Tag Archives: George Bernard Shaw

Discussing My Fair Lady: The Ending

Poster - My Fair Lady_03In his introduction to the Penguin edition of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion, Nicholas Grene calls the ending of the musical “a vulgar travesty of the play’s design.” Vulgar? Good heavens.

I appreciate what Grene is saying, that “the whole point of the play is the independent autonomy which Liza achieves, denying her status as Higgins’ male artifact,” though I disagree that that is Shaw’s whole point. He has a variety of them going on, which confuses things and prevents the play from being divided up into neat points. And there are certainly some issues I have with Shaw’s epilogue to “Pygmalion,” which he wrote later to detail once and for all what happens to Eliza and Henry Higgins so people would stop trying to put a romantic spin on his un-romantic play. However, after some reading of the play, I have concluded that the romantic spin is partially his own fault and that his epilogue is not very satisfactory at all and far too neat (but I want to write about that next week).

Perhaps I am just being defensive, because the truth is, I love the musical and I love the play. It is the musical that brought me to Shaw. I am obsessed with all things “Pygmalion” and I don’t think it’s right having one manifestation played against the next, as if they were in antagonism with each other. But in my mind, complaining that the musical is a travesty of the play is like saying the play is a travesty of Ovid’s Pygmalion account. Shaw has completely changed the meaning and ethos of Ovid’s passage in Metamorphoses. This is not a travesty. It’s genius.

But when people discuss the ending of the musical, they forget that there was a movie made in 1938, produced by Gabriel Pascal, adapted from his own work by George Bernard Shaw and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. There had been two previous adaptations of “Pygmalion” into film, a Dutch and German version that Shaw loathed and thought were highly sentimentalized. It was generally thought that the play could never really be turned into a good movie. One, because it is a drawing room comedy of manners and all the action that we associate with the story – the ball, teaching Eliza how to speak and act – occurs offstage. Second, not only did the play not have a happy ending, it did not really have an ending at all. Imagine, for a moment, a movie that ends simply with Eliza walking out of the room. It would be a bit abrupt.


Shaw worked very closely with Pascal on the adaption of his play and ultimately was extremely pleased with it, despite the ending that Pascal managed to slip in without his knowledge. He also opposed the casting of Leslie Howard – he wanted Charles Laughton – because it slanted Higgins towards possible romance (something I don’t think people would have been as inclined to anticipate if Laughton had been in the film). But the film remains remarkably, delightfully literate for a movie and Shaw wrote to Pascal that it was “an all-British film, made by British methods without interference from American script writers, no spurious dialogue, but every word by its author, a revolution in the presentation of drama in the film.” He remained grateful to Pascal for taking many of his plays (including an excellent film adaption of “Major Barbara,” also starring Wendy Hiller) and faithfully doing them justice in a cinematic setting.

But about that ending. In the epilogue to the play, Shaw has Eliza marry Freddy, a man she neither loves nor respects. I suppose he married her off to be cranky and to try to settle her fate so no one else could, even in their imagination, marry her to Higgins. I don’t find it very convincing, however. It seems more likely that she would marry neither man.

But when Lerner and Loewe came together to make a musical, they could not for the life of them figure out how to turn the play into a musical. Oscar Hammerstein II declared that it was impossible. No romance, no chorus, a whole lot of talk. Finally, the solution hit them and they decided to base their musical, not on the play, but on the 1938 film adaption. And indeed, when you watch the 1938 adaption, it is remarkable how similar they are, in dialogue, in action, in events. One almost expects Leslie Howard to break into song. So really, the musical is a very good adaptation of a movie that Shaw approved of. Except the ending, of course.

But I have no real problem with the romantic ending, since it is perfectly internally consistent with the story that the movie and musical are telling. And neither musical nor movie is highly sentimental. In the musical, there are no love duets, the word love is never even mentioned, the characters don’t sit around contemplating their love, since they don’t even realize it. Higgins’ moment of revelation comes at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914For Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote the book and lyrics of the musical), “My Fair Lady” involves a transformation not just for Eliza, but most fundamentally for Professor Higgins. Eliza’s character doesn’t fundamentally change, but his does. He’s been unconsciously softened by her. In Lerner’s words, “in a far less tangible way, Higgins goes through as much of a transformation as Eliza, the only difference being that Shaw would never allow the transformation to run its natural course.” Shaw’s Higgins remains fixed in character, Lerner and Loewe, and even Pascal, have their Higgins undergo a character arc.

