Hope for Henry Higgins: My Fair Lady in the #MeToo Era
Pickering: Does it occur to you, Higgins, the girl has some feelings?
Higgins: No, I don’t think so. No feelings we need worry about. Have you, Eliza?
Eliza: I got me feelings same as anyone else!
—My Fair Lady
There are few women who haven’t had an experience like that, whether blatant or subtle. If you’re unaware of how many men are in the habit of dismissing a woman’s feelings, worth, and very identity, you need to talk to more women.
Arguably, that habit of dismissal is at the root of many of the horrific experiences that the #MeToo movement has brought to light: If a woman has no value, a man is free to abuse and exploit her. That’s why director Bartlett Sher, when bringing the classic and beloved musical My Fair Lady back to Broadway, decided it was time for a change.
If you know the musical, you recall that Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller, learns to speak properly from the bombastic and misogynistic Professor Higgins, falling for him along the way. But his inconsiderate behavior eventually drives her to declare her independence from him, only to come back after he finally appears to have learned a lesson.We can’t and shouldn’t be controlled, but if there’s any good in us at all, we can’t help but be affected by the presence of others in our lives—sometimes more than we ever thought possible.
Sher’s new version of the show lets this reunion take place—for a moment. But then, after gently touching Higgins’s face just once, Eliza walks out again, leaving him bereft. This ending is meant to pay tribute to Eliza’s strength and signify a fresh start for her.
When I saw this production a couple of weeks ago, most of it was quite enjoyable. But instead of the updated scene holding out the promise of a new beginning, the ending left a bitter taste.
Minds of Their Own
A little background is necessary here: People have been fighting over the end of this story for more than a century. In 1913, playwright George Bernard Shaw based the original version, Pygmalion, on the ancient myth of Pygmalion and Galatea—the sculptor who falls in love with his statue of the ideal woman, who then comes to life.
But the relationship between Shaw’s “sculptor,” Higgins, and his “statue,” Eliza, goes in a different direction. In Pygmalion, Eliza ends by walking out on Higgins, who acts like an adolescent about it (he “chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner”).
Give Shaw credit: He was trying to express the ideas—quite advanced ones for his time—that a woman has value, personhood, and a right to independence, and that no human being can “create” another. And he did get that point across. But something odd kept happening when his play was performed. To Shaw’s annoyance, he could not keep the actors from throwing aside his ending and doing the one they wanted. His Eliza kept coming back in at the end; his Higgins threw flowers at her; and audiences loved it all.
Shaw added an epilogue to the printed play, specifying that Eliza ends up with Freddy, the young suitor who spends much of the play mooning around her. But when the play was adapted into a movie, the studio insisted on reuniting Eliza and Higgins. And when Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe later turned the play into a musical, Lerner wrote in a prologue to the libretto: “I have omitted the [epilogue] because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and—Shaw and heaven forgive me!—I am not certain he was right.”
As any writer worth his or her salt will tell you, sometimes fictional characters develop minds—and relationships—of their own. Some of the best fictional relationships emerge out of battles of wills like the ones we see in My Fair Lady, because deep down most of us recognize that there can be a lot to like about an opponent who can match one’s own spirit, intellect, and wit.
And without jumping into the ongoing debate over how much of a work of art belongs to its creator and how much to others, I think a lot of fans, performers, and studio executives recognized a couple of things that Shaw did not. One was that none of us falls in love with a perfect person. That doesn’t mean we should ever give a pass to cruelty or abuse. It does mean that we must learn to recognize that the people we love, just like us, are a mixture of good and bad. And it’s not such a bad thing to be able to see the good.
Which leads me to something else that I think both Shaw and Sher missed here: the fact that people can change. More than that, the fact that we desperately need to be reminded that people can change.
Hope Does Not Disappoint
“I was serenely independent and content before we met;
Surely I could always be that way again—and yet—“
—Henry Higgins, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, My Fair Lady
I don’t care how you treat me,” Eliza tells Higgins in the penultimate scene of My Fair Lady. “I don’t mind your swearing at me. I shouldn’t mind a black eye; I’ve had one before this. But I won’t be passed over!” What she is asking for is simply respect. Her departure at the end of the scene shocks the self-absorbed Higgins into finally giving her that respect, and more.
