Pygmalion has been one of my favorite reads. It started with the preface. I couldn’t read a word of it without hearing Rex Harrison’s wonderfully sarcastic voice in my head. I didn’t expect to enjoy reading a play, which can be a little tedious. But Shaw’s notes are lovely and poignant and poetic, giving the story life even when it isn’t acted.
Liza is heart-wrenchingly introduced as being “no doubt as clean as she can afford to be.” And she has all the spunk and intelligence and humor that Audrey Hepburn and, before her, Julie Andrews embodied. Higgins is bombastic, arrogant, and capable while Pickering is gentler and kinder but often just as condescending and thoughtless. Mrs. Higgins understands instantly that the training that Higgins and Pickering are providing, which they insist is harmless, will in fact cut Eliza off from any chance of returning to the livelihood or her past.
After they’ve passed her off as a well bred lady, they revel in their own genius and success, rejoicing that it’s all over while Eliza, with growing rage, realizes that she’s been a pawn. She is exhausted and afraid. With the men having finished their project (her), she doesn’t know where to go or what to do. In the end, with some intervention from Mrs. Higgins, Eliza finds her way and Higgins discovers that he actually cares for Eliza. The play ends with Eliza, strong and confident and Higgins, somewhat softened but mainly unchanged.
But here is where it gets good. I was always a little horrified at the implication in My Fair Lady that Eliza and Mr. Higgins were to become a couple. They never seemed in love to me, but rather to be colleagues and friends. I am so relieved to know for sure that this is not what Shaw intended. He begins his sequel with the assertion that he wouldn’t need to write one if “our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence” on ready-made ‘happy endings.’ In fact, Shaw insists, Eliza marries devoted Freddy and they live happily, if not with great wealth, together even as they remain connected to the two old bachelors. Higgins “storms and bullies and derides; but she stands up to him so ruthlessly that the Colonel has to ask her from time to time to be kinder to Higgins…”
In Ovid’s version of the story, the ivory girl becomes the wife of Pygmalion after he falls in love with his creation and prays to Aphrodite. In Shaw’s, the ‘creation’ comes into her own and becomes an equal of her teacher. So good.