Another reason I think this works is because movies and musicals are fundamentally different from a play. A movie naturally tends towards romance – or at least strong emotional ties – because it is a more intimate art form than a play. And a musical must have some transcendent emotions to express musically, otherwise, why bother writing a musical? The romance is told, the characters change, through the music, not through words. In fact, because of the music of Frederick Loewe, Rex Harrison is able to play Henry Higgins as a far less romantic figure than Leslie Howard, because he has the songs to express his feelings. Howard must do it on his own and is therefore slightly softer than Harrison.

I do, however, have one complaint about the ending of the film version of My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. My complaint mostly rests in the casting of Hepburn. She’s really not bad in the role, but she lacks that fundamental spunk and strong individualism that is found in the play and 1938 movie Eliza. I don’t think this is the fault of the musical, but of Hepburn’s persona. When she goes back to Higgins, it looks like a defeat, desperation on her part to be with him, without his having to change. But I suspect that with Julie Andrews it was different. You can even hear the difference in her singing of “Just You Wait, Enry Iggins” and “Without You” in the Broadway and London cast recordings. Hepburn is overwhelmed by Harrison, but I would have believed Andrews when she said she can do without him. Her return would have signaled a change in their relationship. I don’t have that same sense with Audrey Hepburn.


The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Introduction to the Penguin Edition of “Pygmalion” – Nicholas Grene


Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Books, Movies


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Major Barbara and Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw and the Dual Purposes of his Characters

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

The first George Bernard Shaw play I read was “Pygmalion,” which is his most famous and possibly most accessible work and I was completely enchanted. Shaw has a gift for smuggling in all sorts of didactic points into a delightful story. In “Pygmalion,” he deals with class, feminism, language and how language is symbolic of class, but also a social barrier that is artificial and can be demolished with just a little education,

In teaching Eliza, who is just a poor flower girl, to act like a lady and in bamboozling everyone at the ball into accepting her as a lady, Professor Higgins exposes the entire system as a fraud. However, Higgins is not solely a force for good. He is a superior arrogant, insensitive, childish bully, and he treats Eliza as though she were a flower girl, though he justifies this by saying that he treats all people as flower girls. In the end, Eliza walks away and denies him the right to treat her like his creation. Shaw makes it quite clear in his postscript to the play (which he wrote to quash romantic ideas about Higgins and Eliza) that they remain friends, but Eliza must leave because she is too strong a person to put up with being treated less than a full human, with feelings and will of her own.

Higgins has a dual role, then. He is both villain and hero. This tendency to put several attributes together, both positive and negative, is brilliantly done, but can be very confusing. In the next play I read by Shaw, “Major Barbara” – performed in 1905 – Shaw wrote what has been called one of his most political plays. It is about poverty, religion and recompense for crimes, war and even morality. Shaw packs a lot of ideas into three acts.

The play opens with Lady Britomart worrying about the future financial situations of her children, and so summons her husband, Andrew Undershaft. They have been separated for many years, because of his immoral attitudes towards life (though he was generally moral in action, and she did like him, but she said she wouldn’t have the attitudes in the house). When Undershaft comes, he barely remembers how many children he has. There is Stephen, who is somewhat in awe of his mother, Sarah, who is engaged to a man who will be a millionaire in ten years, and Barbara, who is a Major in the Salvation Army and is engaged to a professor of Greek (who joined the Salvation Army so he could be with Barbara).

The 1941 movie version of

The 1941 movie version of “Major Barbara”

Andrew Undershaft is incredibly wealthy as the owner of a munitions plant. He sells guns and cannons to anyone, no matter the moral question, just as long as they can pay. When he meets his children, he has very little use for Stephen and Sarah, but he and Barbara like each other. She works at a shelter in West Ham, London, and he is quite interested in her work. He notes that the motto of the Salvation Army might be his motto: Blood and Fire, though his blood and fire is quite different from hers. He is a secularist and she is religious and they both want to convert the other to their way of thinking. He agrees to come to her shelter if she will come to his cannon works.

Andrew Undershaft represents both tempter and sage in this play. He deliberately sets out to win Barbara to his way of thinking and he does this by undermining her faith in the Salvation Army. She is a dedicated saver of souls and she firmly believes one cannot buy one’s salvation. When a young man hits one of the Salvation Army workers, he tries to soothe his conscience by first getting beat up (but the man he chooses won’t oblige him) and then by paying her. But Barbara refuses to accept any of these this in substitution for actual reformation.

