Curses for Lerner and curses for Loewe, or, My Unfair Lady

I watched the movie My Fair Lady last week, and I discovered something: I love Pygmalion and I love the Lerner and Loewe songs and I love the performances and the sets and the costumes and the filming, but I don’t love My Fair Lady.

I used to love My Fair Lady. I can still (and did) sing along with every word of every song, and could quote along with a fair portion of the dialogue, even the dialogue that isn’t Shaw’s. When I read the Pyggie dialogue that made it into the film, I hear the voices and intonations from that film. And I’m afraid to say that, when I was fifteen or fourteen and stupid in the particular way that fifteen- and fourteen-year olds can be, there was a part of me that wanted to be Henry Higgins.

Now, I would love to absolve George Bernard Shaw from all the blame, but, well, not so much. Mostly! I think that Higgins, as a character, is something fairly close to a villain, and his attitude toward women (or indeed humans) is portrayed as wrong, and harmfully wrong. I don’t think the audience is supposed to want to be Henry Higgins—but we do, because he is so charmingly abusive. And it’s difficult to extract the charm from the abuse; it’s easier to think that it’s the abusiveness itself that is charming. And, well, it isn’t. And that’s Shaw’s responsibility: even if ultimately we are supposed to reject him as Eliza Doolittle does, the character is an indelible one.

G.B.S. is also responsible for the changes that he put his name to, specifically the so-called teaching that appears in the 1938 movie and the ending where Eliza returns to Doolittle’s Wimpole Street flat. The training (probably a better word than teaching for what takes place) is appalling, and while it is consistent with his character, it’s utterly awful to watch. And the ending… can you believe Wikipedia currently calls it a happy ending? Without scare quotes or anything. One of the great things about the play is it ends with Eliza declaring her independence and Higgins, incapable of growth or learning, refusing to believe that she has left. If Higgins is correct, then that’s a very different play, and one I think I would have difficulty loving, now. Still, I suppose you could defend it in the film. We don’t know that she has come back for good, for one thing. At any rate, there are problems with the film of My Fair Lady that are problems with the film of Pygmalion, and when they gave Shaw the Oscar for that he didn’t refuse it because of the ending—and he worked with the director that stuck the ending in twice more, so he can't have been all that outraged.

Also also, while Shaw was undoubtedly a feminist and wrote the play in part to portray what we would now call a Strong Female Protagonist and to satirize the falseness of the portrayal of women in the theater and the greater culture, he was personally a toxic combination of Nice Guy and White Knight—stuff that I am now embarrassed to admit appealed to me in my teenage years. As such, there’s an awful lot of special pleading necessary to defend even the first script of Pygmalion, and while that’s work I am largely willing to do for the play, I am not willing to do it for the author. And I think that a lot of the problems with My Fair Lady are rooted in problems with Pygmalion, even when the earlier script handles those problems in ways I find acceptable.

But when they turned Pygmalion into My Fair Lady, they did more than stick to the changes that had already been made in 1938. They put the music into it. And the music is so damned good that it overbalances everything—I love the music so much that it makes Henry Higgins lovable. Whatever they meant to show, the exhilaration of “The Rain in Spain” is both romantic and sexy, and it is followed instantly by Eliza’s gauzy (and wonderful) fantasy “I Could Have Danced All Night” which despite no explicit romantic language leaves us in no possible doubt about why all at once her heart took flight. This is an Eliza Doolittle who has, at the very least, a massive crush on Henry Higgins for a night. That romantic attachment isn’t contradicted in later scenes, either; her exasperation and fury is as much the proverbial woman scorned as of a mistreated human.

