Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech
THE NOTE TAKER: [explosively] Woman: cease this detestable boohooing instantly; else seek the shelter of some other place of worship.
THE FLOWER GIRL: [with feeble defiance] I’ve a right to be here, if I like, same as you.
THE NOTE TAKER: A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.
THE FLOWER GIRL: [quite overwhelmed, and looking up at him in mingled wonder and deprecation without daring to raise her head] Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo!
THE NOTE TAKER [whipping out his book] Heavens! What a sound! [He writes; then holds out the book and reads, reproducing her vowels exactly] Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo!
THE FLOWER GIRL [tickled by the performance, and laughing in spite of herself] Garn!
I get a kick out of the clues in dialogue. This Note Taker guy is a bit on the egotistical side. Who is he to act as if he has a right to decide who should live or die, based on style of speech? And that flower girl – she’s spunky, isn’t she?
Now that we have our bearings from this bit of scripted dialogue, let’s add a layer. After Shaw’s death Pygmalion was reinvented as a romantic musical. My Fair Lady became a hit of the stage and then an Oscar-winning film. Having the adorable and fascinating Audrey Hepburn play Eliza Doolittle in the movie adds another layer – did Shaw think of that sort of possibility?
Add personal frosting: did you see the movie as a child, in a theater? as a tourist, in town for a stage play? Surely, Shaw could not have known that a generation of little girls (like me) would see My Fair Lady and dream of growing up to be a classic beauty who wears huge hats and elegant gloves and is the toast of high society – a real princess. I wasn’t sure what high society meant, but I was pretty sure I could get an invitation by standing up straight and enunciating.
Backtrack a few layers to Shaw’s own ethics. He was a dedicated Socialist, deeply concerned with class inequalities and the plight of the working poor.
Next, imagine My Fair Lady without the popular happy ending. In Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion myth, Eliza and Professor Higgins don’t get married. Higgins is Higgins, and glories in his superiority and influence – he is incapable of falling in love with Eliza. That resolution is out the window. There has to be something else, something that makes sense in terms of Shaw’s core values.
I like Layers
The really good art has more layers than we see at first glance, and we don’t need to see it all to feel the possibility that something is there. Not everything has that much depth.
The movie ending where Eliza and Higgins fall in love is fluff. The very idea was crazymaking to Shaw. In his version of the Pygmalion story, Eliza isn’t a romanticized symbol of the advantages of social graces. I think he wants us to know there is more to her than that. Eliza is Eliza, independent and spunky, not the sort of person to be satisfied with a lifetime of living under the continuing tutelage of a judgmental upper crust benefactor. She absorbs what she learns and grows.
I find an interesting tension in audiences wanting a My Fair Lady ending, though a real life Eliza would demand Shaw’s Pygmalion self determination. Audiences dream of a satisfying melding between what is missing and what might be. That ache demands… something. In Shaw’s version, that something is Eliza, claiming her power, her emancipation.