The shelter is in need of money, however, to stay open. When Undershaft learns of this, he offers to provide the funds, but Barbara won’t accept his money, either. She feels his money is tainted because of how he earns it and also because she refuses to accept anything less than Undershaft’s soul. But Undershaft destroys her faith in the Salvation Army when he again offers to give a large sum of money and is accepted by the Salvation Army commissioner. It seems to her that the army is endorsing the view that you can buy salvation by giving money, like buying indulgences.

Undershaft does offer an alternative faith to Barbara, however; now that he has shattered her illusions in organized religion. He offers her the creed of wealth. He believes that it is poverty that is a crime and the worst one of all. To be wealthy is to allow yourself the opportunity to have virtues, the “graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.” He believes that organizations like the Salvation Army are reinforcing the idea that because there is forgiveness for crimes, there is no need to really change. And also, because they are giving bread and teaching virtue, they are reinforcing the idea that it is okay to be poor, when poverty is the worst crime of all.

Wendy Hiller as Barbara and Rex Harrison as her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins in the 1941 movie

Wendy Hiller as Barbara and Rex Harrison as her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins in the 1941 movie

What Undershaft believes is that at all costs you must not be poor. This sounds rather like an advocation of greedy capitalism, which is ironic since Shaw was a socialist. However, I believe that he deliberately went out of his way to make Undershaft’s work and creed somewhat obnoxious in order to make a point. He gave him a distasteful job, so he could illustrate that even making cannons, Undershaft is more moral than the most virtuous poor man because the poor man is still participating, willfully, in the greatest evil of all. For Undershaft, man doesn’t need salvation; he needs money, he needs not to be poor. Undershaft’s weapons of war also furthers a theme Shaw is pursuing in the play, regarding making war on crime and poverty. The Salvation Army uses a similar metaphor of going to war.

I am not sure if Barbara exactly accepts his philosophy, though Adolphus, her fiancé, essentially lays aside his moral repugnance against war when he accepts Undershaft’s proposal to make him his heir to the munitions factory. Barbara still wants to save souls (though I cannot figure out what she means by salvation – spiritual, physical? – and salvation from what?), but she is now going to work on people who are not hungry, the many happy, well-fed workers at her father’s factory.

In fact, it is not at all clear to me how much of Undershaft’s philosophy we are to accept. Like Higgins, I am not sure he embodies right all the time. There is something rather devilish in how he sets out to destroy Barbara’s faith and surely Shaw does not mean that the cure for poverty is people trying to get wealth like Undershaft did, by whatever means necessary. Undershaft makes a virtue of getting money, which is something that Barbara has no interest in. She has not accepted her father’s belief in money so much as agreed to its necessity.

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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in Plays


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The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Julie_Andrews_Rex_Harrison_Robert_Coote_My_Fair_Lady[2]When I get interested in something, I really get interested in something and I want to know everything there is to know about it…I think it’s called obsession. Anyway, my current obsession is “My Fair Lady.” I’ve been listening to it for months now; I take it with me when I have errands to run and sing and gesture while I’m driving and hum my way happily through stores and libraries. If I am in the middle of a song when I finally pull up to the house, I pause a moment with the motor idling so I can finish it. I even fall asleep listening to it.

I’ve been feeding this obsession with a book called The Making of My Fair Lady (1993) by Keith Garebian. Garebian takes the reader through a brief history of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and how it was made into a movie in 1938 by the unlikely producer, Gabriel Pascal….who was broke at the time. Garebian then proceeds to a brief summary of the life of Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist, and his collaboration with composer Frederick Loewe. Before “My Fairy Lady,” the two had done “Brigadoon” and “Paint Your Wagon” and would go on to write “Gigi” and “Camelot.”

Evidently, many composers had considered turning Shaw’s play into a musical, but had all found the task too challenging. Oscar Hammerstein felt that it couldn’t be done. At the time, musicals were supposed to have subplots (“Pygmalion” does not) and a chorus, which no one could figure out how to insert into a musical Pygmalion. There was also the problem of how the play was not a romance (believed to be necessary for a musical) and was essentially confined to a drawing room (many of the events we associate with the musical – the ball, Eliza’s finally speaking correctly – occur offstage in the play).

