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Archive for the ‘George Bernard Shaw’ Category

By this point in my life, reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is more an exercise in memory than in comprehension.  I think I first read the play when I was fourteen but even by that time I had seen the excellent Leslie Howard/Wendy Hiller film countless times, watched the film of My Fair Lady so often I had memorized every song and knew the details of every Cecil Beaton costume, and attended stage productions of both the play and the musical.  Since then, my familiarity with the play has only grown and so actually reading it seems slightly superfluous – what is the point when you have almost every line memorized?

Still, it is too enjoyable not to revisit every now and then.  The story of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl transformed under the guidance of the eccentric Professor Henry Higgins into a well-spoken young woman who is able to infiltrate the highest level of society without betraying her origins, is Shaw’s masterpiece.  The dialogue is as sharp and the characters as memorable now as when the play premiered a hundred years ago.  Eliza herself is, as Higgins eventually admits, magnificent, full of intelligence and passion.  Her father Alfred Doolittle (always a favourite in any production) is hilarious right from his first scene, when he attempts to get money off of Higgins and Colonel Pickering after hearing that they have abducted his daughter for no doubt nefarious purposes.  Poor Doolittle meets a suitably comic fate, reduced to a lifetime of respectability after an unwelcome inheritance traps him into the dreaded world of middle-class morality.  Henry’s mother Mrs Higgins is as formidable and quick-witted as you would need to be to raise a son like Henry but it is Higgins himself who is always my favourite.  Full of boundless energy and arrogance, easily distracted and even more easily irritated, he is an irresistible but intensely frustrating character, which is the genius of Shaw.  You can understand why Eliza is attracted to him but, at the same time, you can understand why she leaves him.  Higgins has made a profession out of changing other people but he himself will never change.

Pygmalion deals with some fascinating themes, not the least of which is female emancipation.  Higgins himself admires independence but, in turning Eliza into a model lady, he creates a creature unable to stand on her own.  As a flower girl, Eliza had independence and a job, lowly as it was; as a lady, her options are considerably narrower.  Even Higgins cannot think of much for her beyond marriage:

HIGGINS. I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well –

LIZA. We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.

HIGGINS. What do you mean?

LIZA. I sold flowers.  I didn’t sell myself.  Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.

But that is just the sort of woman he hates most, the docile, doting wife without any agency of her own.  He professes to hate Eliza’s attempts at domesticating him, berating her for thinking that such small acts in service of his own comfort would make him like her better:

LIZA. Don’t sneer at me.  It’s mean to sneer at me.

HIGGINS. I have never sneered in my life.  Sneering doesn’t become either the human face or the human soul.  I am expressing my righteous contempt from Commercialism.  I don’t and won’t trade in affection.  You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles.  You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers in a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch YOUR slippers?  I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face.  No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?

It is only once Eliza rejects him thoroughly and unapologetically that he truly comes to like her and to see her as a person in her own right rather than just the result of his brilliant tutelage.

When the play was published in 1916 (it was first performed in 1912), Shaw included an epilogue “What Happens Afterwards” in the form of an essay, trying to put an end to producers’ attempts to give Eliza and Higgins the romantic happy ending that so jarred with their relationship as Shaw wrote it.  While I adore Acts Four and Five of the play (which see Eliza and Higgins’ most intense and emotional confrontations), this is the most interesting part of the book to me.  Eliza marries the foolish fop Freddy and they struggle to make a living running a flower shop, eventually taking business classes so they have at least some idea of what they should be doing.  It is not a luxurious life but it is the one Eliza chose and Freddy, though he may be a bit dim, worships her.  And though Eliza never regrets her marriage, neither does she give Higgins up:

She is immensely interested in him.  She has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get him alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man.  But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins[…]Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

As always, this was fun to reread and now I am feeling the need to revisit the 1938 film.  No one could be quite so perfect a Higgins as Leslie Howard.

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