In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with the statue he has carved. He kisses it and the statue comes to life, and he marries his creation.
When Lerner and Leowe devised the musical, My Fair Lady, they had a hit on their hands: the show ran during the 1950s at Drury Lane and transferred to Broadway. Few of the audiences would have been familiar with the work from which the script was taken. Bernard Shaw’s play has none of the Cecil Beaton glamour seen on stage and screen: it discusses the class system, the position of women in society, the attitudes to the “undeserving poor” and the desperation of the “genteel poverty” of ladies who, unable to earn their own income, are forced into eking out a genteel existence whilst seeking husbands for their unmarried daughters.
Eliza represents a “new woman”: anxious to keep her independence and to support herself.
Through Henry Higgins, Shaw satirises a society which judges someone on how they speak and what they look like. In Act 3, one class cannot understand the language of another, but assumes that if the argot of the gutter is pronounced impeccably by a “lady ” then it must be the new small talk and highly fashionable. The effect is highly comic, but as Mrs Higgins then points out, they have reduced Eliza to an automaton. What is to become of her when Higgins has finished his experiment? Is she to be thrown back into the gutter? This question informs the great quarrel scene in Act 4: an exchange in which Higgins is the victor- temporarily, but in Act 5 we see that Eliza is not crushed. So has Henry Higgins emancipated Eliza by giving her articulate speech? Has she benefited because she is now free and can do what she wants? The resemblance to the myth ends here: Higgins is not “in the marrying line”.
The debate is also carried on by Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, who is highly articulate in defending his “undeserving poverty” against the “middle class morality”: a clash which today is seen in the arguments around the benefits culture. Doolittle’s speeches form a great essay by Shaw on the class attitudes- from his intellectual (and wealthy) left-wing standpoint. Perhaps the reason why Higgins laughs so much in the end is that he realises you cannot change a flower girl into a lady.
The debating style of the script has led to a method of presentation in which the “realism” which Shaw strives for has some elements of non-realism. When Doolittle (and occasionally Eliza and Higgins) voice Shaw’s own ideas they stand away from the dramatic situation to speak to us all, as if on a soapbox: Higgins’ and Eliza’s verbal duelling is shown through their fencing-like movements, and the relative positions of Mrs Higgins show her role as a voice of reason, often seated while Henry restlessly voices his obsessions and enthusiasms.
We shall be presenting the play in mid-April at Marly-le-Roi in a very different theatre, and so we have had to devise a minimal staging and set which will travel in our coach. After our two English “farces” performed in France, Les Baladins, our French partner troop, asked for a classic drama. Shaw may have been Irish by birth, but he settled in England and was part of the intellectual elite in the country house set; he dined regularly with the Astor’s at Cliveden. His play is unquestionably part of English literature.