If not Love at Least a Good Life

     If Bernard Shaw was attempting to create an unlikable character with Henry Higgins, he failed. Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, the directors of the 1938 cinematic adaptation of Pygmalion knew it as well Alan Jay Lerner did when he wrote the musical adaptation of My Fair Lady in 1956 with Frederick Loewe, which was directed as a film in 1964 by George Cukor.

     In the 1938 movie as well as Lerner's play and cinematic version, the writers omit the sequel to the 1913 play in which Shaw pairs Eliza Doolittle with suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. In a note before the play, Lerner apologizes to Shaw: "Heaven forgive me! I am not certain he is right."

     Of course, the author should have the license to present his characters in any light he feels appropriate, but Shaw created Higgins and Eliza separately, and it is possible even he did not foresee the romance that the rest of the audience could feel. The foreshadowing of a relationship is especially evident in the on-screen chemistry of both Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion and between Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Their performances scream "match made on Earth," even though it is not the picturesque Harlequin novel. The characters succeed in forming a Scarlett and Rhett romance.

     Higgins was true to his character in both productions, possibly more so in My Fair Lady because he came across as even more brutish. Both, Hepburn and Hiller transformed the gutter wench, Eliza, into a remarkably sophisticated Miss Doolittle. In both the musical and the play, these actors helped the lines of Shaw come alive into something, evidently, even he had not envisioned.

     On the first reading of Pygmalion, it was obvious to some readers that Eliza would return to Higgins; other readers disagreed. When Higgins explains to Eliza before she walks out of his mother's house that he is no different toward her than he is toward anyone else of any social stature, he is exactly right. Even the last words they speak to one another hint at a need and a longing to be together. Their last banter in the play forges a path that inevitably has to end with a partnership, perhaps not marriage but a certain friendship.

Jennifer Sacharnoski

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