Actors Flesh out Characters

         Upon reading George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion and then seeing the 1964 film version, My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor, I noticed something about the literature to film translation that I had never noticed before. When reading novels, the reader easily picks up who is good and who is not. Authors give paragraphs and pages devoted to explaining the psychological make-up of their characters. However, in a play, we are only given a character's speech. It is impossible to know exactly what he or she is thinking with only the words he or she says. So it is easy to read through an entire play without really knowing what a character is all about.

         All of this was realized when I saw Rex Harrison play the role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Throughout reading Pygmalion, I could tell Pickering and Higgins were not right in their attempt to change a street flower girl into a woman of royalty. However, after seeing Harrison's scowl and hearing the way he belittled Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) throughout the entire film I realized exactly what a despicable character he really was. The way Higgins treated Eliza after the ball was truly terrible and something one would not really understand simply by reading the words. The words alone could not convey the look of worthlessness on Eliza's face upon hearing his reaction to her performance that night.

         This sort of reaction to reading plays and then seeing their production goes both ways. Until Eliza tells Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) what a gentleman he had been to her throughout her stay, I had held Pickering in the same low regard as Higgins. I felt they were both intelligent men, but they had both seemed to be completely unaware of any human emotion. They had a job to do, and they refused to let the slightest bit of human emotion get in the way of their goals. However, once I saw the production, I realized all the gentlemanly gestures Hyde-White gave Colonel Pickering throughout the film. Each bowing to Eliza and each standing up upon her entrance show how kind he was trying to be amidst such an unpleasant job.

         A character's speech only gives the audience about half of the information they really need to follow an entire story. Live action prevents the audience from witnessing inward struggle, so the actors have to include gestures and variations on the way they speak to keep the audience informed. With only their speech, it is easy to misinterpret the way a production was meant to be seen.

Kevin Kraus

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