Archive for the ‘Play’ Category

When I first did A Century of Books back in 2012, I discovered a) that I love reading plays and b) that I adore A.A. Milne.  The two discoveries were not unrelated: I read 15 plays by Milne that year and 22 of his works in total.  But still my work was not finished – there is plenty of Milne still left for me to read, including a number of his plays.  I hope to spread them out through the year but have started with one of his earliest, The Boy Comes Home, a one-act play from 1918.

Twenty-three-year-old Philip has spent the last four years serving as an officer in France.  Now, with the war just over, he finds himself back in his Uncle James and Aunt Emily’s house, living yet again under his uncle’s rules – a strange place for a man who has spent the last four years giving orders and growing up very fast.  Philip, as we are introduced to him, is very much one of Milne’s charming young men, tossing off amusing dialogue while displaying general contentment and disinclination to be ruffled:

EMILY: And did you have a good breakfast?  Naughty boy to be late for it.  I always thought they had to get up so early in the army.

PHILIP: They do.  That’s why they’re so late when they get out of the army.

EMILY: Dear me!  I should have thought a habit of four years would have stayed with you.

PHILIP: Every morning for four years, as I’ve shot out of bed, I’ve said to myself, “Wait!  A time will come.” [Smiling] That doesn’t really give a habit a chance.

Uncle James and Aunt Emily are rather different.  I always love reading Milne’s plays for his authorial asides, descriptions and stage directions.  In this case, I loved his descriptions of these characters: Aunt Emily is “a kind-hearted mid-Victorian lady who has never had any desire for the vote” while Uncle James, Philip’s guardian and withholder of his inheritance until he reaches the age of twenty-five, is “not a big man, nor an impressive one in his black morning-coat; and his thin straggly beard, now going grey, does not hide a chin of any great power; but he has a severity which passes for strength with the weak.”

Uncle James, a profitable jam producer, is very much a man who wants things done his own way – we know this even before he appears since Philip’s request for breakfast at ten upset the entire household, who know that breakfast is only ever served at half past eight.  More crucially, he is one who feels he has made plenty of sacrifices over the last four years so can’t be expected to feel much sympathy for his soldier nephew, as he reminds his wife:

JAMES: I don’t want to boast, but I think I may claim to have done my share.  I gave up my nephew to my country, and I  – er – suffered from the shortage of potatoes to an extent that you probably didn’t realise.  Indeed, if it hadn’t been for your fortunate discovery about that time that you didn’t really like potatoes, I don’t know how we should have carried on.  And, as I think I’ve told you before, the excess-profits tax seemed to me a singularly stupid piece of legislation – but I paid it.  And I don’t go on boasting about how much I paid.

Frustrated by his nephew’s lackadaisical ways (breakfast at ten in the morning!  I ask you!), Uncle James is eager to lay down the law when he invites Philip into his study to discuss the younger man’s career plans now that he is out of the army.  What ensues is either a fantastical nightmare or a bizarre act of intimidation by a cunning and deeply disturbed young man.  Uncle James will never be quite sure and nor will we.

Milne, like Philip, had served in France but for nowhere near as long – he had been invalided back to England after the Somme (in 1916) and spent the rest of the war on desk duties.  But he knew what it was like out there and knew the good and the bad that it did to young men.  And he certainly knew the relief young Philip feels when it is all over:

PHILIP: Uncle James, do you realise that I’m never going to salute again, or wear a uniform, or get wet – really wet, I mean – or examine men’s feet, or stand to attention when I’m spoken to, or – oh, lots more things.  And, best of all, I’m never going to be frightened again.

Though he had been writing professionally for more than a decade when The Boy Comes Home was published, Milne had only published his first play (Wurzel-Flummery) the year before, in 1917.  It was a form he excelled at; he proved to be extremely successful as a playwright (it is what made him famous even before he began writing for children) and, particularly in the 1920s, extraordinarily prolific.  The Boy Comes Home is not quite as skilled as the charming Belinda (also from 1918) but it does show an attempt to engage with more serious subjects.  While this is only a minor effort, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an ex-soldier at the end of the Great War and an equally fascinating step in Milne’s progression towards mastery of the form.


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Call It a DayIt turns out that I was a bit rash on Friday when (in my review of Autumn Crocus by Dodie Smith) I comforted myself by saying that though the play was not fantastic, it was only her first and her “powers as a playwright developed far beyond this.”  Well, to be fair, they did: Dear Octopus is proof of that.  Call It A Day, on the other hand, is not.

