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.
A native of Seattle, Jen Taylor made her Seattle Shakespeare Company debut last season playing Imogen in Chamber Cymbeline. Now with Eliza in Pygmalion, she has a role that she’s been dying to play since she was a teenager. “At 12 or 13 I went into this weird stage where I would only watch black and white movies, because modern movies offended my sensibility (she laughs). I have no idea what was going through my head. So my mother introduced me to the film of Pygmalion, and I just fell in love with it. And then of course I watched My Fair Lady. I started working on my cockney dialect. And when I was 14 I got to play Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it was because I was mimicking Pygmalion. Yeah, Mrs. Beaver was my first attempt at Eliza Doolittle. (Laughs).
“You’re going to laugh! Right now I’m reading Death Comes to Pemberley. I’m so embarrassed. It’s a murder mystery written by P.D. James who is a murder mystery novelist that I quite like. And she’s a huge fan of Jane Austen, who is my favorite author. And she has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that is a murder mystery. In all honesty, I’m only a couple of chapters in. I can’t really speak to its value yet. I bought it for my mom with the hope that I could then read it.”
“I’m always listening to Radiohead. It’s sort of my music of choice. In all honestly, I don’t feel like I have a ton of time to sit down and listen to the radio, unless I’m in the car, and then I’m listening to KUOW or the classical station, with a little bit of pop thrown in there.”
(Laughs) “I don’t have a television. I have a whole bunch of movies from SAG, because I’m a SAG member and they send you films to watch for the SAG awards, which I never got around to watching, so I’m excited to watch The Artist. I really want to see that when I have a moment to myself.”
Earliest memory of wanting to be an actor
“I was always putting on little shows. But I remember I saw a play at the Village Theatre that was their kids’ summer stage show, and I must have been 11. They were doing Bye, Bye, Birdie, and it was the first time that I had the realization of “Wait a second! These are all kids doing this. I could do this!” It was the first time I had a real concept of that for some reason. Movies with kids in it seemed really far away, not something that was real. And my mother took me to a lot of theatre, bless her. Thank you, Mom! She took me to the opera. She took me to the ballet. She took me to a ton of theatre, but it never really stuck in my mind that kids could do it. So it was the Village Theatre’s KidStage that I really realized that “What a second! These are all kids!” That’s probably when I had the clear notion that I could be on stage, I think.”
Looking forward to this theatre season
“I would really like to see my friend Angela DiMarco in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at Seattle Public. I am a fan of actors, so I want to go see their shows. I want to see Nick Garrison’s show I Am My Own Wife at the Rep. I am also interested in Clybourne Park, which I don’t know much about. I’m going to see The Bells at Strawberry Theatre Workshop. And, once I close Pygmalion, I open up in Holy Days with New Century Theatre Company directed by Paul Stetler.”
Mark is making his Seattle Shakespeare Company debut playing the role of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Recently he’s become very passionate about making sure that some of the great plays from the past (that frequently have large casts and are challenging to produce) still stay in the public consciousness. To that end he and several other local theatre artists created the Endangered Species Project (www.endangeredspeciesproject.org) to produce staged readings of the great plays from the past. Check them out and make sure to see Mark as Shaw’s irascible Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.
“I always have like five books going. I am reading a book about the Wobblies called We Shall be Free. I’m reading a book about starting a theatre that Jeff Steitzer gave me because we are doing the Endangered Species Project. I am reading John Sayles new book. And a book of ghost stories that I’ve been going through, and I don’t know why.”
“I listen to the radio, only in the car. I listen to music at home a lot. A lot of classical. I’m kind of a film score nut. At least the early ones. I’m not so crazy about them nowadays. I like really bold and accessible music.”
“I go to the movies, but I recently saw this documentary called the Renaissance Revolution. And in it this guy is talking about this amazing painting behind him. And he said, ‘What’s amazing about this painting is that everything you need is there. You can see it. It’s there. The difference between this painting and a modern painting is that the modern painting is all about what has been left out.’ And that idea has been burning in my mind ever since I saw it. And it has affected why we are doing the Endangered Species Project, because there are plays that have everything in them, not alluding to them. And Shaw is the same way. Everything is in it. It’s all there. If you want to find it, it’s there. He talks about it. It’s there.”
Looking forward to this theatre season
“I haven’t thought much more beyond Pygmalion. It’s going to be very interesting to see what ACT does with the Ramayana. I don’t know how that’s going to come across. It’s going to be very interesting to see. But I don’t know what that’s going to be like.”