A Cockney flower girl learns to speak the queen’s English in this sharp skewering of class
Published: May 25, 2011
By George Bernard Shaw
Through June 19 at Everyman Theatre
The first time Alfred Doolittle (Wil Love) appears in the Everyman Theatre production of Pygmalion, the London dustman is unshaven, hungover, and dressed in an eye-smarting collision of plaids. Love glows with warmth, though, as he gives the two men in the wood-paneled library his pitch. He has no objections to Professor Higgins (Kyle Prue) and Colonel Pickering (
James Black Stan Weiman) trying to improve the fortunes of Alfred’s daughter Eliza (Jenna Sokoloski), but shouldn’t her father get a taste of their beneficence? Not because he’s deserving; no, he readily admits that he’s one of the “undeserving poor.” But doesn’t he need their help as much as the deserving poor? After all, he eats just as much and drinks much more.
It’s a terrific scene, and not just because Love is a gifted comedian handling the words of that great comic writer, George Bernard Shaw. Between the laughs, the scene forces us to question the assumption that teaching the poor middle-class culture is an unalloyed good. Before this, Higgins’ impulsive decision to turn a soot-faced, Cockney-yawping, street-corner flower peddler into a fashionable lady had seemed all for the best. Wouldn’t she be better off in every way if she could dress, act, and talk like an aristocrat? Wouldn’t she be a 20th-century Cinderella? No, Shaw is suggesting through Alfred; nothing is that simple.
Shaw isn’t suggesting that Eliza would be better off mired in uneducated poverty; he’s merely pointing out that every change in life has its cost—and the price isn’t always obvious. It’s this rich vein of ambiguity that makes Shaw’s 1912 play different than the Cinderella-like musical it inspired, My Fair Lady. The current Everyman production of Pygmalion, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, delivers much, though not all, of that ambiguity and wraps it in enough sharp humor that you won’t miss not hearing “On the Street Where You Live.”
Alfred may alert the audience to Shaw’s skepticism of “middle-class morality,” but Higgins himself doesn’t pick up on the hints. Played by Prue in a three-piece brown suit, square jaw, and frozen hair, Higgins is so sure of himself that he never entertains a doubt about his project. Unlike Rex Harrison in the movie version of My Fair Lady, Prue is young enough to be a plausible romantic partner for Eliza, but he refuses even to acknowledge that possibility and treats the young girl like a rat in a lab experiment. There are moments when Prue makes Higgins’ boy-who-never-grew-up arrogance delightfully obvious, but there are also stretches when Prue seems unfortunately dull and reasonable for such a bullying character.
When we first meet Eliza, Sokoloski is sitting on the steps of Covent Garden, knees apart, wearing all three dresses she owns and screeching at passersby to purchase her flowers. When, after considerable misgivings, she agrees to Higgins’ proposal that she move into his house and spend six months learning proper diction and manners, she is given a bath by the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Lynn Steinmetz), and re-emerges as the slender stalk of a beautiful woman in a new dress. It’s as if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had waved her wand. And when Sokoloski describes the first hot bath in Eliza’s life, she shivers with erotic pleasure.
Unlike My Fair Lady, Pygmalion skips over the actual lessons (there’s no “The Rain in Spain” scene here) and introduces the remade woman to society. The first introduction, at the home of Higgins’ aristocratic mother, is a disaster: Eliza’s diction is perfect but it can’t disguise her speculations about the death of her alcoholic aunt. The second, several months later at a formal ball, is a smashing success: A Continental linguist among the guests declares that Eliza must be a Hungarian princess.
But the success ends the project and raises the questions Higgins has avoided for so long. In the musical, the question is: Does Higgins love Eliza? That question flickers in the play as well, but Shaw is more interested in this question: What are the consequences of taking someone from another culture and remaking them in your own? The first question is appropriate for a romantic comedy like My Fair Lady, one of the greatest musicals ever created, but the latter question is more appropriate for a philosophical comedy like Pygmalion.
That’s when Alfred makes his second entrance, this time in a top hat, tailored suit, and sagging frown. It seems that as a joke Higgins recommended Alfred as England’s leading moralist to an American philanthropist, who took the suggestion seriously and gave Alfred an annual stipend. He could have turned down the money, he admits, but he just couldn’t face the workhouse and now he’s trapped in “middle-class morality.” Shaw would never be so solipsistic as to suggest that being poor is better than being rich, but he insists on pointing out the disadvantages that come with money’s advantages. His case is neatly summarized in Love’s person—dressed to the nines and down in the dumps.
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