Yesterday night I went to see a local production of the musical “My Fair Lady”. I thought it was quite well done, though I don’t have much to compare it to. This review will not further discuss the particulars of that production; rather, I will speak about the aspects of the musical itself, apart from any one presentation of it. (Let it be known, however, that last night’s viewing and the Audrey Hepburn movie are the sum of my acquaintance with the play.)
It’s good entertainment. The songs are catchy and pleasant to hear, the story is romantic, and it is quite funny in parts (particularly the scene at the races). However, there are serious deficiencies in the play as well. WARNING: spoilers from now on.
Firstly, the character of Eliza Doolittle is not sufficiently developed pre-transformation. She’s not much more than a yowling, greedy, dirty child, and her sudden change into a lovely, clear-voiced, romantic young woman after learning how to correctly pronounce her A’s injures the suspension of disbelief which is already under strain. I love the song “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and I think her emotions under the circumstances are completely believable. However, it is almost as if it is the first time we meet Eliza. There was not the slightest hint that she was capable of such affections earlier in the play, save perhaps the short scene with her father in the street. I recognize that the entire point of the play is Eliza’s rebirth, and I can swallow the huge implausibility of the plot, but the change needed to be at least a bit more gradual, and there needed to be some sign earlier in the play that Eliza had more personality than a feral cat.
Then there is the character of Henry Higgins. He’s certainly amusing, but as the play goes on he almost seems to become worse as Eliza becomes better. By the end of the play he swears at her almost continually and even lays hands on her. Her words to him after he does this are cutting, and I could feel his horror at his own behavior; but it never comes to anything. After her magnificent song “Without You”, she returns to him, apparently leaving poor Freddy completely in the lurch, and he returns to asking her rudely where his slippers are. This might have made sense if she had heard Higgins singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”, but as far as we know, she had no idea. By the end of the play, Eliza still unreasonably loves him, despite the fact that as far as she knows he’ll still treat her like dirt, Higgins continues to curse at her, and not a word is said in apology for his outrageous treatment of her.
What the play needed was a scene where Higgins clearly repents his behavior, tells Eliza that he is unworthy of her with tears in his eyes, and she consents to marry him after he desperately apologizes to her. Or, at least a scene where he confesses his contrition to Colonel Pickering, who goes on to tell Eliza of his sorrow.
My dissatisfaction with the play consists in this: Higgins predicts repulsively that she’ll come back to him. And she does. She has no idea that he’s sorry; she simply cannot live without him, even at the expense of her self-respect. I find this deeply unsatisfying. Certainly, there are many men and women like this, but to portray Eliza as one of them undermines Eliza’s character arc and makes the song “Without You” meaningless. Evidently, the world won’t go on without him. (And what’s with Higgins’ mother? She is clearly a strong-minded woman, but she puts up with his yelling and cursing at her, and even comes when she’s called. If he were my son I hope I wouldn’t put up with it. So much for honoring your mother and father.) He never apologizes.
Yes, Higgins shows jealousy and suffering when Eliza leaves, but that’s not enough (and she isn’t even aware of that when she opens the door!). He needs to show that he’s truly sorry that he manhandled her, swore at her, and ignored her. He doesn’t. I’m no feminist, but you don’t have to be a feminist to see that this is unacceptable on his part. I still like My Fair Lady, but it will never be a favorite of mine.