A Personal Reflection on ‘My Fair Lady’

pygmalionPerforming once more in Sydney this year has been a re-run of the 2016 version of Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady, a production directed by Julie Andrews, its original star, and featuring reproductions of the authentic Cecil Beaton costumes.  It celebrated the 60th anniversary of this musical’s opening in London’s West End, after its 1956 triumphal season on Broadway.

Subject to numerous revivals, the present one, a romping treat for the eyes and ears, is true to the original 1950’s sets and costumes.  This adds to our sense of what is an interesting anachronism: Edwardian optimism through the prism of that other most optimistic of eras, the twentieth-century’s Fifties.  The Edwardian era is shown to us through a musical ‘book’ prepared for an audience in 1950’s style. The refraction takes place through the already iconic Shavian tale of Eliza Doolittle, an ambitious but impoverished young Covent Garden flower girl, a raw-voiced Cinderella, transformed as a result of a bet between two Edwardian gentlemen into a beautiful and accomplished girl readily passed off as a princess, metamorphosed by nothing more than a bath, some elocution and a glamorous new dress or two.

I viewed it recently at a matinee performance in Sydney’s heritage-listed Capitol theatre, a glorious Italianate confection of 1928 movie-going splendor, decked out with Roman statuary dimmed by the overall blue-green hues of the place.  My last attendance there had been for ‘Mary Poppins’, another musical fantasy about escape from the strictures of Edwardian life.  And now I’m here for My Fair Lady, a title chosen from the end refrain of the traditional nursery song London Bridge is Falling Down, suggesting immediately an older order of things.  As an undemanding musical feast recommended for its wit and costumed extravaganza, representing a longing for a backward glance at a world of elegance now lost, busloads of blue-rinse matrons have arrived from the Central Coast to see it, dragging along a few reluctant males.  They are drawn from afar as to no other musical, and no other performance; the audience for this anniversary revival has broken every previous Sydney Box Office record.

The attendees’ couture of the day showed a disconcerting range of fashion choices, from glitz luxe to plain and smartly tidy, right through to the occasional sneakers and ripped denim, for ‘matinee’ competes with ‘smart casual’ as an indecipherable dress code.  At the entries, these all-Aussie coastal female gaggles and many others milled around jostling for space with international visitors, including a selfie-snapping quartet of chirruping young Chinese girls wearing fancy broad brimmed and heavily-flowered chapeaux, having no hesitation in honoring the occasion as they saw fit, posing in a serial cascade on the marble staircase.

The narrative of My Fair Lady derives substantially from George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 stage play Pygmalion, a deliberately transformative title, for the name references a Greek myth about a sculptor who brings to life Galatea, a my fair lady posterfemale statue he has sculpted for himself, dreamed into warmth out of cold marble by his love for her.  Shaw uses it to symbolise his theme that manipulation is possible in all things, including the received social order, although to me it hints that Shaw’s Pygmalion was story about love, ownership, resistance and power from the start.

It is by no flight of fancy that the original 1936 poster for Pygmalion, later used for My Fair Lady and reprised for this Sydney performance, depicts a long-bearded Shaw as a Jehovah figure in the clouds, adorned with angel wings, but sprouting tiny satanic horns from his domed forehead.  He is shown pulling the marionette strings of Professor Henry Higgins, the puppetmeister of poor strung-up Eliza Doolittle, who is dancing to the tune of Henry Higgins’ own lampooned misogyny.  Neither is it any surprise that Eliza resists and wins out over such displays of masculine ineptitude in the end, and that their future together is left unresolved.

For Shaw was writing in a period of optimistic social change, in 1912, just prior to the First World War, when an active suffragette movement drew women together across class barriers, and social horizons were expanding rapidly for everyone. Edwardians were shaking off Victorian chains.  Social class mores and social mobility had become the objects of authorial musing about opportunistic escapes from class drudgery and the problems of coping with such freedoms; about escape from the self as well as from the power that others hold over you; and this escape was not just for women.  Thus 1910 had already seen novelist H.G. Well’s character ‘Mr. Polly’ come confusedly up from under the dead hand of a career as a draper within the dreary lower middle classes, as unresolved in the end as is Eliza in her escape from the buoyant but seedy life of the workers of Covent Garden, who fail to recognise her in her new guise when she returns.

