12 August 2015

My Fair Lady vs. Pygmalion

This blog has been in want of some real content, but these days my attention span has been waning, and when it comes to actually finishing sentences, I literally can't even. I'm going to a special school where the teach you how to focus called College, and maybe after that you'll get something besides doodles of Disney characters. But then again, it's college, so maybe you won't.

Anyway, I wrote this essay for a scholarship contest that I never heard the end of, so if you have time to peruse through my No-Award-Winning Essay, this is the place to find it. I had a lot of fun researching it, and yes, I quote C.S. Lewis. Goshdarnnit I need to branch out (never).


Although nearly everyone is familiar with the classic musical My Fair Lady, few remember the original script by George Bernard Shaw on which the movie was based.  While Shaw's play, Pygmalion, was wildly successful when it graced the London stage in 1913, it was quickly overshadowed in favor of the Broadway version in 1956, which was in turn quickly overshadowed by the film adaptation in 1964. It is curious why Pygmalion was so eagerly discarded in favor of its’ musical adaptation, even though much of the dialogue from Shaw’s original work is maintained word-for word, even in the song lyrics. Shaw’s premise remains unchanged as well: the “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle abandons her business selling flowers on the street corner to take lessons from the speech therapist Henry Higgins as an effort to improve her English.  But both plays end up in completely different places by the time the curtain falls.

In Pygmalion, Eliza eventually abandons Henry Higgins on bitter terms to marry her lover, Freddy Eynsford-Hill. In My Fair Lady, however, the last shot of the film ends with Eliza appearing again in Henry’s drawing room, implying that there may yet be some reconciliation between them.  Personally, I find both endings natural and even necessary to the script when considered in their own context.  In Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical, I found it immensely satisfying that Eliza returned to Henry Higgins, but when the same possibility was suggested in Pygmalion, the very thought of it was repulsive and ridiculous. That is when I realized the culprit: the Higgins in Pygmalion and the Higgins in My Fair Lady are two very different people. On the surface, the differences appear slight, but the fact that they can produce such drastically different endings is a testament to their importance.

Let us begin with the first and most obvious difference: the addition of music. The overall tone of Shaw’s play consists, of dry, satirical dialogue. In contrast, My Fair Lady evokes a more whimsical, lighthearted atmosphere that is demanded by the very nature of musical theatre. This is to be expected from any musical adaptation. It is very rare that a musical does not end happily, as musicals are designed to entertain and be appealing to audiences of all ages. Some musical gurus may disagree with this, but just compare Victor Hugo's quiet, bittersweet ending to Les Miserables to the upbeat musical number that concludes the stage adaptation.  No one is denying that musical can deal with serious and even dark themes, but let's face it: music, even depressing music, makes us happier. Applying this style of musical storytelling to Shaw’s play necessarily invokes alterations to the characters in order to fit the musical mold—the most noticeable alteration being the character of Henry Higgins. While he still remains the arrogant, domineering character that Shaw intended him to be, he also possesses a quick wit, charismatic attitude, sense of humor, and even a spark of sympathy that simply does not exist in the Pygmalion script.   

But even without the musical elements, the Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady is a fundamentally different character than the Henry Higgins of Pygmalion. We may scorn him for calling Eliza a “fool” and a “brazen hussy” in My Fair Lady, but we abhor him for calling her an “idiot” and a “damned impudent slut” in Pygmalion. A careful reading of the original play alongside it’s musical version reveals certain gestures of kindness in exhibited by the musical Mr. Higgins that are completely absent in the non-musical Mr. Higgins.  For example, in one scene from the musical not even hinted at in Pygmalion, Henry gives Eliza his thermos to ease her headache and then sits down beside her to encourage her. “I know you’re tired,” he says, “But think what you’re trying to accomplish...the majesty and grandeur of the English language...and that’s what you’ve set out to conquer, Eliza! And conquer it you will.” In another scene, just moments before the ball he explains to Pickering that she really matters to him, and even admits that he has taken note of things such as her eye and hair color in his song “Why Can’t a Woman be more like a Man?”

When Eliza finally succeeds to speak properly for the first time, Higgins’s reaction is unforgettable, as he jumps up in his excitement and begins to dance with her. It is the only moment in the film where Eliza and Higgins genuinely enjoy one another’s company, and while that moment may be fleeting, it is completely nonexistent in Shaw’s play. Shaw only dedicates one scene to Eliza’s lessons before jumping straight to the end of her training. Shaw’s script contains no relief from the tensions between the two characters and no hint of relief in the end. It almost gives you the feeling of holding your breath for two and a half hours.

Yet if the reader remains unconvinced that these small differences could cause these two plays to divorce each other on such a dramatic scale, allow me to assert that these differences may very well be a question of redemption or damnation. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imaginatively depicts this difference as the difference between a “grumbler” and a mere “grumble.”  It all begins “with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it.” “But there may come a day,” he says, “when … there will be no YOU left to criticize the mood.” The grumble itself is all that is left and it “goes on forever like a machine.”

The Higgins in My Fair Lady is a grumbler. All that is left of the Higgins in Pygmalion is a grumble. There is hope for the first but none for the second. In My Fair Lady, Eliza was only returning to an occasionally unpleasant but not wholly disagreeable domestic situation, but in Pygmalion she would have been returning to the ninth circle of Hell, in which case she really would have been a damned impudent slut. I believe that the Higgins that danced with the Fair Lady Eliza on that fleeting, precious night could grow and grow into the remarkable man Higgins was capable of becoming (this inner conflict becomes clear in his final song “I’ve grown accustomed to her face”). But in Shaw’s play, no such spark of humanity even seems possible.

It is questionable whether Shaw thought such sparks should be possible, or whether they even existed at all. Clearly he would not have been pleased with the new ending, as he states in the afterword that “happy endings” are a “lazy dependence” of the imagination “which Romance keeps its stock...to misfit all stories.” Perhaps Shaw is just as baffled of man’s need for a happy ending as Higgins is of woman’s need for affection, and, like Higgins, he attributes the whole if their dependence to a mere social construction.  But if Higgins could not get it right, I doubt Mr. Shaw knows what he’s talking about either.

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