George Bernard Shaw wrote his celebrated play Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based, in 1912. It opened in New York in March 1914 and London in April 1914, with Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza opposite Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Professor Henry Higgins.
The play was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and was filmed twice, first in 1938 with Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hillier as Eliza. The musical version, My Fair Lady, made in 1964, starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.
Most people know the story. Arrogant, intellectual phonetics professor Henry Higgins, bets his friend Colonel Pickering that he can take cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and pass her off as a lady at an embassy ball. Higgins wins his bet and – like Pygmalion in Greek myth – falls in love with his creation. But two things stand in the way of Higgins and Eliza finding happiness together. First is his high-handedness and arrogance, continuing to treat her like the “squashed cabbage leaf” that he has “picked up from the gutter” and failing to recognise that she has indeed become a lady.
Second, and more important, Shaw intended his play to be a text that supports feminism and highlights the way that women, especially working class women, are treated as second-class citizens. Now that Eliza has risen above the gutter, she has legitimate aspirations – to open her own flower shop and live like a lady.
In the final scene, Higgins makes it clear that marriage to him will mean that Eliza must continue to run his errands, fetch his slippers and wait on him as though she were still subservient. But the new Eliza fights back against this attempt to return to patriarchal dominance and refuses to marry him. The play ends on a highly ambiguous note.
This ambiguity, and the feminist subtext, didn’t go down well with West End audiences out for an evening’s entertainment. They – together with the critics, the actors and practically everyone else – wanted a “happy” ending, and that could only mean marriage to Higgins. Shaw was implacably against changing his ending and this led to fierce argument later.
To please audiences at their performances, Mrs Campbell and Herbert Tree took it upon themselves to appear for their curtain call arm-in-arm, and with her holding a wedding bouquet (some reports say a wedding veil.) Audiences reportedly cheered at this improvisation. But when Shaw visited the theatre for the 100th performance he was aghast at this unauthorised corruption and attacked Herbert Tree backstage after the performance.
Tree protested, “My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful,” to which Shaw replied, “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot.”
Shaw was so upset at the pressure to change the ending that he wrote a postscript to the 1916 printed edition of the play, entitled “What happened afterwards”.
In it, Shaw says,
“Eliza . . . was instinctively aware that she could never obtain a complete grip of [Higgins], or come between him and his mother (the first necessity of the married woman). To put it shortly, she knew that for some mysterious reason he had not the makings of a married man in him.”
“Put that along with her resentment of Higgins’s domineering superiority, and her mistrust of his coaxing cleverness in getting round her and evading her wrath when he had gone too far with his impetuous bullying, and you will see that Eliza’s instinct had good grounds for warning her not to marry her Pygmalion.”
“This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy. And that is just what Eliza did.”
This, though, was far from the end of the matter. Audiences, actors, directors, critics still wanted a happy ending. When the first film version was being made 1938, Shaw relented to the extent of sending the producer, Gabriel Pascal, a revised script for the final scene. In this he wrote a more tender farewell scene between Eliza and Higgins instead of a row and followed this with a scene showing Eliza happy in her flower shop with Freddy Eynsford Hill.
Pascal ignored this revision and instead ended with an ambiguous final scene where Eliza returns to Higgins house and self-mockingly quotes her old self saying, “I washed my face and hands before I come, I did”.
The 1964 film followed a similar ambiguous ending with Higgins asking, “Eliza, where are my slippers?” but the audience unsure whether she will tamely fetch them or throw them at his head as she did previously.
The question I’ve posed in this blog is, should Eliza marry Professor Higgins? I’m not here concerned with purely domestic questions such as whether Higgins would make a better husband than Freddy. But rather with a matter of principle; Should the author’s vision and intention take precedence over the wishes of his readers and his theatrical collaborators?
There certainly is a case for saying that he should pay attention to the reception his work receives since people visit the theatre to be entertained and the plays they see are merely pieces of paid entertainment. If audiences are not pleased with what they see, then the plays are likely to close from lack of financial success.
Conscious of this, Hollywood has for years trialled their initial edits and has not hesitated to make changes if the audiences are unhappy. The studio notoriously butchered Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” with a ludicrously sugary ending, ruining a fine tragic drama.
The same thing applies to other artistic creations: novels, photographs, paintings and so on. Most experienced artists realise that good novels are not written – they are re-written. As in film, photography etc., it is the development work that makes the difference between a mediocre production and an exceptionally successful one. Feedback is what makes the difference. An author or film maker who completely ignores his audience’s sensibilities and wishes is likely to end up lonely and friendless.
The problem is, of course, that much depends on the audience. Pre-teenage girls are likely to demand Disney style happy endings regardless of the story. One can argue that the demands of Pygmalion’s audiences for a marriage between Liza and Higgins is similarly unsophisticated and so should be resisted on grounds of taste if nothing else.
But there is another factor at stake here. Writers, film makers and other artists do not only set out to entertain, they also try to communicate their artistic vision. Sometimes, if their vision is ahead of public taste, then whether they wish it or not they become leaders of public taste.
This brings us to that slippery and uncomfortable word ‘truth’. If the artist realises his or her vision then he or she has told the truth. If that vision is compromised then he or she has not told the truth. If that vision is compromised by an audience that is significantly behind the author in understanding the truth he or she wants to communicate, then the author has sold out.
I believe this is the case with Pygmalion. One of Shaw’s main aims was to show that Liza educated is a different woman from Liza uneducated, and a person with far greater opportunities to realise her individual potential rather than rely on the patronage of a male society.
For this reason, Shaw was perfectly correct and his audiences were misled. Liza should on no account marry Higgins.