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Book Report: Pygmalion

In the last few weeks, Your Humble Blogger has watched the movie of My Fair Lady, read the play Pygmalion, and then watched the 1938 film of Pygmalion. I’ve seen My Fair Lady a zillion times, of course, and seen it performed on stage at least once. I’ve read Pygmalion many times as well, although I’ve never seen it performed. And I had never seen the 1938 film.

In order to keep them clear, I’ll call the 1913 playscript the play, the 1938 film and its screenplay the film, and the 1964 movie of My Fair Lady the musical. This leaves out the book and lyrics of the stage version of the musical, but I have the impression that it is largely identical to the movie, with no major added or missing scenes. Yes? The play, the film, the musical. Created in that order.

I started with the musical, as most people do. I may, in fact, have started with a live performance, but I saw the movie when I was quite young, and had the album and so on. Wonderful songs, wonderful music. Wonderful characters. Wonderful show.

A little later, probably in my early teenage years or even as a pre-teen, I read the play, along with lots of other George Bernard Shaw. I advise people to read Mr. Shaw’s plays when they are young, to have the opportunity to be excited by the ideas, before you come across them elsewhere. Anyway, I adore the play, despite the loss of the wonderful songs. And in many ways I prefer the play to the musical. The play is in five acts: Act One is in Covent Garden, during which the main characters all meet; Act Two is in Henry Higgins’ses house, during which Mr. Higgins takes on the task of passing Eliza Doolittle off as a Lady; Act Three is in Mrs. Higgins’ses house on an at-home day, during which the phonetic success is revealed to be woefully inadequate to changing Ms. Doolittle’s apparent class; Act Four is in Mr. Higgins’ses house again, following the successful imposture at the ball; and Act Five is in Mrs. Higgins’ses house again, with the final confrontation between our Pygmalion and our Galatea. It ends with Mr. Higgins, self-deluded, maintaining that Ms. Doolittle will return to his house, while Ms. Doolittle leaves with all the other supporting characters.

This differs from the musical in several minor and three major ways. I won’t go into all the minor ones, such as moving Act Three from Mrs. Higgins’s’s to Ascot, or moving Mr. Doolittle’s scenes back to Covent Garden, but the major ways are all interesting, and I think all detrimental. First, the musical has the famous “Rain in Spain” scene, or rather, several scenes showing Mr. Higgins actually training Ms. Doolittle to speak loik a laidee ’na flahr shup. The second is the addition of a scene at the ball itself, showing the triumphant pretense. The third is the addition of a scene at the end, where Ms. Doolittle does return to Mr. Higgins. The first and third occasion wonderful songs, and the second adds a wonderful minor character, so I understand thinking they are worth it. But they aren’t.

The second one is the least troublesome. It isn’t necessary, really, other than to introduce Zoltan Koparte, a Hungarian blackguard who declares that Ms. Doolittle is a Hungarian Princess. Yes, yes. It’s funny, but it takes away from the whole task, and essentially means that Mr. Higgins has failed to pass Ms. Doolittle off as a Lady. There is something not quite quite about her. It’s a triumph, yes, but it’s not the triumph that they were looking for. That goes unnoticed in the excitement, and it’s true she isn’t “found out”, but I think it takes away, just slightly, from the point of the play. Not a big deal, but then the scene isn’t that great either, is it?

The third is the most obviously problematic. Mr. Shaw, in his essay that tells what happens to the various characters after the curtain, has Ms. Doolittle marrying Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and setting up a flower shop and greengrocer. They remain friends with Colonel Pickering, who supports them in the shop for years before they are able to make a profit at it, and more or less with Henry Higgins, although Ms. Doolittle and Mr. Higgins are always bickering whenever they are together, and so don’t socialize as much as they might. I think that’s true to the story and the situation. Having Ms. Doolittle return to Wimpole Street immediately after the play’s Act Five is clearly a capitulation. If she isn’t entirely repentant and contrite, she certainly isn’t independent and strong. Mr. Higgins, of course, hasn’t changed at all. It’s impossible for me to be happy with her return; she won’t be happy with him, and even if he is happy with her, it’s not a healthy sort of happiness, but a transfer of his childish petulance from his mother to Ms. Doolittle. If we are to believe that he will treat her with any consideration or thought at all, there is nothing in any version to show it.

And the first… it could be done well, I suppose, but in the musical it’s mostly done with a sort of sadistic glee at just how nasty and vicious Mr. Higgins is. It makes the audience complicit in the abuse, verbal and emotional, and invites them to join in the general amusement at Ms. Doolittle’s victimization. Her exhaustion and misery are lovingly depicted for the delectation of the audience, and for Mr. Higgins as well. And all of that, to me, heightens the disturbing nature of the new ending. It’s a depiction of the Stockholm Syndrome, more than anything at that point, a retreat into the hell she knows rather than the outside world, and (distressingly) a sense that she really doesn’t think she deserves to be treated any better than that.

So. I’ll repeat at this point that Your Humble Blogger loves the musical. It’s wonderful. But the major changes from Mr. Shaw’s play are, to my mind, detrimental to the work and reveal a more disturbing attitude toward Eliza Doolittle (and by implication, women generally).

So. There I was, secure in my notion that, despite the wonderful songs, the musical had (in some sense) ruined Mr. Shaw’s play, or at least violated the distinctive Shavian sensibility. And then I saw the film. The film, you see, already has all three of the major changes between the play and the musical, as well as many of the minor ones (down to dialogue, blocking and bits of business). And the screenplay is adapted by George Bernard Shaw. Oh, there were other writers, too—Mr. Shaw isn’t solely responsible for the changes. But he signed off on them. He left his name on the thing, and didn’t kick up a fuss about it. I think it’s fair to say that those changes were given the Shavian Stamp of (perhaps-grudging) Approval. So that explodes my whole sense of the thing.

I still maintain that the changes are detrimental; if I were offered the chance to put on the show, I would put it on the way it was originally written. If I saw a production that incorporated the changes in the film, even another film or television production, I would complain about the changes. And when I watch the musical again, I will sing along with all the songs.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Your analysis of the teaching scenes explains why I find the musical distressing -- I don't like being made complicit in the abuse. My subconscious response usually is to stop seeing the characters as people, which makes it all easier to take, but also makes it far less effective as a story, since it's no longer a story about people.

Perhaps you ignored the advice of friends and went to see the movie "Bridge to Terabithia?" It is strikingly similar to a book of the same name. The similarities between them are uncanny, almost as if the screenplay writers could be accused of plagiarism. ;-)

Katherine Paterson wrote this book decades ago, and it won the Newberry award. She later went on to win the Astrid Lindgren Award in children's literature given by Sweden, which include a $640,000 prize! She may not be George Benard Shaw, but in her own genre, she is something of a heavyweight.

She happens to live about twenty miles from my home, and I read an interview with her in a local paper with limited distribution where she did not need to be quite so politic. She intimated in a polite, discreet, read-between-the-lines manner, that she was less than thrilled with how her book had been interpreted, especially with the decision to use special effects for a story without any Fantasy/sci-fi component to it. Yet her name is on the movie, and presumably her consent was given. I wondered if the movie deal came before the award and it was purely a financial motivation. I had the impression that she signed off, for whatever reason, that she legally constrained to live with consequences, and professionally constrained not to criticize it.

Perhaps Mr. Shaw's story is not dissimilar?

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