A Strange Kind of Romance – by Jeff Steitzer, director of “Pygmalion”

PygmalionPygmalion has always been one of Shaw’s most popular plays. Its initial production with Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Higgins and Mrs. Pat Campbell as Eliza took 1914 London by storm and led to similarly successful productions all over the world. But in our day, the play has been somewhat eclipsed by the musical that Lerner and Loewe made of it, My Fair Lady. And those who think that because they know My Fair Lady they knowPygmalion are likely to be somewhat surprised when they see Shaw’s play.

Although the author called his play “A Romance in Five Acts”, it’s a strange kind of romance. Shaw himself said:  “Don’t talk to me of romances, I was sent into the world to dance on them with thick boots–to shatter, stab and murder them.”  And Pygmalion, if it doesn’t quite murder romance, certainly stands it on its head. The American critic, Eric Bentley, once observed that Pygmalion stood in relation to the traditional romance in the same way that Androcles And The Lion stood to English Pantomime (which had inspired that play), or The Devil’s Disciple did to conventional melodrama. All three plays are, inherently, critiques of the traditional models, and alternatives to them.

Pygmalion also seems to have been influenced by the work of Ibsen, specifically his play,A Doll’s House. This would not be surprising as Shaw had championed the Norwegian’s work long before audiences caught up with him. At the end of Ibsen’s play, Nora walks out on her husband, Torvald, in an attempt to discover who she might be. Eliza does the same. She declares her independence from her “creator”, Henry Higgins, and walks out to face her destiny.

Yet despite Shaw’s insistence that Eliza and Higgins do NOT end up together–and Eliza’s response to Higgins’ demand that she fetch him cheese and gloves is met with “Buy them yourself” (which seems about as definitive as Nora’s door slam)–, audiences and critics alike have never quite believed it. Shaw went on to write at least 6 different endings to his play as well as a prose “Sequel” in which he categorically insists that not only does Higgins NOT marry Eliza, but that Freddy Eynsford-Hill does!

In some ways, Shaw’s worrying at the problem only exacerbated it. With each attempt, his ending became less satisfying. It may be that the best solution is in leaving the ending of his play as ambiguous as it was to his original audience. It’s less important to worry about what happens to Eliza and Higgins after the end of the play than to realize that, in this instance, the end of the play is not the end of the story and that Shaw’s protagonists have much business left to resolve. So as Shaw wrote in one of those endings: “A happy ending. A happy beginning!” Life goes on.

Comments

  1. selvaraj says

    Pygmalion has always been one of
    Shaw’s most popular plays. Its initial
    production with Herbert Beerbohm
    Tree as Higgins and Mrs. Pat Campbell
    as Eliza took 1914 London by storm
    and led to similarly successful
    productions all over the world. But in
    our day, the play has been somewhat
    eclipsed by the musical that Lerner
    and Loewe made of it, My Fair Lady.
    And those who think that because
    they know My Fair Lady they
    knowPygmalion are likely to be
    somewhat surprised when they see
    Shaw’s play.
    Although the author called his play “A
    Romance in Five Acts”, it’s a strange
    kind of romance. Shaw himself said:
    ”Don’t talk to me of romances, I was
    sent into the world to dance on them
    with thick boots–to shatter, stab and
    murder them.” And Pygmalion, if it
    doesn’t quite murder romance,
    certainly stands it on its head. The
    American critic, Eric Bentley, once
    observed that Pygmalion stood in
    relation to the traditional romance in
    the same way that Androcles And The
    Lion stood to English Pantomime
    (which had inspired that play), or The
    Devil’s Disciple did to conventional
    melodrama. All three plays are,
    inherently, critiques of the traditional
    models, and alternatives to them.
    Pygmalion also seems to have been
    influenced by the work of Ibsen,
    specifically his play,A Doll’s House.
    This would not be surprising as Shaw
    had championed the Norwegian’s work
    long before audiences caught up with
    him. At the end of Ibsen’s play, Nora
    walks out on her husband, Torvald, in
    an attempt to discover who she might
    be. Eliza does the same. She declares
    her independence from her “creator”,
    Henry Higgins, and walks out to face
    her destiny.
    Yet despite Shaw’s insistence that
    Eliza and Higgins do NOT end up
    together–and Eliza’s response to
    Higgins’ demand that she fetch him
    cheese and gloves is met with “Buy
    them yourself” (which seems about as
    definitive as Nora’s door slam)–,
    audiences and critics alike have never
    quite believed it. Shaw went on to
    write at least 6 different endings to his
    play as well as a prose “Sequel” in
    which he categorically insists that not
    only does Higgins NOT marry Eliza, but
    that Freddy Eynsford-Hill does!
    In some ways, Shaw’s worrying at the
    problem only exacerbated it. With each
    attempt, his ending became less
    satisfying. It may be that the best
    solution is in leaving the ending of his
    play as ambiguous as it was to his
    original audience. It’s less important to
    worry about what happens to Eliza and
    Higgins after the end of the play than
    to realize that, in this instance, the end
    of the play is not the end of the story
    and that Shaw’s protagonists have
    much business left to resolve. So as
    Shaw wrote in one of those endings:
    “A happy ending. A happy beginning!”
    Life goes on.

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