 play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and its many adaptations–the 1964  film My Fair Lady, based on the stage musical of the same name, being the best known.  Regrettably I have never seen the stage version of My Fair Lady, so my examination will be based primarily on the film, which I presume did not differ much from the stage production. I will also be drawing heavily on Shaw’s original stage play itself, along with a 1938 film adaption that credited him as the  screenwriter (along with a few others).

Now let’s get down to work, and there is no better place to start than with the songs that made both the stage musical and the film the immense hit that it became. But before we do, we need to review the origins and plot of the work: My Fair Lady, and its predecessors (Shaw’s original play and the 1938 film Pygmalion) is a retelling of the Greek myth in which the sculptor Pygmalion creates a statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it and beseeches the goddess Aphrodite to bring her, Galatea, to life; a wish that is granted.  In Shaw’s play Professor Henry Higgins, a well- to- do expert on phonetics, rescues an impoverished young woman, Eliza Doolittle, from the streets of London and teaches her to speak English so perfectly that he can pass her off as a Duchess.  The central question we will be asking in the many versions of Shaw’s work is: does the Professor fall in love with Eliza as did Pygmalion with Galatea, and she with him?  Those of you who are familiar with the work may be surprised at this question, but as we will shortly see, the answer is not so clear.

The score for My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is indeed brilliant, so let’s begin with some of the highlights.  What better place to start than with Alfred P. Doolittle’s, Eliza’s father, song “With a Little Bit of Luck,” his paean to the morality (or lack of it) of the “undeserved poor.” This is pure Shavian wit. A real crowd pleaser; nothing for the audience or Shaw, himself, not to like here.  This theme is expanded on splendidly with Doolittle’s next number, “Get Me to the Church on Tine,” in which this incorrigible reprobate bemoans his sad fate at being thrust into the ignominy of “middle class morality,” owing to his new found (financial) fortune. Moving on to Professor Higgins’s musical numbers, we find that “Never Let a Woman in Your Life (I’m and Ordinary Man) ” and “Why Can’t a Woman be more Like a Man (A Hymn to Him)” perfectly embodies Shaw’s misogyny.   Then there is the magnificent ballad by the love-struck Freddy Eynsford-Hill “On the Street where You Live.”  Vic Damone’s version of this fine song shot up near the top of the American popular music charts during the original New York run of the show and for good reason.

Now comes Lerner and Loewe’s piece de resistance, Eliza’s show-stopper “I could have Danced all Night,” in which our heroine gushes on how her heart went a flutter when Higgins, her Svengali, danced with her. But wait a minute! My Ouija board is in overdrive! It appears that I’m getting a message—and an angry one—from the other side. It is indeed from that old curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw, himself.  And the message is: STOP THE MUSIC AND DROP THE CURTAIN!  THAT’S NOT MY PLAY!   And he is absolutely right: My Fair Lady, splendid as it is, has nothing to do with his original concept for Pygmalion.  You see, My Fair Lady is predicated on there being a romantic tension between Professor Higgins and Eliza: a tension that Shaw insisted never existed.  Furthermore, contrary to what the audience may have wished, Eliza will never marry the Professor nor ever had any intention in doing so!

As much as Shaw sought to suppress even a hint of affection between his Pygmalion and Galatea, the interpreters of his work kept undermining him at every turn.  For example, in the play’s 1914 London premier the actor playing Professor Higgins, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, at the end of the last act, throws Eliza a bouquet of flowers as she leaves him, ostensibly for the last time.  This was not written or intended by Shaw, so he went back stage and angrily told the actor he should be shot for desecrating his play; the actor replied that Shaw should be grateful because his (Tree’s) ending, which pleased the audience immensely, was making money.  So exasperated had Shaw become that in 1916 he added an epilogue to the print edition that clearly indicated why there could never be any happy ending for Eliza and Higgins’s non-existent romance. However, for the 1938 film adaptation of his play for which he (and a few others) is credited for the screenplay, Shaw seems to have softened.  For example, the line in the play in which Eliza tells Professor Higgins that he will not be seeing her again, is changed to simply her saying to him goodbye.  In addition there is an added scene in which Higgins watches Eliza drive off with Freddy; that the Professor is extremely jealous is undeniable.  Let’s examine Shaw’s reasons for why Eliza and Professor Higgins can never be together and determine how persuasive they really are.

Shaw begins by lobbing a hand grenade:  when Eliza tells Higgins that she would never marry him if he asked her, she is not being a coquette; according to Shaw, Eliza never seriously considered nor would ever consider the Professor as suitable for marriage.  Shaw assumes that any single woman (he uses the unflattering term “spinster”) worthy of her sex, upon encountering a bachelor as eligible as the Professor will do a quick calculation as to his suitability as a life partner.  Unfortunately for the old bachelor, he is found wanting in every metric: and this by a woman whose most recent home was the streets!  What are these liabilities?

