Thursday, February 3, 2011

There’s more Shaw in My Fair Lady than you might expect in a musical adaptation. A lot of lines—especially in the early scenes--are straight out of Pygmalion, together with what Shaw wrote for the 1938 movie version. Apart from the still-infectious songs, the chief difference is the ending, which is left open in the musical, favoring the idea that Eliza remains with Higgins. Shaw opposed this. He wrote a prose coda for the play in which Eliza stays friends with Higgins and Pickering, but she marries Freddy and they open a flower shop together, which prospers in part because of an encounter with H.G. Wells. Very Shavian.

There's a BBC film production of the actual play Pygmalion from the 60s or 70s with a delightful Lynn Redgrave. It includes a photo montage at the end that gives the outlines of Shaw's prose ending--principally Eliza's wedding to Freddy and their flower shop. The 1938 movie produced by Gabriel Pascal dropped some scenes and Shaw added others, plus (as I mentioned) an ending he didn't like. However he did get an Academy Award for the adaptation, and the film was nominated for several other main Oscars. I haven't seen it in awhile but I recall Wendy Hiller (who had done the role on stage) as a striking Eliza, partly because of her unique looks--she's not Hollywood pretty, and can look pretty severe. Anyway she produced a relationship with Higgins with a very different feel, especially at the end, which was also influenced by Leslie Howard as Higgins.

However at the moment I'm watching the 1941 film of Shaw's Major Barbara, also produced by Pascal and also starring Wendy Hiller. Her costar is Rex Harrison (who would star in My Fair Lady on screen as well as on stage), and this time Pascal also directs.. But what a production! Music by William Walton, David Lean as an assistant director, Ronald Neame as cinematographer, Vincent Korda art director, Cecil Beaton costumes, with Robert Morley, Sybil Thorndike and a very young Deborah Kerr. And written as no one else could write it, by Bernard Shaw. And it was shot in London during the Blitz. Amazing!

Shaw was quite serious about the importance of standard spoken English. "German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners," he wrote in the preface to Pygmalion, "English is not even accessible to Englishmen." He thought the problem was non-standard spelling, and the solution was phonetics. Perhaps he hadn't realized how influential mass media would be in standardizing both spelling and pronunciation. Class differences in speech persist, perhaps in England more than in other countries, but dialects are everywhere.

One more thing: about dramatic structure and time. Pygmalion is in five acts (which in classic dramatic structure means one act each for exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.) My Fair Lady, it seems to me, has a natural three act structure: the bet and the education of Eliza, ending with the "Rain in Spain;" the second act is the testing of her success, especially in the party; the third act is the resolution (or lack of it) between Eliza and Higgins. But these days everything gets poured into two acts, and My Fair Lady--like a lot of plays--is awkwardly divided.

NCRT has the additional problem of long intermissions when it has a full house, because of limited rest rooms. (It's certainly not unique in this regard locally.) So the second act also suffers from all this, as the evening starts to drag. In this situation there's no reason for the second overture at the start of the second act. Suffering through one is enough.

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