My Fair Lady's Biggest Problem...Solved

Elizabeth Bergmann

My Fair Lady closed its most recent Broadway revival on July 7. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, the Lerner and Loewe masterpiece first opened on Broadway in 1956 starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This most recent revival received critical acclaim and a Tony Award for Costume Design. It has been revived over and over with many stars of the stage and screen portraying these beloved characters all around the world. The movie (for all its casting controversy) is a breathtaking movie-musical that is so true to the original script that one can honestly run lines WITH THE MOVIE.

Outside these professional settings, amateur theatre groups have done the show over and over. My own Midwestern city saw three productions that all performed within two months of each other. Eliza Doolittle is a beloved role for sopranos everywhere (playing her was a dream come true for me). Higgins is a godsend for the sing-talking men of the world, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s song has been sung in auditions billions of times. The point is, the world would be a vastly different place without this amazing musical existing.

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That does not mean that the show does not have its problems. By far, the biggest one is the ending, which differs from Shaw’s ending in a big way: Eliza comes back. We can bring up sexism, adding romance where it doesn’t belong, and a million other criticisms. All of these are valid issues to find within this musical, but the ending is definitely a contentious part of the show, especially with the changes this most recent revival added.

Higgins starves Eliza, threatens her with violence, and takes all the credit for her accomplishments. Eliza returns to him after he treats her horribly. I am by no means defending anything Higgins did, or saying Eliza was right to go back to him. So, how do we solve this problem? Simple: It isn’t a problem at all if you dissect these characters as much as I have.

My Fair Lady is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, as I said. Pygmalion is named for the man with the same name from Greek mythology. Pygmalion was a man who was fed up and uninterested in women, so he sculpted his idea of a perfect woman out of ivory. When he falls in love with the statue, he prays and makes offerings to Aphrodite for a woman identical to his statue. When he returns home and kisses her, she comes to life and they get married. Many versions of the myth include her name as Galatea, and this story has inspired countless stories of an artist’s creation coming to life.

Shaw refused to give Eliza and Higgins an ending like the one in My Fair Lady because he saw it as opposing the point of the narrative. In a letter to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the first Eliza, he wrote:

“When Eliza emancipates herself – when Galatea comes to life – she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on 'consort battleship' you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final 'Buy them yourself.'”

Higgins rants against women because he believes none of them measure up to men in the way he wants. Rather than realizing his scope is limited, or that certain behaviors are forced upon women from a young age, he just sees them as non-intellectuals who don’t appreciate literature and the arts because they’re too stupid and emotional. As much as Eliza changes, Higgins changes even more. The best performances show his growth from a man-child used to getting what he wants to a man who learns to see the humanity in those that are different from him. The only person Higgins likes at the beginning of the show is Colonel Pickering, who is himself an educated linguist and gentleman. By the end of the show, Higgins has actually grown to care for Eliza, and even goes to his mother, a woman, for help when she disappears. He has created this incredibly strong woman out of the flower girl he found, and she is as perfect as any woman could be in his eyes. He exclaims “I like you this way!” when she defies him. Everyone focuses on Eliza’s change, but if we are to call this a coming-of-age story, a stronger case can be made for it being Higgins’s story.

This only works, however, if we are able to see him grow past his arrogance expressed in “You Did It” about Eliza’s progress. He takes all the credit for her, without seeing the admirable qualities that she already possessed, or that she cultivated in herself along the way. He can only grow to see her as a person, rather than a creation, when she stands up to him. The line he says immediately after “Without You” is so critical: “Five minutes ago, you were a millstone around my neck, and now you're a tower of strength, a consort battleship.” He needs to see her as a new, independent person, rather than just his project or pet. The best actors are able to make him see the error of his ways, without allowing him to apologize through words.

Eliza, meanwhile, comes into her own in the world of the gentry. She grows to a point of emotional maturity where she no longer cries when confronted. She learns how to navigate all parts of society, not just the working or lower classes. She finds value in herself and recognizes her abilities beyond being able to sell flowers. As freed as she can be when people don’t look down on her, however, she does also come to realize that upper class women don’t have as many opportunities as men, either. A very powerful moment comes when she’s faced with the dilemma of where she’ll go after the ball. Higgins’s immediate reaction is that she’s too good to work in a shop as planned, so he declares “You could marry, you know.” Eliza’s response to him saying that all she’s worth is marriage is heartbreaking: “We were above that in Covent Garden. ... I sold flowers, I never sold myself. Now that you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.” The environment she’s in is impossible. So, she decides she will marry Freddy.

