As the gender storms rain down on Capital Hill and feminist rage spreads across the land, another Higgins has escaped the attention of our vigilant media: the phonetics professor in My Fair Lady (MFL) and that song. For some people, MFL is still jolly good fun: an Edwardian comedy of manners kept alive in the last half century by a few memorable songs, thanks to the 1964 American musical drama film, itself an adaptation from Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 Broadway and London stage musical.
Wouldn’t it be loverly if everyone felt that way about it? They certainly did in the 1960s. The 1964 film, with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, was a critical and commercial success. The second-highest grossing film that year, it won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. The American Film Institute in 1998 named it the 91st greatest American film. It was ranked eighth in the AFI’s 2006 Greatest Movie Musicals list.
MFL’s popularity, however, is on life-support. More and more folk are determined to see it as another example of the patriarchy in action. For them, Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, two older upper-class males exploit Eliza, a young Cockney Covent Garden flower-seller. They bet, for God’s sake, on whether stern elocution lessons and tuition in manners could change her into a lady. With a Little Bit of Luck, it does, but how dare they try to improve her chances in life’s lottery!
MFL is all about transformation. Yet how many remember that both musicals, and a 1938 film, were based on a 1913 stage play, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; or that Shaw’s inspiration was an ancient Greek myth in book ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses? The Roman poet’s first sentence: “My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind.” In this case, the dramatic shape depends on directors and actors, as much as on writers and copyright law.
Shaw spent more than two decades trying to rescue his play from chaps determined to romanticise it, as explained in this video. He must have fumed when he saw the 1938 Metro Goldwyn Mayer billboard: “He [Higgins] took a girl off the street and made a lady of her in an amazing experiment to trick society. A thrilling, wise, witty and romantic photo-play.” Yet it was his most popular and financially successful work.
The before and after photos of Eliza had this caption: “Any girl can do it. You need a guy and a trunkful of clothes!” A speech bubble has Wendy Hiller saying to Leslie Howard (below): “Swear at me … even black my eye … but when you’ve made a girl love you … don’t you dare ignore her!” It is probably on the syllabus of a coercive-control workshop.
Words on a page, of course, are not the same as words on a stage, whether spoken or sung. An actor’s body language and gestures at critical moments can determine a play’s emotional impact. That said, few songs today have more capacity to produce audience responses ranging from disbelief to apoplexy than MFL’s The Hymn to Him.
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
Eternally noble, historically fair.
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
Why can’t a woman be like that?
An exasperated Higgins declares that female “heads are full of cotton, hay and rags”, then asks: “Why is thinking something women never do?” In “You Did It”, he takes credit for everything Eliza does, then wistfully reflects on his “bachelor” life in “I’m an Ordinary Man”. Phew.
On the 50th anniversary of MFL’s premiere, in October, 2014, Charlotte Alter, explained Why My Fair Lady is Better Than You Remember in a TIME essay.
MFL was not misogynistic, she wrote, but it was about misogyny. The musical was “not about a genius attempting to transform a weak woman,” but “about a strong woman attempting to retain her identity in spite of the controlling machinations of a small-minded man.” Could it be that the hymn to Him was actually a hymn to Her in disguise?
For MFL fans, Harrison’s droll partly-spoken delivery – or Sprechgesang – and Hepburn’s vivacity in all weather, from The Rain in Spain to I Could Have Danced All Night, manage to redeem the literal sexism. Most of her songs, incidentally, were dubbed by Marni Nixon.
In the gender jungle, perception is reality. MFL’s critics are less forgiving. Instead of humour and irony, they see only “infuriating smugness”, covert bullying or mansplaining.
Another big trigger for them is the play’s last line. Higgins asks: “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” It certainly upset Ms Alter:
Of course, the whole Eliza-is-a-strong-woman argument gets compromised by the ending. Because after all her proclamations that she can “stand on her own,” Eliza comes back to Higgins. And when he asks “where the devil are my slippers?” she brings them to him. It’s an ending with the same ashy taste as the ending of Grease, because it seems incongruous: Eliza has no business being with Higgins, and it’s clear she’s independent-minded enough to know it. Except, it’s 1912. And Eliza has no family connections, no money and no formal education, which means she has nowhere to go but back to the streets.
Drama reflects the mood of the time, the Zeitgeist. Romanticism is dead. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face is in danger of extinction. Gender relations have entered a new Ice Age. The Neanderthals have retreated to their caves. No surprise, then, that MFL revivals are now more about empowerment than getting to the church on time.
One day soon Eliza will not simply walk offstage into the audience after the slipper question, as indeed she did in the 2018 NYC Lincoln Center Theater production. Director Bartlett Sher had to do something new for #MeToo. She will breach copyright and say: “Men overboard, sisters. Every woman for herself!”
In fact, we are almost there.
I recently saw a community theatre production of MFL. The actress playing Eliza was already on stage, seated in Higgins’ chair, partly in shadow when he enters. Not noticing her, he plays the recording. When it stops, Eliza continues with the “I washed my face…” line. Higgins turns and shows a slight affront to her being in his chair. He asks: “where the devil are my slippers?” Eliza lifts her skirt slightly to show she is now wearing them. He smiles and nods, as if to say: “well played.” Lights fade…https://time.com/3525216/my-fair-lady-1964/ — Ticket Manager, blog comment, September, 2020
To paraphrase Cassius in Julius Caesar: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in who’s wearing the slippers, that we are underlings.’
In the Lincoln Center production, actors Lauren Ambrose, Harry Hadden-Paton, and Allan Corduner star as Eliza, Henry and Colonel Pickering. They all give their take on the show in this fascinating interview with Theater Talk’s Susan Haskins (May 15, 2018).
