Henry Higgins: A Man Ahead of His Time

         When a man has convictions that do meet the standards of the day but are appropriate with values at some point in the future, it is said "He was ahead of his time." George Bernard Shaw created such a character in his 1913 play, Pygmalion, filmed in 1938 by directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.

         Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) accepts a bet from Col. Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can take a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) and teach her to speak and behave like a duchess. Eliza has aspirations of a better life, to sell flowers in a shop; but she knows she must speak better English. Eliza agrees to a six-month ordeal of learning to be a proper lady. From the very start Higgins is warned by his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Jean Cadell), to think about what will become of Eliza when the experiment is over. However, Higgins sees no reason for concern. He feels no constraint for social class or barriers for women. Henry thinks that Eliza can do whatever she sets out to achieve.

         After months of lessons (that include proper bathing as well as diction), Henry feels that Eliza is ready to practice her new skills. He brings her to meet his mother (Marie Lohr) and her guests, who have come to tea. Eliza's diction is good, but she still has much to learn about appropriate conversation. She manages to shock most of the guests and to cause Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree) to adore her. After Eliza leaves, Mrs. Higgins questions her son about Eliza's future. She thinks when Henry is done with Eliza; she will have "the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady's income!" Mrs. Higgins firmly believed that a woman had very few choices and a lady could not earn her own living.

         Henry just does not see the problem; with Eliza's newly acquired ability to speak well, she can have her own flower shop or do whatever she pleases. Higgins is not confined by the conventions of the day. In his mind a woman's choices are not limited to the class into which she was born. Her possibilities are limitless. Today we know this is true. An ambitious woman is not defined by her circumstances; she can pursue any dream she chooses. Society no longer limits what are appropriate activities for women. Henry Higgins believed this as well, and that is why he was a man ahead of his time.

Lynne Gustafson

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