These two key intellectuals, Shaw and Wells, could still muse with optimism about class mobility through individual action within a firm social order, musings that were not yet shattered by the carnage so soon to come.  Following that cataclysm, in the reworked post-war world with its hedonism, its dismays, its collective angers, erupting into the flaring Marxism and Fascism of the nineteen thirties, such individuated musings about rising through the unchanging social strata seemed almost redundant.  They were scarcely to make a return in popular culture until the Brave New World of the Fifties when, once again, opportunity knocked after struggling through the hard times of the Great Depression and then the Second World War.  Audiences wanted stories of hope and achievement once more, as seen in the rise of ‘the musical’ as an engaging entertainment genre, on Broadway and then in cinemas, with My Fair Lady riding high on that wave.  And more than that, the audiences wanted ‘romance’, a happy ending after a vibrant chorus had sung them through the problems of the plot.

Times had indeed changed by the Fifties, so much so that the subtle suffragette assistances provided by Shaw once more struck a note with women of the Fifties seeking a way forward from re-imposed post-war constraints, women looking for a new interpretation of themselves.   Eliza herself, Mrs. Pierce the housekeeper, and Henry’s redoubtable upper-crust mother, Mrs. Higgins, still came across in the 1950s, as now, and as in 1913, as three strong women, in contrast to the somewhat silly self-obsessed men, epitomised by Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering — one angry and one kindly, but both doltish.

That the generation of Fifties women ‘moved forward’ by means of a feminism which has now lost its way completely is hardly the fault of that immediate post-World War Two generation of women, those of the Fifties who applauded long for My Fair Lady and stood strong by Eliza in her own stand for independence and respect; the generation who eventually saw off the legal constraints that still made women’s lives inferior.  Nor did these women discredit Shaw’s taken-for-granted message about men and women as different in nature and needs; indeed, the songs of the 1950s musical enhanced this message, as Higgins rants about the impossibility of comprehending females — “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” — and Eliza muses on retributional modes of execution of the domineering male – “Just you wait, ’enry ’iggins, just you wait’.

Such a view of the tension between the sexes was not perceived as off-beam in the Fifties in the way that it would be regarded now by many of the literati, in these days when gender identities are deemed ‘fluid’, although most of us secretly suspect they are not.  This may well be why people flocked in the Fifties, and do so now, to these old musicals; for their calming certainties about traditional identities.  And none more reassuring than My Fair Lady.

With the important proviso that not all was certain, and in this we see a difference between the Edwardian world and the world of Lerner and Loewe.  Recognised openly in neither generation of previous viewers, and generally not allowed even by present viewers, was the true meaning attached at the time to two ‘old confirmed bachelors’ as the play actually calls them; sometimes also known as ‘bachelors gay’.  However, it’s likely that the sophisticated urban audiences of Pygmalion had more idea of this undercurrent of homosexual possibility than the suburban audiences of the Fifties, where from Liberace to Rock Hudson, all men in public view were deemed irrepressibly and romantically heterosexual.  For his own reasons, Shaw had always strongly resisted the often-sought ‘happy’ ending of Eliza marrying Higgins.  He insisted the new musical should stick to his knitting: Eliza was to marry Freddy, and Higgins to remain a sexual enigma.  Thus, Lerner and Loewe felt pressured to leave the conclusion of Eliza’s marriage to Higgins very open at the end.

