The origin of the idea for Lerner and Loewe to undertake a musical play based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion been retold many times, with some variation. Apparently, promoter Gabriel Pascal, who owned the rights to musical versions of Shaw’s plays, tried to interest a number of composer-lyricists in the task of converting Pygmalion. Rodgers and Hammerstein are said to have turned the opportunity down, feeling that Shaw’s play is not a romance – romance being the essential foundation in their conception of a Broadway musical. According to Lerner, when he and Loewe were first offered the play, they were skeptical of the ability to musicalize Pygmalion because of the lack of a subplot. After further reflection, however, the pair decided to tackle the task because “times had changed”; a subplot was not required because of perceived evolution in the stage musical over the previous few years, or so Lerner says.
As far as Hammerstein’s apocryphal reservation is concerned, it is quite clear that Lerner and Loewe interpreted the play as intrinsically romantic, no matter how vehemently Shaw had claimed it was not. Their interpretation of Pygmalion is not without in independent support, I recall reading a high school anthology (my first encounter with Pygmalion) edited by J. B. Priestly, in which he describes Shaw as “anti-romantic” since the character of Eliza certainly falls in love with Higgins, whether Shaw, her ultimate “creator” acknowledged the fact or not. Maybe GBS was pulling every one’s leg, including that extremely small (future) Shavian minority who disdain My Fair Lady because of its failure to adhere to its hero-author’s extra-textual assertions. Or, perhaps that which occurs in a play such as Pygmalion extends beyond the intent of its author, taking on a life of its own.
And, is there actually no subplot in either Pygmalion or My Fair Lady? Further, is Pygmalion like its offspring, itself a romance? I believe the answers to both questions are related, particularly insofar as the individual audience member is concerned; never mind George Bernard Shaw.
Applying the concept of the inner experience of the onstage story, the play becomes a whole with discrete but related parts. Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle and Alfred Doolittle and Mrs. Higgins and Freddie and Pickering all are part of the seated individual in the audience. What is My Fair Lady about: Eliza or Higgins? Certainly it is Eliza who seems to experience the most profound external change. Her speech, manner, appearance: all are transformed. But, looking more closely, consider what has happened to her character: there does not seem to be that much of a difference between the dirty flower girl who saucily asks Higgins to teach her to speak correctly and the defiant woman who tells him to “go to Hertford,
and Hampshire”. Higgins’ claim that he has made a woman of Eliza is baldly wrong.
She is still very much her own person, much more refined, self-assured, and attractive,
but still herself. Perhaps the one profound change that has occurred in her is her
willingness to forgive, Lerner’s most explicit addition to Shaw’s tale, else how
could she possibly return to Henry?
And, what do we make of Henry Higgins? Virtually nothing external of the “professor” has changed from the beginning of the play to the end, except that he has not only allowed a woman into his home (besides the servants and the American heiresses), he has unwittingly allowed a woman into his life. Early on, it is clear that Eliza would welcome a man into her life, his head resting on her knee. But never would Henry permit a woman into his. It is the male lead who experiences the most unsettling transformation in both plays, in that he is forced to confront his profound self-deception. Shortly thereafter, Lerner salves Higgins’ self-inflicted wound with Eliza’s return.
Is Eliza Galatea to Higgins’ Pygmalion or is Higgins really both mythical characters? The task of transforming Eliza is perhaps better viewed as an unconscious effort at Higgins’ own re-creation. The struggle to realize one’s, internal maturation and integration can often express itself in our relationships with others, as we project our unconscious on them. Higgins is a master projector, particularly when we look closely at his own self-image. Of the principal characters, the professor is most repulsed by Eliza: “Look at her,” he says, “a prisoner...” Eliza is not the only prisoner here; in his disdain for the flower girl, Higgins is expressing a kind of self-description for that which is within and of which he is virtually and completely unaware. The lack of self-knowledge displayed by Professor Henry Higgins is nowhere more clearly shown than in his two “hymns”: “An ordinary man” and “Why can’t a woman”. There is, of course, Higgins’ own self-directed and aware irony in calling himself “ordinary”, he clearly realizes his own brilliance and uniqueness: “Let the others of my sex” get married; he will “never let a woman in”.
What of the “missing subplot”? There is the pitiful Freddie (completing, with Higgins, a most peculiar triangle). And, there is the appalling Alfred Doolittle. Higgins aptly and accurately describes the idea of Eliza’s possible marriage to Freddie as “infantile”. As enamored as Freddie is of Eliza, it is clear that his “Miss Doolittle” is an illusion. He would rather “drink in” the street where she lives, encouraging the maid to tell Eliza not to rush. And, Eliza eventually sees through Freddie, too (according to Lerner, if not Shaw); all he wants to do is sing (“talk”) and fantasize, not relate to her as a person. Eliza realizes that Freddie is no better than Higgins. In a sense, Freddie’s Galatea is stranded on the pedestal.
