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pygmalion

Cover page of the program booklet

The first thing to know about Pygmalion is that George Bernard Shaw eventually wrote a sequel, which is an essay of about 5000 words, largely to resolve the question of, “But how does it really end?” and this sequel is well worth reading. I suppose the zeroth thing to know about Pygmalion is that it does not end in the manner of My Fair Lady.

Pygmalion is that rarest of things — a jaunty read that raises a lot of serious questions and remains jaunty inspite of them. One reason it manages this is  that it does not worry about resolving the situation. Shaw has the courage to leave it suspended in such a state that most readers/viewers actively have to ask, “But what happens next? What does Eliza do?” In fact, so many theatre managers sought to end it with a conventional romantic union between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins that an exasperated Shaw had to spell out how he envisioned the future of his characters.

But before we do to death the ending, a bit about the play itself. It is a hundred years since the first performance of Pygmalion, and San Diego’s Old Globe decided to stage it in honour of that. Robert Sean Leonard (Wilson from House) played Prof. Higgins and Charlotte Parry was everyone’s favourite flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Though they were the main characters, and solid in their performances, the stage was stolen by, well, the stage, followed by Don Sparks as Eliza’s father, who gets the best lines, and Kandis Chappell as Henry’s mother, who is the wisest of the lot. Higgins’s living room, full of professional artefacts, and his mother’s living room, sparsely but elegantly furnished, are the two main scenes of the play, and the rotating platform that took us from one to the other filled my engineer’s heart with joy. The former, in particular, was lovingly crafted, with meticulous attention to detail and easily stood up to many minutes of scrutiny during the intermission. The way the sofa glided forward during the scene change was the icing on a sumptuous production cake.

As I read the play last week (several years after having read it first, and a few weeks after seeing the performance), the thought that Higgins is a caricature was strong in my mind. He just seems to be too much of an exaggeration. Utterly brilliant at his work as a phonetician, supremely and carelessly confident of himself, confirmed bachelor at forty, wise-cracking constantly, completely insensitive to the feelings of others, seemingly lacking any gentler feelings himself, but also honest and direct and generous in his own way — if that’s not a caricature, I don’t know what is. Do people like that really exist? Did they ever? It is a complex character to play — to be an annoying, arrogant, brilliant brat, an overgrown child really, and yet to be engaging and cute and win the audience over inspite of the flaws. But Leonard has the personality to pull it off. Everything in this production tries to be different from My Fair Lady, but Leonard has it easiest. His age (44), looks and general boyishness make him very different from the 56-year old Rex Harrison of the movie.

The other character who is something of a caricature is Mr. Doolittle. A man too poor (and deliberately poor, according to Eliza) to afford morals, there is so much clarity in his strange twists of reasoning that one can readily believe Higgins when he says Doolittle could become a cabinet minister or a man of the church in three months. Shaw clearly enjoys making him a rich man, no longer able to act immorally and to enjoy it, thus completing the circle of paradox. The audience loved Don Sparks in that role.

The other characters are regular people for the most part, with regular layers of complexity and wisdom. It is largely through them (and Mr. Doolittle) that the play attains its timelessness. The off-the-cuff remarks about women and class, made wittily, but carrying the weight of inescapable truth are as pertinent today as they were a hundred years ago. (Mrs. Higgins seems most in touch with these truths.) The interaction between men and women, as described by Higgins and as acted out between him and Eliza also feels current.

From the beginning, Eliza comes across as a sharp girl. She is upwardly mobile, to use today’s parlance, and is ready to put her money and her efforts into becoming well-spoken enough to run a flower shop. In short, she betrays early on a sense of independence and confidence, tentative though it is at that time, which, when it becomes full-blown, allows her to take on Higgins on his terms. Her conversation with him in the last scene, the only one where they talk completely frankly, comes from a knowledge of her own strength and also her reconciliation with the fact that she will never be more to Higgins than (the bringer of) slippers.

The most appealing and convincing part of the eventual relationship between Higgins and Eliza is the complete honesty, the ruthless honestly even, between them. The unresolved ending of the play, the vexing and utterly serious question of what Eliza should do now that Higgins has left her unfit to sell flowers and thus without the means to support herself is resolved in the sequel. Shaw assures us that though Eliza marries Freddy, though it is impossible for her to marry Higgins, Higgins remains an important figure in her life, as she and Freddy are supported by Colonel Pickering and Higgins in their long and arduous path towards owning a flower shop and becoming financially independent. Higgins’s statement that himself, Pickering and Eliza could live together on Wimpole Street as bachelors does not come true literally, but the cameraderie that it implies does indeed come to be. (I do have to wonder if this isn’t a pretty daring setup for 1912, but Shaw writes it in a completely natural way.) This ending, in my book, is more true to the legend of Galatea and Pygmalion than a romantic union might be. In order for Galatea to truly come to life, she has to assert her existence independent of Pygmalion, who is, after all, her creator.

Much as I like the ending, and the sequel, my favourite scene of the play comes at the halfway point, where Eliza’s transformation is still only superficial. The scene in which she describes her aunt’s death by influenza and ends by reverting to her original speech patterns, but retaining a posh tone is hilarious and Charlotte Parry shone in it. Clara also gets a good line in it when she comments that slang “gives such a smart emphasis to things that are not in themselves very witty”. That too is a comment that is no less true today than it was a hundred years ago.

I do have a couple of nits to pick with Mr. Shaw though. His Eliza says that she learnt manners from Pickering (steadily played by Paxton Whitehead), but he too fails to thank and commend her after her victorious appearance at the garden party. What sort of manners are those? The other nit is the clever-seeming argument from Higgins that because he treats everyone equally badly, his behaviour is acceptable. This argument is specious and I doubt very much that it would wash with anyone, especially someone at the receiving end of Higgins’s insensitivity. In this sense, Higgins and occasionally Pickering, fail to see Eliza as a person for most of the play, though I want to believe that things change slightly by the end.

And yet, those three form an immensely likeable trio from start to finish, each full of what Higgins calls the “spark of divine fire”. They are the beating heart of this play.

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