lessons by xiaopangnv


									           Lesson one : Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, Introduction
My Fair Lady is a musical film made in 1964 by George Cukor. The story line is taken from a
play written in 1912 by G.B. Shaw, entitled Pygmalion. A phonetics professor, Henry Higgins,
met a cockney flower girl in the streets of London. He made a bet with a friend of his, Colonel
Pickering, that he could pass her off as a duchess simply by changing her accent. Let’s
consider how the historical context is present in the film.

1912 : a Post-Victorian England setting

The setting of My Fair Lady is a post-Victorian society. In 1901, Queen Victoria had been
replaced by Edward VII, but of course the Victorian society had not disappeared. The British
Empire was at the top of its overseas power. In 1876 Victoria was declared Empress of India
and the English Empire was a source of precious materials necessary for the industry at
home. The Victorian values of order, labour and paternalism, are illustrated in My Fair Lady
by the peculiar relationship between Higgins and Eliza.

In 1912, England was still under the Industrial Revolution: a lot of the population migrated
from the country to the main cities ; That evolution was recorded in Victorian literature: in
Dickens’s novels such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, My Christmas Carol... The
working class is represented by Eliza and her father in the film.

At the end of the Victorian period, the place of women became a national issue.

Women’s education developed to a certain extent. But women’s rights were a topical
question : In 1912, the “suffragettes” petitioned in favour of women’s right to vote.

George Bernard Shaw (Dublin 1856, England 1950).

George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright who wrote more than 60 plays, mostly social

But he was also a member of the Fabian Society (like Virginia Woolf, or H.G. Wells). They
were in favour of social justice and democracy, but rather hostile to the idea of a revolution.

The possibility of social progress is present in My Fair Lady, because Eliza could become a
shop assistant is she was able to change her accent.

In 1895 with Beatrice and Sydney Webb, other eminent members of the Fabian Society, he
founded the London School of Economics and Social Science.

1925 : Nobel Prize for Literature

From Pygmalion to My Fair Lady

Let’s consider how the play, Pygmalion, gave birth to the musical film, My Fair Lady. Several
adaptations were made, implying changes in the plot.
1912, Pygmalion was written by George Bernard Shaw. It is a comedy of manners, staged in
London (1914). A criticism of the British social class system, from the point of view of
language and accents.

In 1938, the play was adapted for the silver screen, with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.
Shaw collaborated to the screenplay. The story was given a happy end. It was imposed by
the producer, against Shaw’s wish.

In 1956 Pygmalion was adapted into a musical, My Fair Lady, staged on Broadway, with
Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. The lyrics were by Alan Jay Lerner, and the music by
Frederick Loewe. The plot of the musical was based on the 1938 film adaptation, with a
happy ending.

In 1964 My Fair Lady became a film made by George Cukor, with Audrey Hepburn, who took
the place of Julie Andrews, and Rex Harrison. It was granted eight Academy Awards,
including best picture, best actor, best director.

It’s now time to watch the film.

               Lesson two : My Fair Lady, Act One, Scene One.
At Covent Garden, Higgins is noting down Eliza’s pronunciation in phonetic symbols. The
people around them think that he is a policeman. He shows them that he is a phonetician.

A comedy of manners.

Pygmalion is a light comedy [un vaudeville]. The characters are types, or even stereotypes.
There is no deep psychology. The characters represent their social class.

Pickering is the typical gentleman, kind and even-tempered.

Higgins is the typical misogynous bachelor, an inhumane scientist and a haughty man. He
despises people.

Eliza is the typical poor working girl. She is almost a beggar. She belongs to the uneducated,
underprivileged people.

Higgins’s extraordinary ability.

The character of Higgins is based on Professor Daniel Jones, a phonetician who taught in
London in 1912, acquainted with Shaw, perhaps a friend, and who helped Shaw to create the
leading role of the play. Jones acted as a consultant for Shaw.

Ordinary phoneticians can distinguish accents, but Higgins is an expert. Comedy comes from
exaggeration : he can locate people within two streets in London. It is a hyperbole. Higgins
can say where you come from simply by listening to your accent. But he can also say
precisely where you were born, educated, where you live, where your parents came from,
and so on and so forth.

Higgins is like a clown, or a freak in a circus show. People think he is a fortune-teller. In his
way, he is an outsider, like Eliza.
Social determinism and verbal determinism.

