Professor and the Flower Girl | Daily News

Professor and the Flower Girl

It’s a nightmare for me to watch my readers pick up one of my books for the first time at a book launch. To see them turn the pages, read a few sentences, is sheer agony. Did I get everything right? Will they like the story? Will they be disappointed?

It feels good though, to know that I am not alone. If someone conducted a poll, I am sure ninety-nine playwrights out of a hundred will dismally confess that they look forward to the first stage performance of a piece with absolute dread. And the remaining one percent is made up of dramatists like Namel Weeramuni, too experienced to swallow butterflies on the first day of a play, and George Bernard Shaw, who famously bragged a week before Pygmalion would go on the boards that he has no worries about the play being a success.

“No,” Shaw emphatically said, “I am not at all anxious as to the representation of Pygmalion on Saturday. With such a cast, and after the pains that have been taken with the preparation – the production, as people call it – there can be no ground for the smallest anxiety on that score.”

He did doubt the behaviour of the audience though.

He hoped the audience would behave. “Pygmalion, which is in five acts, will last until church time on Easter Sunday morning if the first-nighters refuse to contain their tears, cheers, and laughter until the ends of the acts. If that happens, I will in future cut out all the good things in my plays on the first night, and thus get the whole business finished in five minutes, of course, giving complete printed copies to the critics. The whole question is one of good sense and good manners of the audience.”

It was clear that Shaw believed the audience must at no time break into loud laughter during the performance, especially as the play, in his eyes is not a comedy.

“There is nothing in Pygmalion to force anyone to be uproarious or else burst, he explained. “I can listen to it without yells of merriment; and I, as the author, ought to be more amused by it than anyone else. It is really a serious play, though the pill is sugared by the romance of a flower girl changed into a lady by a gentleman whom she meets by accident on a wet night when they are both sheltering from the rain under the portico of St. Paul’s Church, in Covent Garden.”

And yet, it is as clear as the print on this page, Shaw had no intention of making the professor and the flower-girl fall in love. When asked, if the flower-girl marries the gentleman, he vehemently denied it.

“Nothing of the kind. It would be illegal. She married somebody else last Monday,” he quipped.

Shaw spoke too soon. When the play first opened, it was not performed as he intended. The lead actor decided to take things into his own hands, and to Shaw’s horror turned the play upside down.

Unlike most artists Shaw wanted his play to be didactic. “I delight,” he wrote, “in throwing [Pygmalion] at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.”

And so, when Pygmalion premiered in April 1914 — just months before the start of World War I when women still did not have the right to vote, Shaw intended through his play to change people’s minds about that.

To write the play he borrowed from the myth of Pygmalion. In the story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, a sculptor falls in love with his sculpture, Galatea, and prays for her to come to life. With the help of Aphrodite, his wish comes true.

But Shaw didn’t set out to write a frothy, romantic confection. He wanted to advocate for women’s suffrage and the end of Britain’s class system. In the play, stuffy professor Henry Higgins sets himself a challenge: to pass off Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller, as a duchess.

“The play is really about language, and the idea that, through language, one can raise one’s social status, which is something really important for that era,” says Ellen Dolgin, vice-president of the International Shaw Society. Dolgin says Shaw wanted to get rid of the whole class system and thought the play would prove his point. “What [they thought] of as absolutely innate — social placement — is not,” Dolgin says. “It can be learned — and it can be fudged.”

This is where the play gets interesting. Once Higgins wins his bet and completes Eliza’s transformation, she is stuck between two worlds. She can’t go back to selling flowers and she doesn’t want to be Higgins’ secretary — or worse, his wife. At the end of the play, after an enormous battle of wills, Eliza decides to strike out on her own. “If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence,” she declares.

With this statement Eliza clearly ends her relationship with Higgins and decides to head off to a better, brighter future.

But when the play debuted, Shaw was in for a shock. At the end of the play, after Eliza “sweeps out,” the actor playing Henry Higgins created a moment for himself — a moment Shaw never wrote and clearly didn’t want. As Eliza was leaving, Higgins watched her go, and then gave her a look. He didn’t change any lines, but he gave the audience exactly what they wanted to see: that Eliza and Higgins had been in love all along and that after the curtain fell, they would be together.

This was so wrong. This was the absolute antithesis of what Shaw had in mind. But, apparently, there was nothing Shaw could do to rein this actor in. By the hundredth performance, the actor was throwing flowers after Eliza.

When the play came to the United States, a critic wrote:”If you’re looking for a happy ending with the hero and heroine joined joyfully together, you will get it in Pygmalion — if you use your imagination a little.

And it kept getting worse. Shaw wrote the screenplay for a movie version in 1938, but the producer secretly filmed his own happy ending. The final result was that Shaw won an Oscar for a movie he hated. And when it was turned into a musical in 1964 with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison and the famous “where are my slippers” ending, well, by then, Shaw was likely spinning in his grave.

It should be noted that in a postscript, Shaw did write about what really happened to Eliza. After leaving Higgins, she opens a flower shop. She marries a nice man. They struggle a bit but ultimately do well. She even drops in on Higgins from time to time, but she never, ever loves him.

Today, with the #MeToo movement in full force, the time is surely ripe for us to return to Shaw’s original script. The more than 100-year-old Pygmalion which is free for anyone to read on Project Gutenberg, still has the power to make its own music with its sparkling dialogue, and multi-faceted characters. Needless to say, the play is more relevant today than ever before, with Shaw’s Eliza Dolittle who breaks free and strikes out on her own with her newly acquired skills in ‘received pronunciation,’ also known as an ‘upper-class English accent.’

I will bet my own slippers, it’s a good read.


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