As part of my month of Reading the Theatre, I wanted to read one or more plays. And when I started reading The Incomparable Rex, about Rex Harrison and the American revival of My Fair Lady in the 1970s, I became curious to read the source material for the musical: George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Harrison was adamant about preserving the lines of Shaw (and contemptuous of the musical elements of the show, to the point of profanity); but how do the two versions actually compare? I’d never read or seen the original, so it seemed a good time to seek it out.
The version that I read surprised me. For one thing, it was missing the famous scene that shows cockney Eliza actually learning to speak proper English — the number “The Rain in Spain” in the musical. It also lacked any demonstration of her triumph at the end, where she fools another language expert into thinking she’s a princess. This version of the play has only five scenes:
- The first encounter of Eliza and Professor Higgins in Covent Garden
- A scene in Higgins’s house where Eliza comes and asks him to teach her and he makes it into a bet with his friend Pickering
- A scene showing the results of the first stage of instruction, when Eliza attends Higgins’s mother’s At Home afternoon with comical results
- A scene with Eliza, Higgins, and Pickering coming home from a party where Eliza has finally succeeded in the challenge
- And a final scene at Higgins’s mother’s house again, after Eliza has left Higgins and Pickering in disgust.
That’s it. We don’t see anything about Higgins’s teaching methods or Eliza’s gradual metamorphosis — only the results, in isolated stages along the way. And we don’t see her going through the trial that tests her achievement — only her fury at being ignored and passed over by the men, in its aftermath. This makes the play relatively simple to stage, with a minimal number of sets and characters, while allowing for Shaw to make his intellectual point about the relativity and artificiality of class distinctions. However, it leaves something lacking in the emotional dimension.
When I looked further into the history of the play, I found out that the public-domain version that I read is only the first incarnation of the story. First produced in 1913, it was revisited and revised more than once by Shaw — most importantly for the 1938 film with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. This is actually the version that was adapted into the musical. So I watched the movie (available online for free, in a terrible copy but watchable).
And this is the version that includes the scenes I was missing — the speech exercises, the duchess’s ball — plus some others that would definitely not be easy to include in a stage play, like Eliza protesting loudly in the bathtub. I think it’s not just familiarity that makes me find the added scenes a more satisfactory solution to the dramatic problems posed by this tale. It is important to show Eliza’s efforts and her breakthrough, to feel with her the pain and the joy of struggling toward a new self. It explains how she becomes attached to the irascible Higgins — because he is associated for her with this process, and with her awakening to her own potential.
The musical is successful because it brings out the emotional trajectory of the play even more strongly through music, song, and dance. The song “The Rain in Spain,” for example, is an effective portrayal of the turning point in Eliza’s life, as she goes from dully speaking speech exercises in an isolated chair, to singing them (when finally pushed over the limit by the exhortations of Higgins), to dancing with the elated Higgins and Pickering, joyfully imitating bulls and toreadors, until they finally all collapse together on a couch — the former distance between them having been erased. It does what a song in a musical should do: it heightens the feeling dimension and portrays it through other means than mere words, bringing it into movement and imagery. That explains why Harrison, a word-man and not a singer, was uncomfortable with the music and found it unnecessary; but in this case I think he was wrong. It is possible to improve on Shaw.
There are other differences between the earlier and later versions. One that I particularly noticed was that Eliza first says she will marry Freddy “as soon as he can support me.” Later on, this was changed to “as soon as I can support him” — a much funnier line and more appropriate for the strong and independent character she has revealed herself to be.
And this highlights the crucial problem in all the versions: what will she do with herself now? Eliza has grown fond of Higgins because he was the catalyst for her self-transformation, for her discovery of what she is capable of. He regards her as his puppet, his creature; but she knows otherwise. And Shaw was adamant that although Higgins makes his own metamorphosis by recognizing that he has come to need and desire Eliza, she does NOT marry him at the end (at least according to a long afterword appended to the playscript). All the Hollywood and Broadway versions bring them back together and imply that they become a couple, but that is a concession to popular demand.
What do you think? Should Eliza marry Higgins, or Freddy — or should she become an independent entrepreneur? How would you rewrite this eternally fascinating story of transformation?