What Kind of Example is Eliza Doolittle for Today’s Female? A GREAT One.

I’m a bit late, but before 2018 ended, I finally got to see the Lincoln Center Theater Revival of one of my all-time fave classics, My Fair Lady.  I am especially eager to share my thoughts on this work for two reasons.  First of all, it was featured in a New York Times article written on February 22, 2018 about gender stereotypes in musical theater revivals.  In one sense, I stand with the women quoted in the article because being a female myself and having some first-hand experiences of the injustices against women, I agree with the need for us as a culture to become more aware of subtle sexism that has become so ingrained in our mindset that we take it for granted. That said, I am also such a studied admirer of musical theater classics that I would hate for us to have to write them off entirely when there is such deep artistic value in them.  So before I made any assumptions in either direction, I felt I had to see the shows in question myself (see my blog about Carousel here).  Secondly, My Fair Lady is especially meaningful to me because it was the first show for which I ever played piano at the age of 14.  It was a turning point in my life, as it located in my heart a developing love of musical theater which would ultimately become an all-consuming hobby, dream, and career.  When I heard those first accented octaves declared by the (very full, very beautiful) orchestra in the overture (exquisitely conducted by Ted Sperling), my heart did a somersault as I recollected a time when my awkward inner teenage soul first felt at home. 

Now cut to the first scene in the show in which Henry Higgins speaks so condescendingly and cruelly to our heroine Eliza Doolittle (now being played by Laura Benanti), that the charm I was just feeling for this show was replaced with shock.  I guess my 14-year old self wasn’t bothered by hearing a man tell a poor, harmless beggar woman on the street to shut up, calling her such derogatory names as a squashed cabbage leaf and a bilious pigeon.  Yikes.  It is hard to find that kind of treatment even humorous today.  But I suppose the result is that we readily see Higgins as a prideful, insensitive jerk, and no matter how classy his speech is, who cares?  No amount of higher education can make you a decent human being when your heart is that hard and prideful.   

However, the way Harry Hadden-Paton plays Higgins, which is with more emotional transparency than I’ve seen before (certainly more than the iconic Rex Harrison), makes me believe that Higgins has some reason for his bitterness towards females.  Perhaps he had some hurtful relationship failures in the past - we have no idea.  But what we do see is some brokenness underneath all of that pride.  Rather than have any clue as to how to truly face his feelings, he covers them up with his own accomplishments, steam-rolling over his own emotions as he would later do to Eliza’s. Perhaps, therefore, there is some modicum of sympathy we can garner for Higgins after all. 

Meanwhile, Eliza’s arc begins on the street where she is trying to earn a few pence here and there selling flowers to passers-by.  Her dream is to sell flowers in a proper shop, but her speech is so poor and uneducated, no shop will take her.  When Eliza first arrives at the door of Henry Higgins to appeal to him to teach her to talk like a lady, we see a woman of real gumption underneath the dirt and ill-manners.  She’s willing to stand up for herself, boldly making an offer to a gentleman living in a part of town she’d probably never ventured to before.  She fights to get her goal of talking him into giving her lessons, and in essence, fights for her own value to be recognized.  In New York Times theater critic Jesse Green’s words, “it is she who seizes the moment of a chance meeting, outside the Covent Garden opera house where she sells violets to the swells, to make changes she has clearly been imagining for years... She sculpts herself, with Higgins as her tool.”  I mostly agree with this assessment, but in fairness, I saw Laura Benanti play probably a much more traditional take on Eliza than it sounds like Lauren Ambrose delivered, so I suspect some of the lack in what I hoped would be a more updated interpretation of the character probably had to do with the differences in the actresses playing her.  Even so, I still saw this early scene as Eliza’s strongest moment until her final solo in Act 2, the strong-willed, poised, and confident declaration that she can and will be fine “Without You”, directed at Higgins. 

What happens in between these two moments is an ironic dramatic arc consisting of Higgins dressing Eliza’s speech and appearance up like a doll, while unwittingly (and therein lies the problem) stripping down her self-esteem, culminating in the climactic moment when he passes her off as a princess at the Embassy Ball.  The scene after the ball is the one in which we see what the effects this outward makeover have had on Eliza’s inner well-being.  I found it strikingly summed up in this exchange: 

ELIZA: What am I fit for?  What have you left me fit for?  Where am I to go?  What am I to do?  What’s to be come of me? 

HIGGINS:...You might marry, you know... I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well. 

ELIZA: We were above all that in Covent Garden. 

HIGGINS: What do you mean? 

ELIZA: I sold flowers.  I didn’t sell myself.  Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else. 

