I hadn’t seen My Fair Lady since watching the Rex Harrison/Audrey Hepburn movie ca 1966. Seeing it last night was a bit of a shock, like opening an old, musty trunk, due to the strong strain of misogyny that drives Henry Higgins and so much of the plot, stuff that I most certainly thought was hilarious in 1966, but that is jarring by today’s rhetorical standards, even when not viewed through a PC lens.
It’s easy to ingest MFL as a gender farce and, on that level it’s awfully problematic: two guys bet each other that they can use a guttersnipe as raw material and pass her off as a duchess by giving her speech lessons and restricting conversation to the weather and the health of her interlocutors, thereby demeaning both guttersnipes and the duchesses in the process.
The story is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and it might come as a surprise to the casual attendee that Shaw actually intended the play as an attack on late 19th century British class structure. At the outset of the musical, Higgins indeed declares his goal to be a ruse on class. This purpose is quickly lost in his megalomaniac obsession with winning, both in the sense of his wager and in forcing his will on Eliza.
Eliza’s father may be the most fully self-aware character; lost in all of his get-me-to-the-church buffoonery is his recognition of his predicament in the class hierarchy, unwilling to venture into the next level even when offered the opportunity (yeah, he’s selling his daughter to Higgins here, or thinks he is; I didn’t say he was admirable, I said he was self-aware):
Don’t say that, Governor. Don’t look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’ But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth. Will you take advantage of a man’s nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he’s brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she’s growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.
I read in the OSF publication Illuminations that Shaw intended that Eliza depart at the end and never come back, an altogether reasonable response to Higgins’ unrelenting self-absorption, and that he hated productions, including My Fair Lady, that put Eliza and Higgins together and turned it into romantic comedy.
There are things about MFL just go “clunk”: after all the “Street Where You Live” importuning, Freddy seems to just drop out of the plot with little explanation; I’ve never seen an Ashland production where Jonathan Haugen (Higgins) can even remotely be considered a love interest, so Eliza’s return to him is unconvincing.
The production, however, is terrific, the actors carry off a tongue-twisting musical and spoken script flawlessly, and the musical and dance numbers are over the top (in a good way). Music is provided by two grand pianos in the middle of the stage, and a 14-year-0ld prodigy playing violin. As a side note, the lead piano player, Matt Goodrich, played the piano part in An American In Paris when our Rainbow City Band played it in concert a couple of years ago.
This production was worth seeing, but I don’t think I need to see My Fair Lady again any time soon.