Two other men, both of them drones, also feature in Shaw’s instructive morality play and thus in the musical.  Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, is always a crowd-pleaser, as in this performance.  Everyone loves a scallywag.  Alfred is Shaw’s Undeserving Everyman, the Cockney amoralist, a main-chancer with a smooth tongue that Higgins, applying phonetics, is sure comes from a Welsh inheritance, making me silently pleased to be Welsh myself, for the love of language at least, even though Eliza at one stage rails against ‘words, words, words’ as a replacement for romantic action.  Seeking money, and getting five pounds in exchange for Eliza, Alfred Doolittle is palmed off by Higgins to eventually inherit a fortune from a ‘moral reform’ proponent as ‘the most original moralist in England’, money which paradoxically forces him into the middle classes … and marriage.

Then there is Freddy, the re-made Eliza’s new beau, quickly sidelined by Lerner and Loewe, a brainless upper-middle class fop, hanging penniless onto the appurtenances of his class, as many did, and still do.  In this matinee performance, his impassioned love song elicits audience laughter, and it is not kindly, which I fear is sad for the future of declarative romance, even albeit from such as Freddy. Nevertheless, such cultural appurtenances as the hapless Freddie displays do matter.  That was Shaw’s basic point.  Take a Cockney flower girl and change her accent and her manners, add expensive dresses, widen her horizons, and you can make a proper enough young lady to catch a socially eligible young man’s heart as she speaks ‘the new small talk’.  This is so even should she in her early first steps bring an unwanted Shakespearian directness, the intuitive flair of common speech, into the drawing room; viz Eliza’s beautifully-toned and perfectly articulated statement, when conversationally confiding the possibility of dark doings over a female relative’s demise, that ‘it is my belief that he done her in’.

There is a breathtaking arrogance in all of this puppetry, this linguistic and social changing, of course, and it is all Shaw’s fault.  He makes Professor Higgins a ‘phoneticist’; Higgins hears the phonemes, pronunciations, the essential small parts of speech and of accent.  He displays for the lower orders his seemingly magical skills in accurately locating the plethora of British accents found amongst Eliza’s fellow denizens as the lower and upper classes brush shoulders waiting for a taxi near Covent Garden in the opening scenes.  Henry Higgins’ first song, a pointedly professorial aria that presages all that is to follow, is a complaint about dialect, about accent, an insistence on the essential privileging of the ‘received’ English of the upper classes of southern England.  Shaw’s solution was to give it to everyone. Admirable in some ways, but flooded out by history.

This ‘solution’ has affected my own life.  Aged nearly eleven, having lived in Australia in public housing in Sydney’s West until then, I was sent to live with my maternal grandmother in England for eighteen months due to collapsed family circumstances.  Settling down well in my new environment, I passed all tests with high marks and my headmistress in the local school in a poor area was assured my future at Grammar School would be bright.  However, she thought my Australian accent with its Welsh undertones, not improved by the accent of the local children at my school or by my home situation, would always hold me back, so she did an intensive Professor Higgins job on me.  Regularly, after school and during it, I attuned my ear and vocal chords to a new set of vowels and phonemes.  Speak like the Queen, my dear, she had encouraged me. Perhaps she had seen My Fair Lady.

I reflect now that any advances in life I have made since then have been possible in a significant part due to my ‘improved’ accent, which I have never lost; it is simply how I speak, although I hope far less crystal-toned these days.  I must admit that there have been times in my adult life when my accent has mattered, has been advantageous, particularly in England, but also in Australia, especially when forging my way alone, returned to familial disaster and the Sydney of my youth.  It was a help to let people just assume things about my education and background when I went looking for a job at fourteen; things far from the truth of it.

Today, with mass immigration into older cultures, the world has turned again.  Even among England’s middle classes accent matters less, and there is a profusion of other markers of status.  Even the Royals have modulated their tone to meet mass culture; as to full-blown Cockney, it is rarely heard.  My Fair Lady is truly a cherished blast from the past. In Australia, too, our speech has a thousand new influences.  The  faux-professor Affabek Lauder, our very own “phoneticist” of some decades ago, would be hard put to comprehend it all now.