Published in 1936 but first produced in 1935, Call It A Day follows the activities of the five members of the Hilton family over the course of one very long spring day.  The opening scene introducing the family is quite enjoyable: Dorothy and Roger Hilton wake up, are greeted by the new maid, banter over the paper, and, eventually, are interrupted by their teenage children, keen to use their parents’ washroom while the eldest daughter monopolizes the shared one.  It is a good start to the day and to the play.  After that, everything goes downhill rather quickly.

The rest of the play tracks the romantic quandaries each member of the family – save Ann, who is only fifteen – face over the course of the day.  Martin, the seventeen year old son, is captivated by the beautiful, forward new neighbour.  Catherine, the eighteen year old daughter, is hopelessly in love with the married painter who is doing her portrait.  And both Roger and Dorothy, for apparently the first time ever, are tempted to break their marriage vows – needing, it must be said, very little persuasion.

It would have been impossible to make me like Roger or Dorothy; even in the opening scene they grate a little and things get worse as the play progresses.  Martin is fine but so bland that his love scene could have easily been cut (and I do wonder why it wasn’t).  I feel very sorry for Catherine – there is no doubt that the painter lead her on, even if she is now the one pursuing him – and the most enjoyable moments of the play are when Ann is trying to comfort her heartbroken elder sister, in her own very Ann-like way:  “People often fall in love with someone who’s married.  Lots of great people have done it.  Perhaps you’re going to be great, though I can’t think what at.”  Though the sisters rarely get along (making teenage girls share a room seldom results in peace and harmony) on this one night at least they understand each other perfectly.  The sturdy Ann completely understands her sister’s infatuation and heartbreak (“You can’t shock a person whose favourite king is Charles the Second”) and does her best to run interference when their mother appears at bedtime.

Though I did enjoy all of Ann’s appearances, the play is a mess.  It is cluttered with too many storylines and with characters (namely Roger and Dorothy) whose behaviour is inexplicable.  I can’t say this is a play I’d wish to see performed.      

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Autumn Crocus Dodie SmithAutumn Crocus by Dodie Smith is no where near as good a play as Smith’s Dear Octopus but I would still love to see it performed live.  First produced in the spring of 1931, it is a three act play about a spinster school teacher who falls in love with a married hotelier while on holiday in Austria, not realising that he is married until she has already fallen in love.

Their romance is, frankly, not that interesting to read about.  It is slight and clichéd – the sort of thing that is dull on the page but can be made enjoyable on stage if the actors are compelling.  Reading the cast list for the first production, it is not difficult to see why this play – predictable as it is – was a success.  Fay Compton and Francis Lederer surely made the romantic leads far more interesting than they are on the page.

For me, the most delightful moments were provided by the supporting cast, the other guests at the alpine hotel where the play is set.  They are sadly underused in Act Two but in Acts One and Three they are wonderful.  Everyone comes in pairs: the pair of schoolteachers (the younger of whom, Fanny, falls in love), the vicar and his unmarried sister, the boisterous German tourists, and, my favourites, the young unmarried couple who take marriage so seriously that they feel they must first live together rather than rush into any sort of legal union.  Alaric and Audrey’s delight in explaining their situation to everyone around them amused me greatly, particularly when they explain their views to Mr Mayne, the vicar:

Audrey: Of course, your generation’s always so flippant about sex.  Look how you behave – rushing lightly into matrimony, peopling the world with unwanted children, thronging the divorce courts –

Mayne: I have never thronged a divorce court –

Alaric: Probably because you have never married – which is, in itself, a crime against the State.  The duty of every healthy male is to find a suitable mate – one who, by bring the necessary feminine attributes naturally omitted from his ego, will complete that ego, enabling it and its female counterpart to vibrate in plastic rhythm – united, yet individual – in dual unity with the harmonic cosmos.

Mayne: Good gracious!  I’m afraid I don’t know what any of that means.

Everyone in the hotel is aware of their unmarried state (how could they not be, with the young people constantly wanting to talk about it?) and more intrigued than outraged by it, especially Miss Mayne:

Miss Mayne: And how is the – the adventure?

Audrey: Adventure?

Miss Mayne: Yes – my brother was telling me about you.  Really, I think he expected me to be shocked, but, of course, I’m most interested in modern ideas.  Not that I get the chance of hearing many.  No one in our village ever does anything modern.

Audrey: Don’t they?

