Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Higgins and Eliza

Last week I saw Peter Hall’s production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic and realised that I had never seen the play on the stage before, though I had always vaguely imagined that I had, having read it at school and seen the 1938 Asquith/Howard film and, of course, My Fair Lady.

One line struck me as odd, and with the help of the invaluable Gutenberg Project I was able to check that I had not misheard it (and at the same time read Shaw’s preface and appendix). It came towards the end of the scene after the ball, when Eliza says she is leaving:

…ELIZA. All I want to know is whether anything belongs to me. My own clothes were burnt.
HIGGINS. But what does it matter? Why need you start bothering about that in the middle of the night?
LIZA. I want to know what I may take away with me. I don't want to be accused of stealing.
HIGGINS [now deeply wounded] Stealing! You shouldn't have said that, Eliza. That shows a want of feeling.
LIZA. I'm sorry. I'm only a common ignorant girl; and in my station I have to be careful. There can't be any feelings between the like of you and the like of me. Please will you tell me what belongs to me and what doesn't?
HIGGINS [very sulky] You may take the whole damned houseful if you like. Except the jewels. They're hired. Will that satisfy you? [He turns on his heel and is about to go in extreme dudgeon.]
LIZA [drinking in his emotion like nectar, and nagging him to provoke a further supply] Stop, please. [She takes off her jewels.] Will you take these to your room and keep them safe? I don't want to run the risk of their being missing.
HIGGINS [furious] Hand them over. [She puts them into his hands.] If these belonged to me instead of to the jeweller, I'd ram them down your ungrateful throat. [He perfunctorily thrusts them into his pockets, unconsciously decorating himself with the protruding ends of the chains.]
LIZA [taking a ring off] This ring isn't the jeweller's: it's the one you bought me in Brighton. I don't want it now.

Brighton? BRIGHTON? Taking a girl to Brighton or to its neighbouring resort (...people will say we’re in Hove...), and buying her a ring there, has an implication quite foreign to everything that is clear about the relationship between Higgins and Eliza; there is no reference anywhere in the play to them going there with Colonel Pickering for a jolly day at the races. Was this carelessness on Shaw’s part, or was the old devil just dropping a mischievous hint to confuse us?

[Oh, another line in that scene has Eliza saying “..the like of you and the like of me…”. The likes, surely?]

If the stage directions are clear and comprehensive—as Shaw’s usually are—reading the text of a play can tell you just how closely a production is following the playwright’s intentions. The very last scene in Pygmalion goes like this:

LIZA. Then I shall not see you again, Professor. Good bye. [She goes to the door.]
MRS. HIGGINS [coming to Higgins] Good-bye, dear.
HIGGINS. Good-bye, mother. [He is about to kiss her, when he recollects something.] Oh, by the way, Eliza, order a ham and a Stilton cheese, will you? And buy me a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights, and a tie to match that new suit of mine, at Eale & Binman's. You can choose the colour. [His cheerful, careless, vigorous voice shows that he is incorrigible.]
LIZA [disdainfully] Buy them yourself. [She sweeps out.]
MRS. HIGGINS. I'm afraid you've spoiled that girl, Henry. But never mind, dear: I'll buy you the tie and gloves.
HIGGINS [sunnily] Oh, don't bother. She'll buy ‘em all right enough. Good-bye.
[They kiss. Mrs. Higgins runs out. Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner.]

As the curtain falls on the Peter Hall production, Higgins (the excellent Tim Pigott-Smith), alone on the stage, allows the self-satisfaction to drain from his face, and at the last second his expression suggests that he has realised that Eliza is lost to him. Although Shaw didn’t call for this, it is a fair interpretation, for in the appendix he explains exactly why Eliza will marry Freddy (and tells us what their future life will be like), and it is not unlikely that Higgins  finally worked this out.

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