Isn’t Freddie really a kind of shallow, mushy complement to Higgins? Freddie no more wants a real woman in his life than does the good professor. Both have a fantasy view of the feminine. In his relative maturity, Henry sees women as manipulative and irrational. The idea of relationship is alien. His intellectual and masculine “superiority” fail to recognize anything of value in any woman, except, perhaps, to maintain his household. Freddie’s worship of femininity, whether lower class or elevated Eliza, places women at a distance. Eliza and Freddie never really communicate. And for virtually all of My Fair Lady, Eliza and Higgins fail to establish conscious communication, although both seem to try in their own ways.
Is there anything more absent from Higgins that the romanticism of a Freddie? For, even if he expressed even a glimmer of infatuation for Eliza or any woman, would not he still keep himself distant? In his initial “hymn”, his self-described “ordinariness” is accompanied by the infernce that he lacks the ability to relate to a woman. He has had to deal with “social-climbing heiresses” from the Colonies and finds it necessary to deal with them crudely and insensitively. It is clear that Eliza is not the first woman of any status to be treated so badly; the romanticism of a Freddie would only encourage them; better to wear the hostile facade of the misogynist than to risk entanglement with “irrational, mutton-headed hags”.
Could a romantic Freddie lay dormant deep within Higgins, suppressed and imprisoned for fear of the master losing control? Freddie doesn’t care what other people think. Presumably, Higgins doesn’t either, but woe to the man who is perceived by others as weak. Better to be in control of every situation and to be the omnipotent one.
The typical masculine inclination is to be “in-charge”. Where that is not possible, the male wants to know precisely who is in charge and what the limits of authority are, so that he can be master of at least a small part of his fate. In Freddie’s fantasy world (which is the only realm he controls), there are no constraints, but in the real world he is incompetent; he is unable to find a taxicab after the theater, and is dominated by his mother and sister (although the latter appears only in Pygmalion). Higgins’ relationship with his mother is equally unsatisfactory, as, rightly, her view of him is not as an adult male. Both Mrs. Eynesford-Hill and Mrs. Higgins presumably want their sons to grow up, but neither has had much success.
Combine Higgins and Freddie, and the result would probably still be grotesquely unsatisfactory. Not only are there direct incompatibilities and contradictions in their characters, something is still missing. Enter Alfred Doolittle. Higgins claims to like Eliza’s father. Is that because he sees a kind of soul-mate? Is not Doolittle as much an “ordinary” man as Higgins? “With a little bit” is as unrealistic and deceptive as the self-image of an “ordinary man.” Doolittle, who sees himself as a “do-little”, indeed, pretends to be utterly depraved and dissolute; but he still maintains a puzzling paternal relationship with his daughter, who is presumably illegitimate. Who heard of a stereotypical ne’er-do-well who acknowledges his paternity? And where is Eliza’s mother? This is a curious plot element.
Explicitly, Doolittle has relationships with women well beyond the apparent experience of Higgins or Freddie. But unlike Henry, Doolittle seems to be unaffected by them, except that he is apparently faithful, after a fashion, to his daughter and his paramour.
Higgins rationalizes his life in a way analogous to Doolittle’s; no wonder he likes the old man. But, the professor cannot leave well enough alone, and, as with the daughter, Higgins intervenes in Doolittle’s life, putting him in touch with an American heiress who munificently endows the dustman with a financial foundation and the obligation to become a professional moralist.
Higgins, by his conscious meddling in the lives of Eliza and Alfred, unconsciously begins to effect change in himself as well. As Eliza begins to grow in the mold Higgins has crafted (a mold which is really not that different from Eliza herself), Higgins is reshaped as well (and far more drastically). New attitudes, unwelcome emotions, and recognition of a degree of less independence than previously thought all begin to emerge from within Henry, in spite of himself.
