The idea of a master proving his prowess via a supposedly hopeless case is an old, old tale, and one of its most famous modern iterations is George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. First exhibited in Vienna, Austria in 1913, it follows Professor Higgins and his subject, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, as that august gentleman teaches her how to be a lady.
Yep, some of you might be coming at this thinking, “That’s the plot of My Fair Lady.” Well, yes. Yes, it is. I had the same response when I encountered Pygmalion as a college student. Back to Lady in a bit.
Shaw was inspired to write Pygmalion by a number of sources. It’s based heavily on Ovid’s Pygmalion and Galatea, as well as the Charles Perrault version of Cinderella. The latter was the story of Pygmalion, the king of Cyprus, who has written off women because he thinks they’re all too flawed to deserve his attention. Funnily enough, the women who triggered his decision were prostitutes, which aren’t exactly typical women. Even so, Pygmalion is done.
At least, that’s what he thinks.
Pygmalion creates a sculpture of his ideal woman, and he soon falls in love with it. Yeah, with the statue. He names it Galatea and even dresses it in clothes and jewelry. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is inspired by Pygmalion’s ardor to bring the sculpture to life. Pygmalion can’t believe what’s happened to him, and he’s incredibly grateful to Aphrodite. He and Galatea marry, have a son, and bring offerings to Aphrodite for the rest of their lives.
Perrault’s Cinderella is a bit more familiar to most people. It’s very similar to the Disney version of the story, except that Cinderella goes to two balls instead of one and the mice aren’t handy with sewing. Not to mention, in this iteration, Cinderella gets to keep both glass slippers instead of one breaking.
The parallels between Pygmalion and Shaw’s sources are obvious. Professor Higgins (Pygmalion) is so cynical that he brags he can make a gentlewoman out of a woman he considers little better than trash, but what he doesn’t anticipate is falling in love with his protegé. For Eliza, it’s a way out of poverty via a handsome prince.
Shaw had one more inspiration for Pygmalion. The role of Eliza Doolittle was written for Mrs. Patrick Campbell, or Beatrice Stella Tanner, Shaw’s longtime pen pal. Shaw tried to seduce her, but Campbell would have none of it, and ended her relationship with him. She still played the role of Eliza, though, despite being about twenty years older than her character, from 1914 until 1915.
Another, probably unspoken inspiration for Pygmalion was Shaw himself. The man was his own Professor Higgins, as he was meticulously fastidious about life, his universe, and everything, which carried over into the writing of the play. When I first read it in college, I was struck by how much stage direction was written into it. There’s a lot. Other playwrights get by with minimal specifications of how they want their work to look, how the actors should read their lines and so on, but they generally don’t get ultra-detailed. Shakespeare, for instance, famously limited his directives to when actors should enter and exit, or maybe when he wanted kissing or sword fighting. Shaw made it clear right down to the fixtures on the set walls how Pygmalion would appear and sound. Eliza’s kimono was to be blue with white jasmine blossoms. Higgins’ laboratory was supposed to be a repurposed drawing room with double doors in the back and a comfortable leather chair by the fire. Everything just so.
Shaw’s zeal was at least partially justified. Pygmalion, as well as his other plays, are full of sparkling dialogue and little twists and turns. His Professor Higgins is an A-1 braggart who no one in his house really stands up to but Mrs. Pearce and Colonel Pickering. Shaw’s matching of this tower of conceit with simple, tell-it-like-it-is Eliza is brilliant, because it’s a great study of the student surpassing the master. Shaw had a good thing, and he wanted everyone to know it.
This perfectionism was present in Shaw’s adaptation of Pygmalion for the screen, but it wasn’t because of Shaw’s love for precision. In 1935 and 1937, Pygmalion films were made for German and Dutch audiences respectively, but the results were so atrocious that when Hungarian director Gabriel Pascal decided to produce a film himself, he had to give Shaw tremendous creative control, and even then there were limits. Shaw wanted to film the play line by line, but Pascal talked him down by letting him write the screenplay. He was also heavily involved in casting and set design.
Shaw’s involvement paid off. The distinguished Dame Wendy Hiller played Eliza, and Leslie Howard did double duty, directing and playing Professor Higgins. Both of them had enormous cred. Hiller had played Eliza for Shaw in 1936, and Howard was a highly respected actor of both stage and screen. He was Shaw’s second choice, the first being Charles Laughton. Yipe. Even the brilliant can be wrong.
Pygmalion is wonderfully funny, and anyone who sees it is in for a treat. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, and Shaw was insulted when he won Best Adaptation, because he felt the Academy wasn’t showing proper respect for his celebrity. Secretly, though, Shaw was proud of his statuette, giving it a place of honor on his mantle.
In 1956, six years after Shaw’s death, Alan J. Lerner and Fredrick Loewe’s My Fair Lady premiered. Starring Julie Andrews, it was a long time coming. Plenty of people, including Rogers and Hammerstein, tried to make a musical out of Pygmalion, only to be stopped cold, as it didn’t have a conventional love story, or any love story at all. Even Lerner and Loewe had to shelve what they did for two years because they got so frustrated.
Still, the job got done. In a later interview, Julie Andrews told a sweet story about her involvement with the project, which started with some advice from a familiar face. She had just auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, and Richard Rodgers asked her if she had auditioned for anyone else. Andrews answered that she had been singing with Lerner and Loewe, who were thinking of using her in My Fair Lady, to which Rodgers replied:
I tell you what, if they ask you to do that show, I think you should do it, but if you don’t do that show, I wish you would let us know, because we would very much like to use you. (My Favorite Things: Julie Andrews Remembers)
Andrews said that it was the most generous piece of advice she could have been given. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
My Fair Lady pulled in tons of money on Broadway, in road shows, and overseas, and by 1959 made $11 million. For that time, it was the longest-running show ever, so the studios weren’t falling all over themselves to snap up the film rights. In 1961, Warner Bros. finally did, casting Audrey Hepburn in the part of Eliza.
This decision caused a huge uproar, because people wanted Julie Andrews to reprise her role. However, Andrews was unavailable, as she was already cast in Mary Poppins, but even so, Hepburn was accused of stealing the spotlight. She didn’t; according to Variety, she’d been considered for the stage play, too.
My Fair Lady is a delight. Rex Harrison recreated his stage role, and it’s a boon for film and theater history that his performance has been captured. Cecil Beaton’s design was an amazing showcase of Edwardian fashion on steroids, with many scenes looking like paintings.
Granted, Hepburn wasn’t perfect. Her acting is beautiful and charming, but the music was way out of her vocal range, so her songs were dubbed by the ever-busy Marni Nixon. The film was nominated for twelve Oscars and won eight. Hepburn was snubbed, however, because, as we all know, the Academy Awards are a glitzy popularity contest. Still, she was a fine choice for the part, and added her own humor and spunk to Eliza Doolittle.
From play to film to musical to musical film, Pygmalion stayed remarkably intact in dialogue and story, and it has never failed to hold up. Both Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are still being produced today worldwide (like this Australian version directed by Dame Julie Andrews) and continue to enrapture audiences.
All righty, thanks for reading, all, and feel free to check out my update on the approaching Unexpected Blogathon here, if you haven’t already. It’s coming up soon. Hope to see you on Friday with my tenth Shamedown! Put it this way: You don’t wanna miss a thing… 😉
Works Cited and Consulted
Levy, Walter. Modern Drama: Selected Plays from 1879 To the Present. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1999.
My Favorite Things: Julie Andrews Remembers. Editor: Ed Barteski. Host: Dame Julie Andrews. 20th Century Fox, 2005.