People are categorized and determined by their accent. You cannot escape from linguistic
determinism; you cannot pretend to move up the social ladder since your accent will always
indicate your geographical and social origin. You can be betrayed by your tongue. A cockney
accent reveals that you are from the London working class.

Shaw, as a Fabian, speaks through Higgins here : “This verbal class distinction by now
should be antique”. Social classes could disappear provided linguistic discrimination is
eradicated. Social progress is possible; a flower girl can become a duchess if her
appearance (accent and looks) corresponds to a duchess. What’s a duchess ? What’s a
queen ? Higgins (or Shaw) challenges social determinism. His aim is to show that there are
no “natural” social classes.

             Lesson three : My Fair Lady, Act One, Scene Three
Eliza turns up at Higgins’s house and asks for some lessons in English pronunciation.

Higgins’s home.

The setting tells much about the character. The interior is decorated in Art Nouveau style,
typical of the late Victorian period. The lamp is in the style of Tiffany’s lamps. The furniture
and wall paper look like William Morris’s designs. This décor is a status symbol. It shows how
learned Higgins must be.

Besides, the inside of the library is full of scientific instruments and machines. Higgins is also
a scientist, who turned his home into a laboratory.

Situational comedy

The first scene took place in the street, where all social classes coexist. Here, in scene three,
Eliza enters Higgins’s house. She is in strong contrast with everything, like a bull in a china
shop. She is out of her place. Communication between her and Higgins is impeded by the
social gap.

ELIZA : (To MRS. PEARCE) Did you tell him I come in a taxi?
MRS. PEARCE : Nonsense, girl! What do you think a gentleman like Mr Higgins cares what
you came in?

Eliza introduces herself as a potential client to Higgins : “Don't I tell you I'm bringing you
business?”, but Higgins simply cannot believe his ears. The money she proposes is derisory.
The misunderstanding between them reveals the social gap.

Higgins’s misogyny.

Higgins’s misogyny [ is totally burlesque. Unlike Pickering, he is no gentleman, he looks
down on Eliza : “She's so deliciously low, so horribly dirty!” He calls her a “baggage”.
Shaw made Higgins detestable. Why ?

Shaw wanted to deride every social class, the rich and the poor. In some ways Higgins and
the other representatives of the aristocracy are ridiculous and we laugh at their expense. In
different ways, Eliza and the other poor people in the play are also ridiculous but we laugh
with them, at not at them. In reaction to Higgins’s abominable attitude, the audience feels
sympathy with Eliza, just as Shaw felt sympathy with the working class. The play has a
political bias in favour of the poor.

               Lesson four : My Fair Lady, Act One, Scene Five
Eliza is being taught by Professor Higgins with all sorts of strange instruments.

Whiteface versus August.

The passage is a clownish performance. Higgins has the part of Whiteface. He is telling Eliza
what to do. He shows how clumsy she is. Eliza has the role of the Auguste. Comedy
emerges from the comic duo. Eliza alone or Higgins alone are not (very) comic.

How does this duo work ? The pair Eliza-Higgins is efficient because of the clash between
the two protagonists. Higgins is superior, bossy and strict. Eliza is socially inferior, clumsy
and unconfident. She tries to repeat Higgins’s examples, but she cannot.

Despite the conflict between them, the two characters are somehow dopplegangers
(dopplegänger, or counterparts). There are several important similitudes. Both of them are
outsiders in different ways. Besides, they are proud, quick-tempered and wilful (stubborn).
Those common points appear more and more clearly throughout the play, and can explain
that in the end, Higgins is attracted by Eliza.

A parody of scientific ambition.

Here Professor Higgins tries to re-create Eliza. She is like a Guinea pig in his laboratory. The
machines and instruments which fill up the interior of the room contribute to the parody of

1912 : scientism was very popular. Bertrand Russell was a Fabian, like Shaw, and the
founder of Analytic Philosophy. Philosophical problems can be solved by sciences. Sciences
would make the world better. Russell was opposed to Hegel’s idealism. Russell was
influenced by Pavlov, and the theory of “conditioning”.

If Eliza’s behaviour is good, she will have chocolates, if not, she will be walloped by Mrs.
Pierce with a broomstick. Higgins has the same method with Eliza as dog-training.

The choric song of the servants.

“Poor Professor Higgins !” The song is like a Greek chorus, symbolizing the point of view of
the society. Nobody cares for Eliza, but they pity Higgins instead of her.

