It’s fortunate that Alan Jay Lerner waited until George Bernard Shaw was good and dead before he mined Pygmalion for his own My Fair Lady. Lerner did something Shaw would have violently hated: he turned a perfectly good story inside out to make it more “palatable,” totally invalidating the structure Shaw had built around his strong-willed Henry Higgins and the equally strong-willed Eliza Doolittle. But most people know My Fair Lady better than they do Pygmalion, and Shaw’s subtle, pro-feminist critique of caste and class in Victorian Britain is primarily understood as an Audrey Hepburn vehicle. Now Walnut Creek’s Center REP is redressing the balance with a delightful, sharp rendition of Pygmalion that gets back to Shaw’s most beloved concepts.
The outline of the story remains the same either way. “Draggle-tailed guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle catches the attention of Professor Henry Higgins one rainy night outside the opera house. He boasts to his new friend Colonel Pickering that, given six months, he could pass the Cockney-accented flower girl off as a duchess. The two men move off, not realizing how this exchange affects Eliza, who dreams of getting off the curb and into her own little flower shop. So she tracks Higgins down and demands he teach her to speak properly. Pickering offers to bankroll the experiment, and Eliza takes up residence with these two funny old men and begins learning how to pass as a lady. Much of the actual work, as well as Eliza’s triumphant debut, takes place offstage in the Shaw. It all gets spelled out in the Lerner with such memorable moments as Eliza trying to articulate that “the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains” around a mouthful of marbles.
While Lerner made several changes that simplified and flattened Shaw’s material, such is to be expected in the creation of a musical. Take Eliza’s father Alfred, splendidly and menacingly played here by Clive Worsley. In the original Shaw, Alfred gets a lot of stage time to make some very pointed commentary on middle-class morality. In the Lerner, he’s a drunken figure of fun, and little more; he’s made more distasteful while Higgins is made more sympathetic so we can accept Eliza taking Higgins as a lovable father substitute. Some of Lerner’s changes are forgivable. After all, he did keep much of Shaw’s dialogue exactly as it was, if rearranged, and the songs are pretty snappy. But where Lerner really went off the rails was in the ending, which he was determined to make a happy one even though it totally changed Shaw’s intent. In Shaw’s original, Eliza marries young Freddy Eynsford-Hill, while in My Fair Lady she chooses Higgins.
Shaw didn’t care for happy endings. One of the distinguishing marks of Shavian drama is that the ending is never predictable. And he believed that the ending he’d written for Eliza and Henry was a happy one. Interviewed in 1939, Shaw told Dennison Thornton that he could not “conceive a less happy ending to the story of Pygmalion than a love affair between the middle-aged, middle-class professor, a confirmed old bachelor with a mother fixation, and a flower girl of eighteen.”
There’s something to this. At the end of Shaw’s story, Eliza is strong, competent, and free — all her gifts manifest. As Shaw explains in his “sequel” to Pygmalion, while Eliza still occasionally drops in on the “old bachelors” at Wimpole Street, she doesn’t really like Henry. And why should she? He’s a bully and a tyrant; and while he acknowledges that people are unfairly judged by their accents, he is as guilty as the next person, continually demeaning Eliza’s considerable intelligence (he calls her a “presumptuous insect”) and suggesting that her humble origins mean that she is somehow less of a person. Susan-Jane Harrison, who was such a fine Pericles for Woman’s Will, captures Eliza as Shaw doubtless meant her — first noisy, cringing, and outspoken, then transformed into an elegant yet haunted column of feminine charm who has lost her tongue and must win it back. And she has to win it back from the Henry Higgins played by actor Charles Dean — who seems to glory in morally ambiguous characters and imbues this one with the right balance of crust, bluster, and surprised hurt. Between the two is kindly Pickering (Chris Ayles going three for three as a benevolent chap) who by his example teaches Eliza the manners Higgins sorely lacks.
For a man who fell in love easily and often, Shaw didn’t much care for romance either. Like many playwrights, Shaw was a theater critic before he turned to writing plays himself. Tellingly, he was the critic famous for daring to go after Shakespeare. Shaw found his predecessor mawkish, derivative, and uninteresting; he claimed that romantic stories of the sort at which Shakespeare excelled were of no interest to mature people. This attitude probably had as much to do with Shaw’s own feelings about romance as it did his feelings about Shakespeare’s chops. In her Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, biographer Margot Peters notes that while Shaw “admired and adored feminine intelligence, talent, and wit, he loathed and feared romance, marriage, and sex.”
Which must have made all the more frustrating a situation that went on to have a profound influence on the first production of Pygmalion. At 56, the married Shaw was madly in love with actress Stella Campbell who, after a long flirtation, turned him down flat and married a much younger man — coincidentally nicknamed “Freddy” — two days before Pygmalion, in which she starred, was due to open. Years later, after Shaw’s passion had cooled, Stella decided to publish her memoirs. Shaw only agreed to the inclusion of his letters with the caveat that he be allowed to edit whatever she planned to use. In a fury, he wrote: “I will tell you, brutally and dogmatically, what you may say and what you may not … [You] have been before the public for sixty years or so; but during that time you have never uttered a word to it that has not been put into your mouth by somebody else. You have therefore never learnt the rules or acquired the sense of responsibility of authorship. And, owing to abysmal deficiencies in your nature, you never will. So you must do what you are told.” It’s amazing how closely these lines mirror Higgins raging at Eliza; telling her what she may and may not say, rendering her (as Eliza says) “a child in [his] country.” The difference is that Shaw really loved Campbell while she was apparently toying with him; whereas in Pygmalion the affection is more on Eliza’s side than Henry’s.
Between Shaw’s stated intentions, the subject matter of his other plays, and what the events of his life say about his relationships with women, it becomes patently clear that Pygmalion, though it stems from a myth of a sculptor falling in love with his own work, was not meant to be a love story in any traditional sense. As much fun as My Fair Lady is, it’s not a fair representation of Shaw’s story of a man who, to paraphrase critic Eric Bentley, turns a flower girl into a duchess — and a duchess who turns herself into a woman. Director Amy Glazer’s production of Pygmalion at Center REP, however, is the real deal — intelligent, sparkling, beautifully designed, and, yes, fun.