Thirty-some years ago, Homestead High School produced My Fair Lady. I played Alfred P. Doolittle, the scheming pauper turned endowed moralists, “With a LIttle Bit of Luck”. In introducing Arena Stage’s current production of May Fair Lady, Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s artistic director and this show’s director, raises the question of how relevantly does a script about upward mobility in classes fit to American culture today. As the light fade from the final scene, I think Ms. Smith has as much ambivalence about Eliza Doolittle’s and Henry Higgins’ transformation as I do.
My Fair Lady carries themes about social class and relationships that permeate our American culture: class mobility rather than stratification, education to provide opportunity, personal effort to make change. The team of Lerner and Lowe (book, lyrics, and music) took a solidly Edwardian English play, Pygmalion, by Bernard Shaw for the outline of the musical. Shaw, always the social critic of his era, borrowed from Ovid’s greek/roman myth of the same name, to question assumptions that teaching anyone to speak correctly could change their station in society. Ovid wrote about a sculptor who falls in love with a piece he created, challenging how we shape our beliefs to see what we want and to admire ideas, rather than recognize what those artistic images represent. I am not sure of Ovid’s sources, but the Hebrew stories of God creating Adam and Eve come to mind. Maybe My Fair Lady is an extension of the eternal condition of the human and divine relationship. Well, “Get Me to the Church on Time” was my other big number in our high school production.
For a quick plot review, Professor Henry Higgins studies linguistics by hanging in dark corners listening to people talk. Eliza Doolittle sells flowers outside the opera at Covent Gardens. Col?? Pickering has returned from duty in India, and takes up a bet with Higgins that Higgins cannot make Eliza pass off as an aristocrat by the time of the Embassy Ball. Eliza wants to be more than a pauper selling flowers from a basket. She wants to own her own flower shop. Freddy Eynsford-Hill spies Eliza at the horse races, where Higgins and Pickering were giving her a run in society. Freddy hangs around the street where she lives hoping to woo Eliza. The Embassy Ball occurs with Eliza pulling off her newly learned language and manners. Higgins wins the bet. Eliza realizes that he sees her as nothing more than a project and returns to the streets. She learns that her father, who earlier asked only for five pounds from Higgins for her, by ridiculous circumstances set in motion by Higgins, has been endowed with 4,000 pounds per year. In addition to supporting his friends in drinking and running the streets, he has to marry Eliza’s step-mother to keep his new middle class position. Higgins tells Eliza that she is free to go from his charge. She can open a shop or marry Freddie. Higgins realizes that his confirmed-bachelor status is at risk because he as grown accustomed to her face. Eliza returns to Higgins’ study.
Beyond our hope for romantic solutions, My Fair Lady appears dated in a culture that worries about gay-marriage and COE annual bonuses that exceed the life time earning potential of most workers. Ms. Smith, thus, faces the challenge of deciding how to direct the script for contemporary relevance. She starts, first, with a strong core cast. Benedict Campbell (Higgins) brings a forceful, demanding teacher who is more interested in his ability to change someone than the heart of the woman whom he forms into a lady. Thomas Adrian Simpson (Pickering) is all angular in stature and articulation that we have no doubt that he could command troops and stand behind his wager. He shows the compassion of an officer who regrets that he has to send his troops out to die in battle. Nicholas Rodriguez (Freddie) seems quite comfortable to be as purposeless as to stand around waiting for a glimpse of the woman whom he idolizes.
Ms. Smith’s bold casting decision was to select Manna Nicolas (Eliza) and James Saito (Alfred Doolittle) who have obvious Asian heritages, rather than traditional Cockney looking actors. In Ms. Smith’s director’s notes, she states that she researched immigration patterns to London in the 19th century, and concluded that the East Side of London in 1912 (when Shaw wrote Pygmalion) contained many ethnic groups from Japan, China, Africa, Arab countries, and the Caribbean. To this end, her boldest decision and triumph is the ensemble, made up of every color and size.
Ms. Nichols pulls off, gracefully, her transformation in diction and manners. We see the scene where her streetwise postures dominate, where she struggles to understand what Higgins is trying to get her to do, and when she strides with elegance and graciousness that has been bread out of the gentry. Saito, in parallel, without lessons, shows us his wit as he goes from being thrown out of bars to tipping the public house owners to allowing his friends to imbibe with him.