The song symbolizes the passage of time. It has a narrative function. It says that Higgins
(and therefore Eliza) worked all day long, and even during the night, for days and days.
Several days elapse.

Irony : according to the song, Higgins “never drinks, and never eats a crumb”, whereas we
see him constantly drinking tea and eating cakes. The song is contradicted by the pictures.
The editing creates the humour of the passage.
              Lesson five : My Fair Lady, Act One, Scene Seven
The scene takes place at Ascots, a fashionable place for the high society. Eliza is put to a

Suspense is introduced : The Einsford-Hills had already met Eliza at Covent Garden in Act
One Scene One. Will they recognize her or not ?

Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony is a sort of comedy created when the audience knows more than one or
several characters on stage. This technique is used to make a character, or a group of
characters, ridiculous.

Here Higgins has set up a little game. It’s a test for Eliza. But who knows that she is a fraud ?
Eliza herself, Higgins, Pickering, Higgins’s mother and the audience. Consequently, a special
relationship is created between the audience and those four characters, like a sort of
complicity. The other characters are excluded from that relationship : Freddy, Mr and Mrs
Einsford-Hill, Lord and Lady Boxington. They are kept in ignorance, and we laugh at their
expense. They are deceived by Eliza, in so far as they are convinced that she is a
mysterious lady. Freddy, for instance, is particularly ridiculous. Whatever Eliza says, he
thinks she is joking in a new fashion : “It’s the new small talk ; you do it so awfully well !”
Freddy is the victim of a big misunderstanding. But the audience knows that Eliza is very
serious indeed. That is exactly what dramatic irony is about.

Something mechanical encrusted on the living. Bergson, Laughter (1901)

What produces comedy ? According to Henri Bergson, comedy is created when a person
becomes strangely rigid, like a robot, in a situation where flexibility is expected. Comedy is
“something mechanical encrusted on the living”.

In this scene, Eliza is disguised as a lady. She is wearing a beautiful dress, but she also has
a linguistic disguise. Her English accent is emphatic. Because she does not feel comfortable,
her attitude is visibly stiff and becomes excessively pompous. First, she repeats her lines like
a robot : “the rain in Spain…”. Then, she speaks about her aunt’s death : “fairly blue with it
she was”. Her speech is very inadequate. All the details are sordid. But her very elegant
accent makes the speech sound even more ridiculous. There is a discrepancy between the
substance of the speech, her aunt’s disgusting death, and the form of the speech, a very
emphatically snobbish English accent and manners. The result sounds strangely artificial, or
“mechanical”, so to speak, and therefore irresistibly comic.

Social drama.

The scene is like a dress-rehearsal, Eliza is playing a role, like an actress who has rehearsed
for a long time. She has learnt her lines by rote. When her script is over, she starts
improvising, but not very successfully. Higgins has the role of the stage-director. He shows
her what to do, when to sit, when to speak, or stop speaking. Pickering and Higgins’s mother
have been cast in supporting parts. The other characters are playing their own parts, but they
don’t know it.

Finally, the high society is pictured like a big theatre stage. People are playing their parts with
a certain hypocrisy. “Have I said anything I oughtn’t ? – Not at all my dear !” Eliza appears as
somebody who breaks the rules of etiquette, when she is carried away by the race and
shouts at the horse in bawdy language. In contrast, the high society looks very stiff and cold.
George Bernard Shaw was keen on social satire [].

                Lesson six : My Fair Lady, Act Two, Scene Five

After the ball scene, Eliza has run away from Higgins. Higgins is desperately looking for her.
The scene takes place at the house of Higgins’s mother, where Eliza came to visit her.

A dramatic turn of events

Eliza’s unexpected decision to go away is a dramatic turn of events. The master-servant
relationship is now inverted. When Eliza has gone, Higgins is lost, and is looking for her
everywhere. He is amazed to see her at his mother’s house, and to see his mother support
MRS. HIGGINS: Eliza came to see me, and I was delighted to have her. And if you don't
promise to behave yourself, I shall have to ask you to leave.

Mrs. Higgins’s decision to side with Eliza is also unexpected. There is a certain feminist
solidarity between them at the end of the play. In 1912, feminism in England was very active,
particularly concerning the right to vote for women, with the suffragette movement.

In that situation, Higgins is only in a position of begging Eliza to come back.

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