Destination Unknown

         In the 1938 film Pygmalion, based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play and directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard; starring Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle, the promise of a new life is irresistible to Eliza Doolittle. To change who she is into what she wants to be is the dream of a lifetime. Henry Higgins is a pompous, overbearing and insensitive professor of phonetics: and, when he first meets Eliza in Covent Garden, he insults and degrades her then laughs in her face for spite. The fact that Eliza endures his abuse is indicative of the fact that she desperately wants her life to change. At the end of the first scene, Eliza is seen in her shabby, dirty, rundown hovel sitting in front of her cloudy mirror, looking at herself intently. That is the moment when she decides to become someone else. But the important question is who does she want to become?

         Does Eliza want to be a lady? Does she want to be a shop girl in a florist shop? Or does she want to be a better, bolder version of the Eliza she already is? In the beginning, Eliza does not know who she wants to be. She just knows that she does not want to be who she is.

         Colonel Pickering, played by Scott Sunderland, and Henry Higgins, in the beginning, view the whole experience as a game, a chance to prove their superiority and have a bit of fun playing their trick. Henry does not see Eliza as a woman and treats her as a necessary piece of furniture. Colonel Higgins, by contrast, treats Eliza with respect and courtesy.

         To become someone else, Eliza puts herself in the very capable hands of Henry Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering. Day after day, night after night, Eliza is instructed, insulted, intimidated, and cowed into submission. Henry takes her and molds her, instructs her how to be a lady. Eliza works hard and changes her appearance and how she expresses herself, but does she really change? I say no. I say that after the very funny encounter she has with Mrs. Higgins, played by Marie Lohr, Eliza has an epiphany. She discovered that she could change her clothes, wash herself, speak clearly and that did not change who she was. That is why the Assembly Ball was so tortuous for her. That is why she is so calm and cool; she is afraid that she is still the same Cockney flower girl and nothing has changed but her clothes.

         Her emotional meltdown after the ball is the realization that she has only improved not changed herself. This realization has made it possible for her to finally stand up to the pompous Henry Higgins and tell him exactly what she thinks. And she thinks that he is a selfish, spoiled and sullen man-child, who thinks he can control her with chocolates. No, Henry Higgins has not changed who Eliza was; he merely brought more of Eliza to the surface.

Lisa Kell

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