There is a secondary meaning to “ordinary”, in addition to a “self-description” as typical, average man-on-t he-street, “ordinary” can also imply “responsible,” “in-charge,” or “controlled”. Like Pygmalion, Higgins believes he is entirely responsible for the education of Eliza. Thus he takes (unconvincing) credit for even her mature, self-assured rejection of her former professor. But, unlike sculpture crafted by the Greek hero, Eliza was also being affected by
Pickering, Mrs. Pierce, and even Freddie. It is
the housekeeper and the Colonel who acquaint Eliza with Edwardian culture from
the inside, not Higgins. When Henry claims to have made a woman of Eliza, his
self-deception reaches its apogee. Eliza has learned how to be in relationship
with equals of all strata without relying on guile or deception. What has
Higgins learned? Quite a lot! For the repressed and denied Freddie inside of
Higgins finally emerges, as Henry faces the bald cold reality of his affection
for Eliza. She has stirred something within him. Disoriented and irrational, he
rants and raves in a complex of sentimentality, anger, wistfulness, bitter rage,
bargaining, and despair. Higgins is no longer ordinary, average, typical, or in
control of the sea and sky, the tides and seasons.
The cryptic adventures of Alfred Doolittle are highlighted to the extent that they provide comic relief, yes, but also insofar as they illuminate the change going on inside Higgins. Doolittle recognizes that his world is changed by his “unwelcome” affluence. And, he must respond by marrying his hidden woman. He must acknowledge her and make of them both “honest people”. And, there is bitterness in Doolittle’s “involuntary” change, expressed in Shaw’s Fabian socialist vocabulary, deriding middle-class mores and facades which must now be assumed by the ex-dustman.
DoolittIe’s marriage foreshadows Higgins’ necessary acknowledgment of his inner feminine, romantic self. In Alan Lerner’s defense, the marriage in the morning prophesies the transformed relationship of Eliza and Henry; their marriage presumable comes shortly after the curtain falls (the time of My Fair Lady is Edwardian England, and the time of Lerner and Loewe is the late Forties to mid-Fifties; in neither time were publicly acknowledged live-in relationships without marriage socially acceptable).
For the male in the audience, Higgins is a caricature, but a man in whom one can recognize himself: Self-controlled and ordinary master of his fate (however illusory), in fear of or in denial of relationship with the feminine. The truthfulness of Eliza, who is never dishonest, contrasts with the deceptive male ego, which cannot trust another, nor make the humble but risky investment in real relationship.
Higgins, who consciously separates himself from women (except to survive on the means which they provide), Freddie who idealizes the feminine, and Doolittle who explicitly uses them for whatever is convenient, are – none of them – the best representatives of the male sex. Only by integration of responsibility, imagination, eros, and trust, and by relaxation of control does the male begin to approach balance with that which is hidden beneath the surface, so as to produce a marriage of the opposites.
My Fair Lady-Pygmalion is not real, so the debate about which ending is correct is a bit sterile. However, as a symbol of the maturation-individuation of the individual, Pygmalion is more realistic in the sense that failed opportunities (denied relationships) seem to be far more common in affluent Western life that the ideal fulfillment postulated by Lerner. My Fair Lady represents the romantic and spiritual ideal, however rocky the road to married life of a Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle would be.
For the femaIe in the audience, recognition of the true nature of the play probably comes easier than for the male. Women recognize Higgins, Freddie, and Doolittle, although the recognition may be born more from experience than nature. The extent to which a primitive attraction for any of the three is experienced may well be symbolic of that unconscious masculine within the woman which as not yet been realized. Each of the three types can deceive, just as Eliza was initially misled into believing that the conscious Higgins really cared. As she saw her desires for culture, and gentility (really relationship with her “betters”) being realized, she attributes to Higgins total responsibility for her growth and success. Her awakening is to awareness of his profound conscious shortcomings and her own inner strength and potential independence. As she tells him of her discovery ("Without you"), the cynical young flower-girl is revealed as a realistic and balanced woman, not that far removed from her roots. She has become fully capable of balancing her desires for relationship with a realistic understanding and ability to tap traditionally masculine qualities within herself, not the least of which is her self-sufficiency.
Higgins’ gruesome fantasy of Eliza and Freddie starving in a flat overlooks the fact that even in her flower-girl days, Eliza was surviving. No, Eliza would not fail, although a marriage with Freddie would be beneath her, unless Freddie were to grow up.
Fortunately for Eliza (and more so for Higgins), Henry begins to grow up first, before Freddie. However slow and painful the process maybe – Eliza may still be fetching his slippers – but their relationship will be an adult one. With a significant amount of work ahead, Higgins must begin to let go of his ordinariness, and Eliza must teach him about life.
!, music and plot elements reinforce My Fair Lady’s essential theme. The
self-similarities of the various character relationships, combined with their
elaboration in song, forge a profound coherence that, like the R&H’s “ground-breaker”,
remains a classic. The interacting strange loops of each character with the
strange loop that is the audience member reinforce a sense of growth, maturation,
and fulfillment. Oklahoma
[This article was previously posted on maxfrac; a few edits and observations have been added.]