Miss Mayne: Well, not on purpose.  I mean, it’s only – well, by accident – one just rescues them, you know.  But you, of course, don’t want to be rescued.

Alaric: Well, not from ourselves.

And yet somehow Alaric and Audrey manage to be endearing rather than insufferable.  They are earnest without being particularly strident.  In the original production they were played by Jessica Tandy and Jack Hawkins, both looking very, very young.

Muriel Aked, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy in the J.C. Williamson London production of Autumn Crocus (credit: National Library of Australia)

Muriel Aked, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy in the J.C. Williamson London production of Autumn Crocus (credit: National Library of Australia)

All in all, it is not a particularly special play, though it is an impressive first effort.  I enjoyed the Austrian setting (there is a liberal amount of dialogue in German) and loved the supporting characters but am happy that Smith’s powers as a playwright developed far beyond this.

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Dear OctopusIt has been a long time since I’ve been as happy with a book as I was with Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith.  Simon did a good job of identifying some of its weaknesses – an overly large cast, a too-neat romance plot – in his charming review so I feel completely free to simply heap praise on it.

Produced and published in 1938, Dear Octopus is a comedy in three acts about the Randolph family, who have gathered to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the parents, Charles and Dora.  The family is large so it takes a while to get a feel for all the different relationships; while my head spun a bit during the first act, I had it all figured out by the second.  This is one of those few situations where I could understand why seeing the play might be preferable – it is far easier to keep track of a large cast visually than on paper.  Like any family, the Randolphs have their problems: one of the granddaughters is struggling to move on after her mother’s death; a daughter hasn’t returned home in seven years; a sister-in-law harbours a life-long love of Charles; and the siblings and grandchildren all have their private squabbles and disagreements.  But this is a Dodie Smith comedy, not a Dorothy Whipple melodrama, so none of these issues are allowed to overwhelm the story.  They add depth, certainly, but Smith also treats these issues sensibly: as difficulties to be overcome, not tragedies to be allowed to derail anyone.  The strength and support of the family,“that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to”, is there to help them all. 

Dear Octopus - Fenny and NicholasI, sentimental reader that I am, enjoyed the romance between Nicholas, Charles and Dora’s youngest child, and Fenny, Dora’s companion.  There is nothing startlingly original about it but I genuinely liked Fenny, was horribly embarrassed for her when an interfering Randolph relative explains that Nicholas has no interest in marrying her, was even more embarrassed when she threw herself at other men during the party to avoid Nicholas, and was, of course, delighted when everything worked out neatly.  Nicholas was played in the original stage production by John Gielgud (who I have been thinking about since reading Harriet’s review of Gielgoodies) and appears very striking in the photos that illustrate the book.

Really though, the heart of the play – and of the family – belongs to Dora and Charles.  In their seventies now, they are not only affectionate and charming, they are genuinely happy with each other and with themselves.  When Belle, Charles’ sister-in-law, confronts him about not achieving his boyhood dreams of writing or entering politics, he is far from regretful about the path he has taken:

Charles: I think I might have had a shot at politics – but there were so many far more important things to do.

Belle: What things?

Charles: Surely you have realised that any house that contains Dora also contains a number of Little Jobs?  You would be surprised, for instance, what a very large number of shelves I have put up and an almost equally large number I have taken down.  Then there have been children to play with, dogs to take walks, gardens to plan, neighbours to visit –

Belle: And you call these things important?

Charles: I do indeed.  I call the sum total of any man’s happiness important.

Belle: Have you been happy, Charles?

Charles: So happy that I am sometimes tempted to erect a statue to myself.  I should like people to be reminded that happiness isn’t quite obsolete.

I think that is beautifully expressed.  And while Belle, also in her seventies, does her best to fight age, Dora embraces it.  For Dora, it is not about how old you are but about how much you can do.  Different ages bring different experiences and she – like her husband – has enjoyed them all:

Cynthia: You’ve never minded growing old.

Dora: No, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed all my ages and I know your father has.  I think, perhaps, it’s a question of being interested in life.  There are so many things – people, theatres, books, wireless.  We’ve a new puppy arriving next week – really one life isn’t long enough.  Your father always says he’d like to be a Wandering Jew – provided, of course, that I was a Wandering Jewess.  I don’t think we shall ever be bored even when we’re quite old.

Cynthia: What would you call quite old, darling?

Dora: Oh, eighty-five or ninety.  Of course, when I read a book about a woman of seventy, she seems quite old, but it’s different when it’s yourself.