They solved their difficulties, however, by determining to follow the film version more than the stage version of Pygmalion. They also felt they could dispense with adding any subplots since the characters present were sufficiently interesting. Likewise, they decided to embrace  romance, although Lerner felt that Leslie Howard (Professor Higgins in the movie) was a little too sympathetic and aware of Eliza’s feelings and Lerner wanted to make the musical Higgins more self-absorbed, as in the play. “My Fair Lady’s” Higgins only has his moment of self-awareness and revelation at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Julie_Andrews_My_Fair_Lady[1]From a very early stage, Lerner and Loewe wanted Rex Harrison to play Higgins. He couldn’t technically sing, but developed something similar to Sprechstimme (German for speech-voice) and would basically talk on pitch. Lerner and Loewe  wanted the actress who played Eliza to be roughly the same age as the character Eliza and they cast nineteen year old Julie Andrews, who was getting good notices for her performance in “The Boyfriend.”

The rehearsals were slightly tense. Rex Harrison was irascible (just like Higgins) and was constantly trying to make sure that the Americans writing the musical (Lerner and Loewe) stayed true to the very British “Pygmalion” and the lines. He was so insecure about singing (especially with the full orchestra, which made it difficult for him to find his pitch in the mass of sound) that he nearly refused to sing on the opening night in Connecticut. People had come through a blizzard to attend the opening and Rex Harrison only emerged 30 minutes before the show began.

Julie Andrews also encountered difficulties. She’d been performing for most of her life, but she was lost at the beginning of rehearsals. Eliza Dolittle is a difficult role to play and she couldn’t get a handle on the character. The stage director, Moss Hart, wasn’t sure she would ultimately cut it, so he dismissed the rest of the cast and spent two days drilling her in the role. Miles Krueger, who as acting as an assistant, was the only witness to the session and later said “it was like lifting the veils. And two days later, when rehearsals resumed, Julie Andrews was, full-blown, the Julie Andrews we know today…”

The results for the musical were spectacular. Both Andrews and Harrison were superb on opening night (and how I wish I could have been there). Along with rave reviews, it became the longest running musical of the time and won 6 Tony awards, was nominated for 10 (Harrison won, Andrews lost). Alan Jay Lerner always thought it was simply the  perfect combination of actors, director, set designer, costume design, everything.

Garebian spends the last portion of the book detailing why the musical was so successful and how the songs fit so well, psychologically, to the story. Garebian considers it one of the most literate musicals ever performed, with an attempt to take Shaw seriously and not just use his play as inspiration. Dedicated Shavians never quite forgave the addition of a romance, but they did admit the musical was delightful.

Garebian also makes the case that although it does not look like a particularly cutting-edge musical, it was quite unique at the time. There are no duets, no real choruses. Eliza and Higgins never have a duet…let alone a romantic one. In fact, the word “love” is never even mentioned. It is the music that brings in the romantic subtext, while the lyrics stay largely true to Shaw’s original words.

My_Fair_Lady_Cast_Recording[1]Notes: I have been alternating between listening to two cast recordings. “The Original Broadway Cast Recording” (1956) and the “Original London Cast Recording” (1959). Both Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews reprised their roles in London several years after opening in New York, where the British were eagerly – almost ecstatically – waiting for the musical to arrive in England, where they adored it and were impressed at how well Americans were able to adapt one of their plays.

Both recordings have Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway (as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Dolittle). One difference is that the Broadway album was recorded in mono and the London album was recorded in stereo, but I’m not a very astute listener, apparently, and difference is almost negligible to me.

The big difference is the speed of the music. The London recording is much more upbeat and when I’m listening to it while driving, I find myself speeding along at a slightly unlawful pace, especially with songs like “Show Me”. Also, Julie Andrews had to put back some of the Cockney in her accent for the British audiences that she had toned down for the Americans.

When the original Broadway recording was released, it became such a huge seller that it topped the charts for 15 weeks (at various stages in 1956). I wonder what was the last time a musical topped the charts?

Random Thought: I was thinking about what “My Fair Lady” would be like as a non-romantic musical. I don’t think it would have been as good a musical…at least musically speaking. I’m not sure what kind of a musical it would have made. Garebian argues that Lerner and Loewe make the romance work, mostly through the music (specifically through the last song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”) and that his last line “Where the devil are my slippers’ is more an example of saving face than anything else. However, whether you agree with him or not, I don’t think there’s any denying that without a romantic framework, Lerner and Loewe could not have written music as gloriously, romantically, sweepingly thrilling as they did.


See here for images of the recording session for “My Fair Lady.”

And to hear Jeff Lunden’s story, on NPR, about the making of “My Fair Lady,” see here.

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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Books


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