George Bernard Shaw used his writing to explore and challenge political issues such as the injustices of the class system. His play Pygmalion was written in 1912, and it tells the story of a cockney flower seller called Eliza Doolittle. The plot charts her relationship with Henry Higgins, a professor of Linguistics, who makes a bet with his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he can transform Eliza, into a lady, through changing the way that she speaks.
My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe
My Fair Lady, the 1950s musical based on this play, was written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Other writers, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, the writers of Oklahoma, had given up on this task because Shaw’s play did not follow the traditional pattern of many romantic musicals. One concern was that many of the scenes took place only between Eliza, Higgins and Pickering, which left little room for a chorus of voices. Another complication was that Shaw’s ending was very different to the normal romantic ending associated with musicals.
Shaw’s ending showed Eliza walking away from Higgins. This was important to his political message because he wanted to show Eliza as an assertive, independent woman. In Lerner and Loewe’s musical, however, the ending was changed to indicate some romantic hope for the relationship between Eliza and Higgins.
The Scenes in My Fair Lady
The opening of My Fair Lady takes place on a rainy night in London. In this scene many opera goers are waiting around for cabs in Covent Garden. Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl, runs into an elegant young man called Freddy and complains because he has scattered her flowers. Her abusive language attracts the attention of Higgins who sings ‘Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” This first scene also allows Eliza to express her hopes and dreams in the song ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely’. In this song, she longs for a warm home and a loving relationship. Higgins meets Pickering and mentions that he could easily change Eliza’s speech to turn her into a lady.
Many of the scenes, in Shaw’s play, show Higgins working phonetically with Eliza in order to transform her speech. These scenes are also very important in My Fair Lady. The famous song ‘The Rain in Spain’ marks the moment when Eliza finally starts to understand the kind of speech which is expected from a grand lady. Higgins and Pickering are very excited and shout ‘she’s got it’ in this scene.
My Fair Lady and Class Differences
My Fair Lady, like the original play, is used to debate whether a rich life is actually better than a working class life. Eliza’s father, a dustman, is used to explore this idea further. When he becomes rich, later in the story, he feels compelled to change his moral values to match his fortunes. The song ‘Get me to the church on time’ is used to show his feelings of anxiety concerning marriage.
Another interesting scene is Eliza’s visit to Ascot where Eliza meets Freddy again. In this case, the chorus are dressed up in elaborate hats and outfits to represent the upper classes.
However, whilst the chorus sing about the Dukes and Earls who are attending Ascot Eliza almost blows her cover by talking about her aunt drinking gin and then by shouting abuse as one of the horses. Ironically, it is these linguistic mistakes that make Freddy fall in love with her. He is fascinated by her differences. He then takes on the role of the traditional, devoted lover, in this musical, when he stands outside her door and sings ‘On the street where you live’.
Higgins and Eliza
Higgins’ feelings towards Eliza are not so straightforward. His mother accuses him of treating her like a ‘living doll’ and, until she walks away, he sees her in terms of his bet with Pickering, since she will enable him to win it. Once she has gone, he sings that he has grown ‘accustomed to her face’. This song is wistful and it shows that Higgins is at last reflecting upon Eliza as a real person.
In My Fair Lady, Eliza does not have an idealistic, happy ending. She tells Higgins that Freddy loves her and wants to marry her, but a part of her wishes that Higgins had left her ‘in the gutter’ where he found her. In Shaw’s play, she broke away from Higgins forever, but, in the musical, she does return to him. The ending is ambiguous but it provides a hint of hope that fits more easily into the romantic, musical genre.
Shaw did not want his play to be turned into a musical which might be because he feared that his political intentions would be lost in the desire to entertain. My Fair Lady, however, clearly communicates his message that transformation can be painful and that the differences between classes are not always clear cut. It also provides wonderful, musical entertainment.
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