The ensemble makes the most amazing transformations as they play the paupers in Covent Gardens in one set of scenes, then servants around Higgins’ home, then aristocrats at the races and Embassy Ball. I cannot image how many dressers they had back stage stripping them of the clothing of one class before donning the attire of another class. These costume changes re-enforce the idea that people can switch from class to class merely by changing appearance. This brings one of the excellent technical points of this production: the costumes, wigs, and hats. While Higgins may argue that language makes a person, clothes certainly connotate social position. Judith Bowden deserves hats-off for her crew’s work in turning rags into costumes for the paupers, having the sharpest dress servants, and taking dapper to the races. If someone could fall in love with a wig and hat, these costumes would be the Pgymalion of milliners.
In addition to the elaborate costume changes of the ensemble, Eliza makes numerous costume changes. First, she must doff the stitched together rags from the street scenes to wear a crisp, light dress for learning. As her education continues, she changes dresses and sheds layers with each successful intonation of proper vowels and constonents ?? until the creams and browns have given way to bold reds. When she goes to the races, she is adorned with blues and greens. Her entrance to the Embassy Ball shows her completely transformed in ivory and rented jewels, Higgins statue carved from marble. After the ball, when she prepares to leave, she asks Higgins what clothes are hers. Have all these layers of costume been the cast off shards of stone slowly chipped away to reveal the ideal woman of Higgins’ design?
While Eliza has been transforming, Higgins insists that he is the constant. He is unchanging and predictable. This creates a theatric dilemma: if Eliza has changed and has a potential to love, but Higgins has not change, how can they possibly be in love at the end of the play. Traditionally, the final scenes, in which Higgins storms into his study, “Damn! Damn! Damn!” and sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”, we see the transformation for which we long. But, Pygmalion is not about the sculptor becoming transformed, but being deluded by his own genius??? Traditionally, we expect that when Eliza returns to Higgins’ study that love overcomes, the lovers are joined, and harmony abides. Ms. Smith directs Campbell to mutter the lines “damn, damn, damn” not as staccatto ??? conflicts, but as befuddled confusion. After his solo, with Eliza’s voice replayed over an early grammaphone?? he falls asleep. Eliza enters, substituting her own voice. He awakes, barks out a command to get his slippers, stands, they begin to approach each other as the lights fade. We are left unsure of whether Higgins is just his demanding self or repentant, whether Eliza has returned to embrace him or continue their fight. Ms. Smith may understand relationships better than the script.
My Fair Lady is more than a play about transformation. It is a play about power. Social class is controlled by position and wealth. Regardless of how well Eliza performs at the Embassy Ball, she has neither position nor wealth. Her position is only through Higgins and Pickering. Her jewelry have been loaned. She is not even sure whether she owns any of the dresses which Pickering bought for her. Personal change is about power of will. Eliza demonstrate her power when she follows Higgins from Covent Gardens to his study and offers to pay for eleqution?? lessons. However, Higgins holds the power because he has the knowledge of both how she should speak and how she can learn this. In the final scene, Higgins still holds the power within the relationship. If Eliza returns to him, she is submitting to his control, unless he has been transformed also. MIssing a familiar person or object does not demonstrate that he has changed. The stage darkening before they embrace or kiss, enveloping their relationship without a clear resolution.
But, my response is not mere intellectualization. I found that I did not tear up in the final scene, but in the scene in which Eliza leave Higgins and returns to the street with the paupers whom she grew up with. In my own Pgymalion experiences of youth, I made the error of believing that I could base relationships upon changing the women into my ideal. In two of these relationships, I, a solidly middle-middle class youth, connected with young women from working class families. I encouraged them to attend college, to make independent friendships, to look at several side of an situation and make their own decisions. In both cases, the relationships ended when they stood up with their newly learned independence and left. But, both eventually returned to their working class peers with whom they were familiar. Those stages were left dark, for there would be no re-union embrace. Whether we like to acknowledge that we are a class society, education has limitations, and personal perseverance tends to direct us apart rather than together, Ms. Smith’s production of My Fair Lady lets us glimpse at the difference between our ideals and reality.