Again—Freddy Eynesford-Hill, a ridiculous person with a handful of lines in Pygmalion, gets a song that is simultaneously the horrible smirk of a self-satisfied stalker and one of the loveliest songs ever written. He reappears to let Eliza vent her (clearly sexual) frustration at him in “Show Me” and then to squire Eliza through Covent Garden. Elisa in Pygmalion is not so sentimental as to return to Covent Garden at all, but they could scarcely have set “Get Me to the Church on Time” in Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room, I suppose. At any rate, it was always questionable whether Freddy, who is an idiot who in real life would have been dead in a Verdun trench a year after Pyggie ends, is remotely capable of understanding Eliza well enough to love her as the Strong Independent Woman she becomes. Freddy of MFL is more scary. Note to everybody in the whole world: do not date someone who lurks outside your window; it is unlikely to end well. Note particularly to teenage boys: do not lurk outside your beloved’s window. Just don’t. Also: do not take romantic advice from romantic movies, most of that stuff in real life would be creepy aye eff.

The main thing they did, though, was write the part for Rex Harrison and make him irresistible. I don’t blame Harrison, by the way, who doesn’t soft-pedal the bullying and abuse, although of course he steered the creation of the role the way he wanted it. But then, all the men who play Higgins try to make him irresistible, don’t they? But before Lerner and Loewe they didn’t quite manage it, I think. They give him two paeans to misogyny, “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him”, which portray him as charmingly self-deluded and, well, charmingly charming. They are hilarious songs, show-stoppers, and the audience is, I think, mostly left with the notion that the fellow who sings those songs can’t really be all bad. And then, at the end, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, a one-man finale, alternately spewing his revenge fantasy and exposing wary vulnerability, visibly papering over any genuine feeling with self-delusion. So damned lovable.

My Perfect Non-Reader of this blog pointed out that Henry Higgins never suffers any consequences for his actions. He is rude and insulting at the very beginning, but he’s a toff, so nobody dares to object (except Mrs. Eynesford-Hill, who is easily dismissed as a silly woman). Nobody responds to his rudeness by insulting him back, except his mother, who does so affectionately and never quite throws him out of her palatial rooms. Everybody indulges him. The servants put up with him (so many servants! I think in the play we see only Mrs. Pierce and hear about a housemaid and a perhaps a cook) and his boyfriend has the endless detached amusement of a retired Raj officer who can’t be ruffled by anything short of outright massacre. He embodies the privilege of a consequence-free life: one of the lords of creation, for whom all of London was made. George Bernard Shaw, in fact. But at least when Shaw wrote it, there was one consequence he did suffer: we in the audience saw him for the contemptible bastard he is, and root entirely for Eliza. In the musical, by the end, we are inevitably rooting for his redemption by Eliza, for him to once again escape any consequence for the whole of his actions over the whole movie.

It’s possible that at some point I will find I can’t love Pygmalion any more, too, of course. And oddly, I suspect that if I don’t love Pygmalion I might be able to love My Fair Lady again. Maybe it’s that I now see My Fair Lady as a betrayal of Pygmalion rather than a companion piece to it. Or maybe the whole thing will be a unpleasant sore point for me. I dunno. But for right now, I still love Pygmalion, and, well, not the other.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Curses for Lerner and curses for Loewe, or, My Unfair Lady

  1. Michael

    Bedlam is bringing Pygmalion to Boston next winter at Central Square Theater. If you want to come up and see it with us, we’ll be going the first weekend.

    I’ve been reading reviews of the current Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady. Reviewers seem barely aware of any problematic aspect of the story, and are in awe of the visual beauty of the production. There’s no message there, is there?

    Especially for a Lincoln Center production, where they are throwing gratuitous amounts of money at costumes and sets and musician and performers, where the Telecharge fee alone for buying tickets costs more than the cheap tickets will cost for Pygmalion in Boston, class snobbery is practically mandatory. There’s some awareness that this class snobbery is occasionally objected to by the menial classes, and I wonder if the logic of embracing the class snobbery essentially overrides any sense of misogyny. They choose a flower girl for convenience, but they could as easily have chosen a news boy. Her lack of humanity is due to her socioeconomic status, not her gender.

    Also, as you say, that music.


Leave a Reply to Michael Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.