Cynthia: You always do seem to be just middle-age to me.

Dora: Your father says middle-age is stretching out, just as youth is.  One’s young until one’s forty and middle-aged till one’s eighty.  I dare say by the time you’re old we shall have got rid of old age altogether.  Anyway, there are nice things about every age if people realise it in time instead of in retrospect.  You should try to be your age and enjoy being it, my dear.

How could you not love Dora and Charles?

I also love their children and grandchildren, though they are less obviously wonderful.  Their squabbles and dialogue felt so natural, so much like how adult children talk when reunited; a mix of unshakable affection and undying rivalry.  Their disagreements, however silly and petty, are too sharp and too blunt to be the kind exchanged between friends: this is the way you can only talk to family.  But sibling arguments can also be resolved and forgotten with a speed that no other kind of friendship can match.  And they know their common enemy and can band together to show impressive force.

Everything ends nicely, with everyone who began at loose ends now taken care of and everyone who attempted to upset things put back in his/her place.  The writing is funny, the characters (once you figure out how to keep track of them) mostly endearing, and the story moves along at the perfect pace.  It is a delightfully fun book to spend an evening with and I know it is one of those books I will look forward to rereading.

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Michael and MaryMichael and Mary by A.A. Milne is my last Milne play of the year (most likely) but it was an excellent one to end with.  Published in 1930, it combines elements from many of the earlier plays I also read this year, which greatly added to my enjoyment.  After reading play after play where Milne toyed with the idea of bigamy for comic effect, it is nice to see him finally treat it seriously and not entirely conventionally (as though I would expect anything less of AAM).

Michael and Mary meet in the British Museum in 1905.  To me, this brought to mind Topaz’s mention in I Capture the Castle of her assignations there with Mr Mortmain before their marriage; these two books have nothing else in common, I just like the idea of the British Museum as a backdrop for clandestine affairs.  Michael, a bright young man and aspiring writer who seems to have much in common with his creator, is there for an assignation.  Mary, distraught and tearful, definitely is not.  Abandoned by her husband and utterly alone in the world, she is facing a horrifyingly bleak future.  Michael, noticing the poor girl, immediately strikes up a conversation and it isn’t long before he has uncovered her sad story and is trying to help her.  I think it is fair to say that Michael’s idea of “help” is more than generous, especially given his own youth and relative poverty:

MICHAEL:  Well, now I’ve got £200 in the bank which my mother left me.  I’ve rooms in Islington, if you know where that is.  I don’t know why, except that it’s a cheapish part of London, and Lamb used to live there.  I’m trying to be a writer…Even if I don’t earn anything for a year, I can almost live on half my balance – well, I can quite if I try.  The question is, Can you live on the other half?

MARY (incredulous).  Me live for a year on a hundred pounds?


MARY. Well, of course!

MICHAEL (looking at her thoughtfully).  I suppose I eat more or something.  Anyhow I can do it, and I will.  That gives us a year each, apart from what either of us earns in that time, which is bound to be something.  How old are you?

MARY. Twenty.

MICHAEL.  You child…And I’m twenty-three.  Both young enough to do anything.  And we’ve got a hundred pounds each.  It looks good enough.  What about it?

MARY. You mean you – Your father doesn’t give you an allowance?

MICHAEL. Good Lord, no.  He couldn’t if he would, and he probably wouldn’t if he could.  To a father “writing” just means shirking a real job.

MARY. So that’s all you have in the world?

MICHAEL. Except a fountain-pen with a gold nib. (He displays it proudly.)  A golden nib, indeed, as you shall see one day.

MARY. And you’re going to give me half of all you have in the world?

MICHAEL. Don’t keep on saying “all you have in the world” as if it included a couple of yachts and a coalmine.  I’m going to give you the extremely small sum of £100.

It is an extraordinary gesture and one that changes both their lives.  A year after befriending one another, and now quite in love, Michael and Mary decide to get married – ignoring the difficultly of Mary’s most-likely-still-alive husband.

Michael finds success as a writer, they have a much-adored son, and everything is going quite well until Mary’s husband surfaces after the war; having discovered his wife’s crime, he is now eager to blackmail the couple.  But in the middle of this attempted blackmail he falls down dead: it is convenient for Michael and Mary in that he can no longer blackmail them, but not so convenient in that they now have a dead body in their apartment and must explain its presence to the police without revealing who the man was.  It is a strange act, between the drama of the confrontation, the death, and the interview with the police, not to mention the moral questions that ensure in the wake of Mary’s husband’s death.  Should she and Michael get married again, legally this time?  Would that change anything?