Now, Freddy Eynsford-Hill has a far larger role in My Fair Lady than he does in Pymalion. In the original play, he shows up once, is enchanted, and is only ever mentioned when Eliza tells Higgins her plans. His family, while certainly part of the gentility, no longer has the finances they once had, and Higgins tells Eliza that she’ll have to support him since he’s been raised to not work. In My Fair Lady, a lot of effort is put into Freddy’s devotion through “On the Street Where You Live.” He is an impressionable young man, and since many of the Eliza actresses are older, it’s not unreasonable to reach the conclusion that she can exert a certain amount of control over Freddy. She can accomplish a lot more as a respectable married woman than as a single one, and she knows this. While leaving Higgins to marry Freddy may not be financially advantageous, socially, it’s one of her best moves. There’s no reason marrying Freddy would be a terrible idea for her.

If that’s the case, then why am I not bothered by the return in My Fair Lady? Because of that power imbalance with Freddy and Eliza. I can’t think of many people who want a huge imbalance like that in their relationships, and does Eliza really want to spend the rest of her life with a man who says “I spend all my time here. It’s the only place I’m really happy” when she walks out of her house and sees him there? To me, the most important thing in My Fair Lady is the growth of Higgins and Eliza’s relationship. They grow to respect each other, and even to care, and while the script explicitly states there is no romantic attraction, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of cohabitating. By the time she leaves, Higgins sees her as an equal. He says he doesn’t treat her any differently than he does anyone else, and there is evidence of that (he’s rude to everyone regardless of his relationship to them). In fact, only Eliza seems to remember that he planned for her to move out after the bet was won. Higgins sees no problem with her continuing to live there and go about her life. He even expresses that he’ll miss her companionship in the final song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” which he has never expressed about anyone.

Okay, so Higgins wants her to come back. But doesn’t it undermine Eliza’s entire arc for her to come back to him instead of going out on her own and marrying Freddy? Well, that depends on why she comes back. There are plenty of bad reasons for her return. Is she coming back because Higgins has manipulated her into it? No. Is she coming back because it’s what he wants and she’s putting his needs first? No. Is she coming back because she can’t support herself in the world? NO (she has a plan to apprentice herself to Higgins’ rival and make money teaching phonetics). While we can’t pinpoint exactly why she comes back, I have several theories. Maybe she comes back because she’s found a home in 27A Wimpole Street. Perhaps she finds that while she doesn’t need Higgins, he seems contrite enough that if she wants to live with him, they could make it work (this especially works if his “Where the devil are my slippers?” is delivered with a smile to indicate a joke). Maybe she understands that manipulating Freddy into a marriage will just continue a sexist cycle that she’s been trying to break free from. Either way, if these are taken into consideration, Eliza can still come into her own and stay there while returning to the Higgins residence.

“But what about the new feminist ending of the revival?” I’ve not seen the revival (I’m a broke college student in the Midwest). I’ve heard various things, including a slap (which I have mixed feelings about), but from what I can gather, the gist is that Eliza does come back, but then leaves again through the audience when Higgins asks her where his slippers are. One post I read included that there is a blue light to indicate that maybe Higgins is imagining her, which I think would speak volumes to his arc. But if this is the real Eliza, her returning and then leaving again can still fit into her arc. Maybe she did come back expecting things to be different, but sees he refuses to change. She could be giving him one last chance to apologize to her. I’m sure each actress in the role presents it differently, and I’m sure each adds their own nuance. I’m interested to see if future productions keep this new ending, and how different directors and actors tackle it.

None of this changes the fact, though, that this ending is not what George Bernard Shaw would have wanted for these characters. After a 1914 production changed the play slightly to give a happier ending, he wrote a whole essay, “What Happened Afterwards,” that has since been attached to published versions of the script. To that, I have to say something that might seem obvious, but still needs to be said: My Fair Lady and Pygmalion are different shows. Yes, the scripts are nearly identical, and Shaw probably should be given a writing credit, but the shows are different. The original play didn’t include the pronunciation exercises we hear in “The Rain in Spain,” those came about in 1938’s Pygmalion film. This same film introduced the concept of a ball, rather than a party, being the test, as well as the idea of a Hungarian villain, and the musical really cemented Zoltan Karpathy as a character. If we are to say My Fair Lady must keep Shaw’s ending, then we must say the same of other adaptations that are not 100% faithful to their source material. Pygmalion alone would mean tackling all the film adaptations, as well as She’s All That, the end of Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and even the short-lived television series Selfie. Adaptations require changes, and if Lerner and Lowe wanted to change things, that is their prerogative. It doesn’t destroy Eliza’s arc. Galatea has still come to life.