Eliza And Her Iterations

The “Eliza” I’m referring to in the title is Eliza Doolittle, the lead character in the musical My Fair Lady.

The show was recently in San Diego, and while I knew it had been around for a long time, this got me wondering – just how long?

Research required.

Eliza Doolittle wasn’t created for My Fair Lady.  She was created for a play written by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950, pictured), a prolific Irish playwright, critic and political activist.  He wrote Pygmalion in 1912, and the story is set in London at around that time.  The play was described as “a study of language and speech and their importance in society and in personal relationships.”

Eliza was Shaw’s lead female character, which brings us to…

Eliza Iteration #1:

When Pygmalion opened in London in 1914, she was played by British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

Eliza was of indeterminate age, a poor, working-class English female who sold flowers on the street – hence the costume and flower basket.

Shaw’s male lead character was Professor Henry Higgins, described as a “brilliant linguist who studies phonetics and documents different dialects and ways of speaking.”

When they meet, Eliza’s working-class way of speaking greatly offends Higgins.

So Eliza becomes Higgins’ experiment:  He will teach her to speak like a lady.

Many consider Pygmalion Shaw’s most popular play, and regular revivals attest to that – as recently as 2011 in Dublin.

From its opening in 1914 and still going strong nearly 100 years later – the story of the flower seller and the professor has “legs.”

Eliza Iteration #2:

In 1938, a British film version of Pygmalion was released, starring British actress Wendy Hiller as Eliza.

The creative folks tinkered some with the script for the adaptation.  The movie was a financial and critical success, earning an Oscar for Best Screenplay and three more nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress (Hiller).

I have not seen Pygmalion in either of its forms – this is where I came in:

Eliza Iteration #3:

This time around, the creative people did a lot more than tinker with Pygmalion – they changed the title to My Fair Lady and turned it into a musical, starring British actress/singer Julie Andrews as Eliza.

The show opened in New York in 1956 and was a critical and popular success – winning six Tony Awards including Best Musical – and set a record for the longest run of any musical on Broadway up to that time.

And the stage version also has “legs.”  As I said at the top, it was recently in San Diego, 65 years after its Broadway debut.

I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Andrews, but years later I enjoyed revivals of My Fair Lady a number of times.  I bought the soundtrack and know every lyric by heart, and I’m enchanted every time I hear Andrews sing Eliza’s story in her incomparable voice.

Eliza Iteration #4:

The 1964 film version of My Fair Lady was Hollywood all the way, with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.

The film won eight Oscars.  And though this image is black and white, the film was not.

If you’re wondering why Julie Andrews didn’t just slide into her Eliza duds and star in the movie – The Powers That Be decided she wasn’t well-known enough in the U.S. to be a big box office draw.  And Hepburn was, even though…

She couldn’t sing.

So her singing was dubbed by “ghost singer” Marnie Nixon.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the movie on TV.  Between the movie and stage version, I’m sure I’ve seen My Fair Lady a dozen times.

I know My Fair Lady

But it seems I didn’t know it as well as I thought.

Eliza Iteration #5:

When I started seeing ads about My Fair Lady coming to San Diego in early December, I knew I wouldn’t see it.  I’m not yet comfortable with the idea of sitting in an audience, especially with a new coronavirus variant rearing its ugly head.

But I did read a review in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

I noted the word “surprises” in the headline.

What kind of surprises? I wondered.

The first surprise – a very big surprise – appeared in the first paragraph:

“There are a handful of old plays and musicals that many feminists detest, including Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and Lerner and Loewe’s musical ‘My Fair Lady,’ in which female characters return to misogynistic men who treat them abominably.”

For all the times I’d seen My Fair Lady, never – not once – had the idea of “female characters return to misogynistic men who treat them abominably” occurred to me.

It was like a punch to the gut.

Yes, Professor Higgins treats Eliza badly.  But to me that was a story device – to contrast with how, as the story progresses, we see Higgins come to care for Eliza.

And he comes to care for her a great deal.

What was I missing here?

I consider myself an enlightened woman.  I abhor men who abuse women in any way.  When the #MeToo movement got started, I cheered.  When an abuser goes to prison, I cheer some more.

It was time to educate myself, and I found a number of relevant articles, including one by this theater critic:

What an eye-opener.

Through this critic’s lens, I came to see that yes – Professor Higgins is an abuser and Eliza is his victim.

And the abuse starts early on, at Eliza and Higgins’ first encounter:

Higgins:  “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere.”

Eliza has, he says, has “no right to live.  Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech; that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.”

1938: Eliza and Higgins – her abuser?

Further into the show:

Higgins decrees that Eliza is a “squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language.”

When a series of examples is cited by the critic, the abuse is overwhelming:

“She’s so deliciously low – so horribly dirty!”

“I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed gutter-snipe!”

Violence is airily invoked; Eliza is nothing to him:  “Take her away, Mrs. Pearce.  If she gives you any trouble, wallop her.”

And at the end of all this?  “When I’m done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter…”

And in case there’s any doubt about Higgins’ attitude toward not just Eliza but women in general, the critic reminds us of these famous lyrics in one of Higgins’ songs:

Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!
Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags.
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
Vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!

1956: Eliza and Higgins – her abuser?

And since I know the lyrics to well, this reminded me of more from the same song:

Why is thinking something women never do?
Why is logic never even tried?
Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.
Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?

Did the people appearing in and watching and writing about the 1914 play, the 1938 movie, the 1956 stage musical and/or the 1964 musical movie find the insults funny?

When I saw the stage musical and movie, did I? 

Some in the audience and the Daily Beast critic did not:

As this critic left, an elderly-looking woman said to her husband of Higgins, “Why would you want to stay with him?  He’s so abusive.”

…you do not wish for Eliza and Higgins to be together; you want her to get the hell away from him.

1964: Eliza and Higgins – her abuser?

But…but…the music and the singing and the costumes and the sets are so wonderful and…and…

And the abuse is so obvious.


Earlier I referenced Eliza Iteration #5, and this is it.

At the end of the stage musical and movie versions of My Fair Lady, Eliza has abandoned Higgins, but returns to him.  We don’t know what their relationship will be, but she’s back.

In this iteration…

The majestic My Fair Lady has been given a #MeToo makeover.  Or, more accurately, it has reclaimed the ending that George Bernard Shaw intended for Pygmalion, the play it is based on, in 1913.

Eliza Doolittle finally leaves Professor Henry Higgins; and she does so with a smile on her face and a mixture of bruised peace, equality, and resignation thrumming between them.

So, Eliza got a new ending.

And I got…

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