The third act is the best.  After more than twenty years of marriage, Michael and Mary are perfectly happy.  They adore each other and worship their now adult son, David.  When David arrives home with his wife, having unexpectedly eloped, they decide to tell him the truth about their own marriage.  Milne heightens the tension around the reveal with David’s prim comments on morality and his ideas about the conventionality of his parent’s youth.  Like most children, he can’t imagine that his mother (known as Bubbles) and father indulged in anything beyond the most timid and unexceptional courtship, little dreaming of anything so extraordinary as that initial encounter in the British Museum:

DAVID (smiling at MICHAEL affectionately).  I suppose you and Bubbles, having obtained the co-operation and consent of your respective Papas and Mamas, got solemnly engaged to each other, and were allowed five minutes alone in the drawing-room together, after promising that you would be careful with the aspidistra and only kiss each other once?

It is David, not his parents, who is the conservative member of the family, though he is slightly ashamed to admit it, even to his wife:

DAVID.  I’ve got a confession to make.

ROMO. A very bad one?

DAVID. It is rather.  (Solemnly.)  I believe I’m Early Victorian.

ROMO. What a nice thing to be.

DAVID. It’s not really modern –

ROMO. I wonder sometimes if any of us are; if it isn’t just an invention of the newspapers and the novelists.

But some people are modern: just not the ones David or Romo would expect.  Poor innocents, with their affectionate contempt for the ”stodgy” older generation.

The parent-child bond here is as perfect as any could be – probably as AAM hoped his would be with Christopher (Robin) when he grew up – so of course David’s affection and respect for his parents never wavers, despite their shocking revelation.  The scene between them is sentimental but affecting.

To be perfectly honest, I like when Milne indulges his sentimental side.  There is an entire preface to the play in which he refutes the criticisms the play received when it ran, most of which seem to have focused on expressions of honest goodness and affection, whether it be Michael offering to share half of his worldly possessions with a total stranger and expecting nothing in return or David, moved by his parents’ confession, kissing their hands.  Goodness was just as unfashionable then as it is now.  This was not the sort of thing 1930s audiences wanted from Milne, whose comedies with their quick-witted nonsense were better received, but, having read so much of and by him this year, this romantic, more emotional side seems just as much a part of him, if less frequently expressed.  The father-son exchanges are particularly poignant, capturing first the awkwardness between Michael and his clergyman father and then the closeness and comfortable affection between Michael and David.  I found the image of Michael’s father leaving him after a not altogether successful encounter, filled with love for his son but only able to awkwardly express it, particularly moving:

MICHAEL. It’s awful cheek to say it, but however many other commandments I may break, I do honour you, father.  There’s something about sheer goodness that always gets me.  Mind you, I disagree with you profoundly about everything under the sun, sometimes you irritate me intensely – and – and yet (with a little ashamed laugh) I believe I love you.  Good-bye.

(But however near FATHER has come to SON in this speech, the VICAR is always between them)

ROWE (coldly). I don’t think you need break any commandments, Michael.

MICHAEL (lightly).  Well, you never know.  Pray for me, father.  I’m not so bad as you think.

ROWE (gravely).  I pray for you every night.

MICHAEL.  You would…Well, I try to be good, and I daresay I make a mess of it, and shall make a worse mess later on.  But anybody who sees into my heart knows that I try.  Well, good-bye and – er – thanks awfully.

ROWE. God be with you, my son.

MICHAEL (opening the door).  He will, if you ask him…I’ll come down with you.

ROWE (going out).  No, no.  You have work to do.

(He goes down the stairs…to the station…to the lonely Bedforshire vicarage…saying over in his mind all that MICHAEL said to him, all the loving things which he meant to have said to MICHAEL.  We shall not see him again; only little bits of him in MICHAEL, perhaps even in MICHAEL’s son.)

Though I love Milne’s nonsensical bantering in his other plays, it was wonderful to see him treat a serious topic seriously for once, with both sensitivity and intelligence.  Michael and Mary’s ponderings on the morality of their marriage at various stages in their lives is fascinating but, more than anything, I think Milne excelled here at writing about the bonds between family members.  Whether it was Michael and his father or David and his parents, Milne captures the unique blendings of awkwardness and unwavering love that in one case made for a deeply uncomfortable and unsatisfying relationship and, on the other, provided mother, father, and son with immense joy.

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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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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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