In a New York Times article early that year, Ms Ambrose said she saw MFL as “a story about a woman who comes into her powers, and whatever happens afterward, we don’t know, but in that moment, they achieved equality.”
“Every set I’m on, I have to always try to preserve the dignity of the woman,” she added. “I have a young daughter, and there are going to be a lot of young women and young girls who come to see this show, and I don’t want to be ashamed that they’re here.”
As luck would have it, Dame Julie Andrews, DBE, was in Australia to direct MFL on the 60th anniversary of the Lerner and Loewe show. The 81-year-old star of the 1956 production was interviewed in Brisbane by the SMH’s Elissa Blake, who mentioned that a number of women who had seen the show said how difficult it was to watch Higgins bully Eliza and then accept what looks like her surrender to him in the final scene.
In a letter to The Age published during the production’s Melbourne season, one audience member described “murmurs of discomfort” rippling through the audience as Higgins “pummelled Eliza with his verbal abuse”.
“Oh gosh – it is very, very sexist,” Andrews replied. “Young women in particular will and should find it hard. You have to remember that this story is set just a couple of years before the rise of the Suffragette movement. Women’s rights aren’t there yet, but emancipation is where she’s heading. I firmly believe that.”
“When you think about it, the only emancipated woman in the play is Mrs Higgins [Henry Higgins’ mother], someone who is learned, passionate and has led a full life”.
Andrews was tempted to tweak the ending “just a little” to empower Eliza: “But the more I thought about it – and I read all of George Bernard Shaw’s many words on Pygmalion – the more I realised I wanted to be faithful to what it is.”
As for Professor Higgins, he was played by British actor Charles Edwards. “The reactions to him have been “gratifying”, he said.
“To hear gasps during a performance in 2017 of a musical written in 1956 is something.” As for ‘Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man’, it was “nothing more than the bark of a wounded, confused male. I’m not excusing it, just explaining it. There is no hatred in that song, there is fear and incomprehension. Men are often afraid of what they don’t understand, and it makes them angry.”
Despite the sexist complaints, MFL’s run at the Sydney Opera House sold more tickets than any other show in its history.
So we have two irreconcilable perspectives. In one corner are those who agree with blogger, Richard Woods :
My fear is that when you reinterpret a play, even a little, you may misinterpret the author’s intent. Henry Higgins was always rude and uncaring, to everyone. Eliza was never a victim. She was treated rudely, not abused. To try to fit the story into the very serious “me too” movement narrative was never the author’s intent. In Pygmalion, Shaw made Eliza strong and independent enough to leave Higgins. Lerner and Loewe made her even stronger and more independent, enough to go back to him and take him on as he was, maybe because love is the strongest force on earth. That’s the part the audience gets to interpret for themselves.
In the other corner, are those who prefer Bartlett Sher’s revival and Shaw’s original play, as Ms Molloy Norman did in her 2018 editorial in The Theatrical Board. Unlike other critics, Norman acknowledges “the playfully sarcastic way Rex Harrison delivers the slipper line and accepts that here “Higgins is poking fun at himself, a further sign that he sees his behavior up until this point as abhorrent … Instead of being an irredeemable tyrant from whom Eliza decides to escape, he becomes a “softie at heart” whom Eliza considers giving a second chance.”
But, in changing the story in such a way, My Fair Lady presents the problem of not representing what Shaw intended with his original play. It’s difficult to justify the musical as a true adaptation of Pygmalion when the main crux of what drives the dynamic between Eliza and Henry in the original story—that being a conflict surrounding bigoted views towards women, language, lower classes—is tossed aside in favor of giving audiences a light-hearted romantic comedy.
Bartlett Sher’s ending brings us back to what George Bernard Shaw wanted with Eliza and Henry. In tearing the pair apart during the very scene that was once added to bring them together, Sher returns the audience to the idea that Henry and Eliza can never be compatible.
While some fans may prefer the “romantic comedy” approach that’s present in My Fair Lady originally, I find that I appreciate Sher’s attempt to make the musical more justifiable as a true adaptation to Pygmalion. After all, at the end of the day, a finale where Higgins and Eliza reconcile romantically is no different than the production of Pygmalion that annoyed Shaw by closing with Henry tossing flowers up to Eliza. We must ask ourselves: What would George Bernard Shaw want?
— Molly Norman, ‘Eliza and Henry: A Finale’
Surely, then, we also must ask ourselves: What would Publius Ovidius Naso (43BC-AD17) want? Is Shaw’s 1913 play faithful to Ovid’s original myth? One can speculate until the lying cows come home, but according to the intentional fallacy, authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. It is not a “desirable standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”. One must engage with the text itself. Ovid’s text is very clear. Venus, the Roman goddess of love, drives the plot. It is she who takes pity on Pygmalion and intervenes as a deus ex machina to bring his “ivory maiden” to life.
Pygmalion stood, amazed, afraid of being mistaken, his joy tempered with doubt, and again and again stroked the object of his prayers. It was indeed a human body!
The goddess Venus was present at the marriage she had arranged and, when the moon’s horns had nine times been rounded into a full circle, Pygmalion’s bride bore a child, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name. — Ovid, Book Ten, Metamorphoses
Hence Shaw’s determination to keep her out of his play. For Ovid, there could be no joy or harmony without love. Perhaps that’s why he died in exile. For us, welcome to a world without happy endings, full of lifeless statues, childless robots and gender warriors.
Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Only Athena and Venus know the answer to that question.