Tag Archives: Pygmalion

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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Anastasia (1956) – Cinderella Meets Pygmalion Meets Russian History

220px-Anastasia322Other than the basic premise of the movie – that Yul Brynner is trying to pass Ingrid Bergman off as the missing Princess Anastasia of Russian – I knew very little about Anastasia before I watched it. I was expecting a tragedy. There didn’t seem to me to be any way to end such a venture happily, whether she was the real princess or not. But what I saw instead was a movie that has to be understood as a fairy tale (it doesn’t even pretend to be historical), with strong echos of Shaw’s Pygmalion and Cinderella.

The movie unfolds in 1928 in Paris and Copenhagen, where many exiles from the Russian Revolution of 1917 now live. One of them is General Bounine (Yul Brynner) who is in partnership with two men, Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff), to capitalize on the rumors that one of the Russian royal family escaped being murdered by the Bolsheviks. They organized a fund, with money donated by certain Russian exiles to locate the missing princess Anastasia, but use the money for their own ends until it becomes necessary to find someone to present as Anastasia or  else go to prison for fraud.

They find a young woman, Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman), of unknown background who has amnesia and spent time in an asylum where she told the nun that she was Anastasia. She is vague about her true identity, but has certain features in common with the real Anastasia and seems to know things most people wouldn’t know. Bounine has eight days to prepare her to be the princess – information she should know, how to walk, how to dance – and then present her to all the exiled Russians in Paris. They are divided, however, on whether she is the princess and Bounine realizes that if he is ever to have Anna accepted as Anastasia, they must have the acknowledgement of the real Anastasia’s grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna (Helen Hayes), who now lives in Copenhagen.

Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner

Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner

Plot Spoilers to Follow – I was enchanted by this movie, though somewhat surprised at the turn it took (I initially thought the fact that she was coughing meant she was dying of tuberculosis…possibly the result of listening to “La Boheme” too often). It’s more sentimental than I expected. I was expecting a psychological exploration of identity (where I got that idea, I have no idea), but that’s not what the movie is about. Is she Anastasia or isn’t she? Anna is desperate to know who she really is and where she belongs and she certainly comes to believe that she is the real princess. She seemingly convinces The Dowager Empress that she is her granddaughter. She even has Bounine wondering. But ultimately, the movie seems to say, it’s not important if she is Anastasia or not. Identity, instead, comes from being loved and accepted.

In fact, once she is accepted by the Dowager Empress, she has doubts. Does Prince Paul von Haraldberg (Ivan Desny) love her or like or her just want the inheritance that will come to Princess Anastasia? Are all these people simply using her so they too can participate in the money or glory in the memory of what is long past? Are people too eager to believe she is the princess, whether it is true or not? Anna is not sure. The only people who seem to care for her genuinely are the Dowager Empress and Bounine.

Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes

Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes gives a wonderful performance as the Dowager Empress. Grown weary of pretenders presenting themselves to her as her long lost granddaughter or grandson, she initially refuses to see Anna. There is a wonderful confrontation scene when she and Anna finally do meet. She is cold, but there is vulnerability beneath it. You know she wants to hope, but has grown cynical of disappointment. Anna is desperate for acceptance and it is unclear whether the Dowager Empress is convinced or simply has such a need to love someone again and recognizes a fellow sufferer, lonely and lost,, and opens her heart to her. In essence, she chooses to believe that she is her granddaughter.

Because whether she is the princess or not, Anna clearly has had a traumatic and violent background, causing confusion, mental anguish and a distrust of people. General Bounine’s motivations are more opaque. He’s a con artist, but he doesn’t really seem to care about the money. He’s like a gambler who likes to control and stage scenes and move people as pawns. The Dowager Empress mentions that he was denied a title before the Revolution. Is he simply showing his power over the royal family that snubbed him? But without ever saying so, it is clear that his views of Anna change over time and he begins to feel protective towards her and care for her, wondering if what he tried to make her into was really the best thing for her.

The film shares many aspects with George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Like Professor Higgins, General Bounine seeks to mold Anna into the image he envisions, in this case as the princess. There is the same master and pupil dynamics, with the same fireworks as he finds that she is not just a puppet, such as when he considers it safer for her not to speak to the exiles who have come to see her and she ignores him and proceeds to act and speak as she chooses. There is also the same freedom Eliza achieves from Higgins, as Anna achieves independence from Bounine when the Dowager Empress acknowledges her and takes her into her home and Anna begins to run her own life. And like the 1938 film Pygmalion, there is the same unspoken romance that evolves subtly without anyone ever mentioning the word.

008-ingrid-bergman-theredlistThe film is also a Cinderella story, just as “Pygmalion” was. A woman is plucked from the banks of the Seine and turned into a princess. But unlike Cinderella, she doesn’t quite go to the ball. She chooses, instead, to give it all up for the certainty of being loved as she is. “The play is over,” as the Dowager Empress says. What she means is that in choosing to run away with Bounine, Anna is relinquishing the part of what has become a play, unreality, an act so other people can live in the past. Now she can live in the present where former identity does not matter.

Anastasia was the next movie Yul Byrnner made after his tremendous success and Oscar winning performance in The King and I and he is likewise compelling here. He’s still intense and charismatic, but more restrained and he and Bergman have a lovely, unspoken chemistry, similar to the unspoken one in The King and IAnastasia also marked the return of Ingrid Bergman after her affair and marriage to Roberto Rossellini led to so much scandal and condemnation that she lived for years in Italy only to return to Hollywood in 1956. She won an Oscar for her performance, partly as a welcome back, though she does give a very moving one.

The movie is based on a play, which has led a number of people to comment that the film is too stagy. I confess, though, I’ve always had a weakness for movie adaptations of plays and I rather like talky films. Anastasia is not static, though it does largely occur in extended scenes in large rooms. I like the intensity created when people are engaged in earnest interaction on a set. The movie has also been accused of being melodramatic, which is true, but I must confess again that I have a weakness for certain kinds of melodrama. Some emotions should not be expressed tepidly.


Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Drama, Romance


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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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