Of course, there are the usual suspects that an astute woman, or perhaps any woman, can easily pick up on:  the fact that he is a confirmed bachelor, that she must compete with his mother with whom he has a close relationship, his devotion to his stuffy work, and last but not least, the Professor is a rather disagreeable chap. And to counter the old adage that beggars cannot be choosers, Eliza does bring something to the table:  she as “a good-looking girl does not feel that pressure” to marry; therefore she can to pick and choose.   Of course, a determined woman could possibly surmount or overlook these obstacles (e.g. his attachment to his mother and his work)—after all, with his breeding and his wealth, the Professor certainly would be a “catch.”  But there is one obstacle that could never be overcome: the fact that Eliza and the Professor are too much alike. They are two very strong -willed people, and we all know that only opposites attract.

Shaw quite persuasively expands upon this observation:

Accordingly, it is a truth everywhere in evidence that strong people, masculine or feminine, not only do not marry stronger people, but do not show any preference for them in selecting their friends. When a lion meets another with a louder roar “the first lion thinks the last a bore.” The man or woman who feels strong enough for two, seeks for every other quality in a partner than strength.

So if Eliza is not to marry Professor Higgins, whom then is she to marry?  Elementary.  She will marry Freddy Eynsenford- Hill .  Freddy!  That useless fop that can’t even be relied on to get a cab for his mother! Freddy whom as Professor Higgins declares couldn’t get a job as an errand boy if he had the guts to look for one!  Yes, Freddy. Here is Shaw’s cynical logic:

This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.

So certain is Shaw that Eliza will marry Freddy that he wrote a final scene for the 1938 film in which Eliza and Freddy are married and running a modest grocery/flower shop together.  The producers knew better, however, and substituted one in which Eliza returns to Professor Higgins’s townhouse; in fact, it is literally the very same scene that is the ending of My Fair Lady. You would think that Shaw would have been livid about this substitution, but why should he?  Shaw knows just as does Professor Higgins that Eliza will return; for where else could she go?  Shaw alludes to this when he observes:

Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up. It is not in the slightest doubt as to his remaining one of the strongest personal interests in her life.

So now where does that leave us? We’ve heard from the characters and Shaw, himself.  Now it’s time for the audience to weigh in.  And weigh in they will (an audience in 1964, not necessarily one today):  Although Shaw may be extremely erudite and can effortlessly quote Nietzsche (“When you go to a woman bring the whip”), an audience of that period knows what they know; and they don’t need a so-called man of the world to tell them otherwise, especially when it comes to affairs of the heart.  They know full well that it is not uncommon for young female students to fall in love with their professors and vice versa.  In fact, it is quite common.   Don’t try to tell them that there is no spark between Eliza and Professor Higgins ready to turn into a full scale conflagration.  And when Eliza tells Professor Higgins that she wouldn’t marry him if he asked her, they know that that is precisely what she wants: for him to ask her to marry him.  That doesn’t mean that they expect her to say yes: Higgins has sinned and he must atone.  He has failed to acknowledge that although she may not be a gift from the gods as was Galatea to Pygmalion, this comely young woman, who is at least twenty years younger, is the best thing that ever happened to him and must be treated accordingly.

The audience decrees that Higgins be given a second chance, and if he should fail again, then—and only then—will they give Eliza leave to pursue another man: and it certainly will not be that fop Freddy Eynsford- Hill, no matter how earnest and sincere he is!   And as for Eliza “running the numbers” in deciding upon a suitable husband, don’t insult their intelligence.  The audience knows full well that in these matters one listens to the heart not the brain—and they can point to the soaring divorce rates to prove it.  No, Mr. Shaw, stick to philosophy and stinging social commentary:  don’t try your hand at writing an advice to the lovelorn column; you will fail miserably.

Can you imagine if the lyrics and book for My Fair Lady had been written by Shaw and not Alan Jay Lerner?  For the showstopper we might have had Eliza singing “I want a Weak Man” rather than “I could have Danced All Night.”  And for the final scene, we may have had the newlyweds Eliza and Freddy, in their cold-water flat, singing a duet entitled “I’d rather have Love than Money.”

The New York stage production of My Fair Lady broke all Broadway records at the time. It also ran in London for over five years (Shaw’s original production of Pygmalion ran for little more than 100 performances).  The film version of My Fair Lady received eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

If any of you find my analysis of the film less than convincing, I encourage you to undertake your own.  The source materials are readily available on the internet.  Shaw’s play with epilogue is available for free, as well as the 1938 film version.  Although the film My Fair Lady is not available for free, much of it, including the musical numbers, can be viewed in short clips at no cost.

The role of Eliza was played by the late Audrey Hepburn.  If you have never seen her in a film before, you just may be, like Freddy, pleasantly “done in” by her enormous talent and gracious charm.


Not everyone believed that Eliza should marry Professor Higgins instead of Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  The actor who played Freddy, Jeremy Brett, was so handsome and the song he sung (“On the Street where You Live”) so beautiful that he could melt the heart of any woman, young or old.   But Eliza never heard him sing, although his sentiments would surely have been expressed in the daily love letters he sent her.   We never hear Eliza express any deep affection for Freddy either, in the original play or the musical:  his main function is to make Professor Higgins jealous and/or show him that she could get along without him very well.  It is obvious that Shaw was skeptical that women married for love; given the disparity in power and money between the sexes at that time, they could hardly afford to do so.