Tales in transformation: Pygmalion

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.

Image from the 1913 edition of Pygmalion, which originally starred Mrs Patrick Campbell

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).

Wendy Hiller in the 1938 film

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.

Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, and Wilfrid Hyde-White in the 1964 film of My Fair Lady

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?

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11 thoughts on “Tales in transformation: Pygmalion

  1. I‘ve seen the „more elaborate“ version of Shaw‘s play performed on stage a couple of times, though I didn‘t know at first that Shaw‘s original version was much more bare bones. I‘m glad he did revise the play, though, because like to you, to me it‘s really Eliza‘s transformation that „makes“ the story. Also, coming to the play from the movie, which I had first seen as a child, I was surprised and elated to see Eliza reject Higgins‘s assumption they were going to marry at the end. (The movie‘s ending is so very much Hollywood with cream on top!) I actually like the sense that we don‘t know what Eliza is eventually going to do with her life; it feels like we‘re leaving her just at the point where she has all the world before her to choose. (And there‘s quite another statement in that, too, of course: All it takes to take her out of her class and open up possibilities that she wouldn‘t have had otherwise is a posh accent and a clear diction.) Sometimes I worry a bit that Eliza is going to become a bit of a lonely wanderer between worlds after all — no longer of her father’s class but, once her background is known, rejected by „her betters“ after all, too — but I would very much like to believe that she is able to capitalize on her newfound strength and abilities to forge a successful path for herself … whatever it turns out to be.

    1. I also like a more open-ended conclusion — I could even do without Shaw’s afterword telling us everything that he thinks happened next. An imaginative writer could come up with an interesting spin-off!

      1. I‘m glad they don‘t read out the afterword in a stage production. Or at least they didn‘t in the productions I saw! They just let the acting speak as to Eliza‘s choice.

        And I‘m not a huge fan of „ filling in the blanks“ pastiche sequels, either, just because I don‘t want other people to do my imagining for me … 🙂

  2. I like the version where she doesn’t marry him! A few years ago I saw the long version of this at the Shaw Festival with the line about her supporting him. There was a car on the stage and lots of farce timing (entrances and exits) and it was a great show!

    1. The physical part of the acting is important. I missed that when I was just reading it, not being capable of imagining all the “business” myself.

  3. I did read Pygmalion years ago and loved it, but it was superseded in my memory by My Fair Lady. I still LOVE the soundtrack! I had forgotten the differences in the endings, but do like the idea that Liza would want to support Freddy. She certainly was competent, after the tutelage of Henry Higgins. I never knew Rex Harrison despised the music, but he certainly didn’t sing much. There was lots of reciting.

    1. It was never one of my very favorite musicals, but I can now appreciate that it’s a work of genius in its own way. So sad that Julie Andrews’s performance was never captured on screen. I think Harrison’s “speech-singing” ended up being perfect for the character of Higgins, but it did come about basically because he couldn’t sing. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have much use for people who could.

  4. As much as I loved the film, I always ended the end when she comes back to Higgins. I want her independant and able to support whoever *she* chooses to marry – or not !

    1. I absolutely agree. And even Higgins says that he does not want her fetching his slippers like a dog! It’s an ending that makes no sense, except to sentimentalists.

  5. I actually have to side with Shaw on this one — Eliza’s too good for Higgins. But Themis Athena pinpoints the underlying conundrum — an approved accent won’t make Eliza “suitable” for any upper class suitor, so her options are somewhat limited. It’s telling that Higgins doesn’t know this, no matter how clear it may be to Eliza (and probably to Pickering).

    1. She’s much smarter than he is, in fact. I believe that’s why he falls in love with her in the end — and why she would definitely not be idiotic enough to marry him. There would need to be a whole sequel involving HIS re-education, for that to be possible, I think!

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