For what it’s worth, my conclusion about Eliza’s social mobility (and my own) is that it is all about picking up cues.  Languages and cultures are not static. They are learned and changeable. Which is why, at the Artificial Intelligence Unit of MIT, the originator of an early computer program in the 1960’s that responded sympathetically in counterpoint to a human speaking to it, and doing this by a process of ‘pattern matching’, deliberately called his new program ELIZA. After Eliza Doolittle, he explained, in My Fair Lady.

Elizabeth Beare contributed The Woman Who Was Eddie Burrup to Quadrant‘s July edition.

7 thoughts on “A Personal Reflection on ‘My Fair Lady’

  • ian.macdougall says:

    Regularly, after school and during it, I attuned my ear and vocal chords to a new set of vowels and phonemes. Speak like the Queen, my dear, she had encouraged me. Perhaps she had seen My Fair Lady.

    Mai waif and ai have conversed upon this matter. She is of open maind, but ai maintain that RP is bai far the best diction to use when giving ordahs, as its precision and distinct delivery of evereah word can best avoid confusion among the recipients of those same ordahs, commands and directives given. It is the accent of established orthority. Aend the lowah ordahs of society welcome it, as it confirms them in their place, clearleah, continuousleah, aend aendubitableah.
    An orstralian accent is a challenge, not only to the listenah’s patience aend comprehension, but also to the aentiah received natural social ordah: aes I think the history of that unruly country and the all too often poor reception of their bettahs bai its mainly commoner populace attests.
    You were waise, Ma’am, to abandon it.

    NB: And a damned good article. Congratulations.

  • Jody says:

    Do women still have ‘blue rises’? Also, Shaw did not want any suggestion of romance between his two leading characters and explicitly wrote a lengthy postlude to “Pygmalion” to explain that fact. And he deplored the idea of a musical so it wasn’t until after his death that Lerner and Loewe felt they could proceed with their musical version; very much a product of the 1950s. And the film was one of the last gasps of the Hollywood studio system musical with the prestige of Warner Brothers on display. As film a symbol of an evanescent art form.

    I taught the play and film for HSC English Extension 1 (Appropriation) and I know the original poem of Pygmalion and the Statue from Ovid – which Shaw used to depict class distinction. Ovid was interested in the power of love and what comes across is that women – even in statue form – are to blame for the love their ‘men’ have for them!! Men are the victims. Not so in Shaw.

    As to language and social mobility; what we have today is the reverse. A descent into coarseness and the lowest common denominator.

  • pgang says:

    Boy, this takes me back. This was up there among Mum’s favourites, although I doubt that she took anything feminist out of it.

    This reflection seems to be about selling one’s self which, as you become older and wiser, you begin to realise is a very important aspect of life in spite of everyone telling you to ‘just be yourself’. Is the presentation of enunciation and ‘class’ therefore a cultural thing or, as Elizabeth suggests, is it more about survival in a naturally competitive world? Some people have a gift for the sell – they dress and deport themselves well. The rest of us just bumble along with our hackneyed accents and wrinkled shirts.

    • Jody says:

      Remember the old days of deportment and the June Dally-Watkins school in Sydney? Feminists are contemptuous of such attempts at refinement because it kept women in their place, in the home. Or so they thought.

      Yesterday at 4am I watched the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall direct from Berlin. In the front row right behind the timpani – in full view of the cameras, beaming right around the world – a man sat in a tee-shirt bearing the huge letters OCEAN. The rest of the audience was well dressed. I wondered what would have happened if the management of the Philharmonie had tried to stop the man entering or removed him to another seat. They would have been threatened with the law. So, appalling manners are now so deeply ingrained in western democracies that the right to be offensive better not be challenged!!

      • ian.macdougall says:

        That would have seen him denied entry to or chucked out of my local RSL; indeed most Australian clubs. What channel was that on?

        • Jody says:

          Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall – subscription only via the internet, streamed live and heard on Bluetooth. Bach B Minor Mass and “Ocean” on the T-shirt. Won’t be long now, comrades!”-)

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