And herein lies the brilliance of George Bernard Shaw’s (the author of the original play that served as the show’s source material, Pygmalion) commentary on economic class differences.  Higgins has fashioned her in his own - and the world’s - image of what makes a “magnificent” woman - refined, bejeweled, and articulate. And yet it was more apparent to me in the context of today’s culture that this is the lowest Eliza had ever truly been in her life.  Now she felt used.  She was something to be looked at, a woman only good enough to adorn the arm of an attractive man.  What a contrast to the woman who showed up at Higgins’ door insisting that he teach her, regardless of his judgment of her appearance.  Now, after she’d been passed off as a princess, she was lost.  

Lost though she is, she still doesn’t find her solution by giving in to the plans of the man who could still help her if she would only be willing to tolerate him continuing to undervalue her, despite her winning his victorious bet for him (what would it take for him to see her for who she really is?).  She doesn’t know where she will go or what she will do, but she knows she won’t settle for the comfort of a home in which she will be belittled.  She might be lacking in agency, but she has something much more powerful - a sense of self-worth.  My stars, how I wish the young women I know today who are stuck in toxic relationships would hold themselves in high enough esteem as to risk the comfort and security of having a guy around at any cost, and be willing to move on to only-God-knows-where.  Surely Eliza had more to lose than most women today in a similar circumstance do. What an example for women in 2019! 

But here’s one of my favorite aspects of this production.  Hadden-Paton’s Henry Higgins responds to Eliza’s leaving as no Higgins I have seen before.  He loses his stuff.  I mean, LOSES it.  It’s always been there in the writing, but in the film version Rex Harrison seemed to maintain his composure even through his rage, and thus set the example for future Higginses to come.  After all, it is unseemly for such a Waspy intellectual to show such emotion.  But Hadden-Paton allows his emotional guts to spill out on the stage so we see what we need to see for this dramatic arc to appeal to us today - we see how much Eliza truly got to him.  She BROKE him.  Prior to this moment, he was the unbreakable, impenetrable, confirmed old bachelor living in his protective intellectual cocoon.  And along comes a beggar woman with dirt on her face who could hardly pronounce her own name legibly, seemingly unthreatening enough, who is the very instrument of his own undoing.  That, to me, is the power of this story in this incarnation. 

That is the power of Eliza.   

I haven’t yet mentioned another brilliantly written (and performed) character with his own thematic subplot, Alfred P. Doolittle (played by the always-original Norbert Leo Butz).  That’s because what struck me most about his storyline this time around is tangential to my main points about gender dynamics, although it is central to Shaw’s commentary on class distinctions.  Doolittle’s commentary about class structure is both brilliant and hilarious, as his preference would be to remain in the lowest category of “the undeserving poor” rather than to be elevated to the “moral middle class”, which is how he justifies selling out his daughter to Higgins for a mere five pounds.  Much to his dismay, he ends up the beneficiary of a sizable inheritance.  With more money comes more responsibility and obligations, so he can no longer rely on the little bit of luck that allowed him to “give right in” to whatever temptation rolled around. Do class and status make the man, or does the character of the man determine his class and status?  Shaw baits us yet again. 

Now to wind up the main plot, and thus my main point, as the “new” ending scripted for this production (it was actually more like the ending in the original Pygmalion play) has been the topic of much talk surrounding this interpretation.  SPOILER ALERT - my apologies, but the point being made necessitates giving away the ending, so if you don’t want the details, you can stop reading here.  I don’t consider myself a hopeless romantic or a sucker for happy endings at any cost, but I really want love to win in the end.  When two people clearly have been deeply affected, and even changed by one another, it just feels like it should work out.  So at first I was disappointed by Eliza leaving Higgins in the end.  Couldn’t they find a way?  But then again, even after he had his breakdown, even after she clearly grabbed his heart by the scruff of its neck and shook it, the best he could do was say he’d "grown accustomed to her face".  Where’s the repentance?  He’s broken, yes, but will he change, or just grovel to get her back and then go back to his former ways?  There’s no sign of the former written into the script.  For that reason, I do agree that the ending chosen by director Bartlett Sher is necessary.  It’s necessary for women to see that being treated so poorly by a man for so long is not acceptable.  Not without signs of true character transformation.  And this is one area that even in today’s world, with all the marching and protesting and #metoo-ing, in what I’ve seen in my personal experiences as a female and a friend and mentor to many females in their relationship trials, too many women still aren’t there yet.  Maybe before real healing can come to many of our male-female relationships, when there’s a clear pattern of being undervalued without signs of change, we women have to be willing to leave the comfort of the relationship at the risk of not knowing what’s ahead, so as to never compromise our own value. In such a circumstance, this Eliza once again serves as an example for today’s woman. That said, I still ache to see depictions of healing and wholeness in relations between men and women, which often seem to be strangely and painfully broken today.  Anyone want to write a sequel to My Fair Lady in which we see a convincingly reformed Henry Higgins?  

1 comment