As he walks home from that encounter, Higgins must face the fact that without having set out to change him, but just by being who she is, Eliza has made him a different person. Writing in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, lyricist Michael Korie notes, “‘And yet . . .’ is the real story, and the source of the suspense and drama in My Fair Lady.”
Lerner’s version of the story has more balance and fullness to it because it takes both main characters, not just one, on an emotional journey, and lets their relationship affect them both. As British director Sir Trevor Nunn puts it, “Eliza is changed into a new woman once her ‘guttersnipe’ habits are expunged; but . . . Professor Higgins . . . is transformed finally and movingly from a man unable to express his feelings into a more complete emotional human being.”
I love Lerner’s My Fair Lady ending, and not just because it appeals to the hopeless romantic in me. In a larger sense, it gives me hope. I would go so far as to say that in the #MeToo era, an ending like that could give us all hope.
So much of the anger, pain, and despair inherent in that movement, I believe, stems from the feeling that the behavior being protested has been going on forever and will continue to go on forever. It’s tied to the fact that we’ve seen too many men apologize for the evil they’ve done, drop out of sight for a bit, then come back with no real repercussions. Or even worse, not apologize at all.
Henry Higgins is not an abuser; Eliza herself is clear on that point. (If he were, this would be an entirely different story, and I’d be rooting for her to get out of Dodge.) But he is decidedly guilty of the pride, tunnel vision, and self-centeredness that can all too easily breed abuse. There are moments when Bartlett Sher’s solution may seem like the only one: Cut all such men out of your life and go live somewhere else. “And yet”—what if we really believed that a man like Higgins could change, enough to be worthy of a woman of spirit and dignity?
We have to walk a fine line when we think this way, because as I said before, Shaw was right about one thing: We don’t “create” other people. We don’t control them, and we can’t change them just by trying to. Too many people have walked blithely into relationships that left them devastated and disillusioned, because they were sure they could change whatever bothered them about the other person.
But Shaw was wrong—as his own actors recognized—when he created a character as vivid and memorable as Higgins but then tried to make him completely static and unchangeable. We can’t and shouldn’t be controlled, but if there’s any good in us at all, we can’t help but be affected by the presence of others in our lives—sometimes more than we ever thought possible.
Thinking about all this reminded me of something I tend to forget when yet another story of abuse or exploitation tempts me to cynicism: that hope is a virtue. A Christian virtue, at that. As Karen Swallow Prior explains in her new book, On Reading Well, the theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—“occur in their true sense not through human nature but by God’s divine power.” In other words, cynicism and despair may come naturally to us; hope is unnatural enough to require divine intervention. But like all gifts of God, it has incredible power if we’re willing to let it in. It’s a sign of grace, a reminder that goodness still exists beyond what we may see at the moment, and that there is a Spirit who works to transform us, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
And goodness knows, if there’s hope for Henry Higgins, there’s hope for the whole world.
*Note: This passage, originally found in Pygmalion, doesn’t appear in the original published libretto of My Fair Lady, but it is in the film version of the musical and sometimes also in the staged versions.
I’m on board with the ethos behind this: the hope that redemption is possible even for one like Higgins by the power of transformative love like Eliza’s. However, I believe I would share Sher’s misgivings about the ending of this particular story. It’s been a while for me since I’ve seen “My Fair Lady”, so maybe I’m wrong-headed, but based on my recollections, I’m skeptical (1) that Higgins’ treatment of Eliza should be considered something less than abuse, and (2) that the change in Higgins’ in the end can be seen as real and lasting. While Higgins’ doesn’t beat Eliza or use her sexually, he certainly exposes her to unrelenting verbal abuse and, it seems to me, significant emotional abuse. While she benefits from the relationship, I think it’s clear that, for Higgins, their relationship is about one thing, and one thing only: himself. Proving his greatness, stoking his ego, making him feel good about his work. And, while his “…and yet…” moment is powerful, I’m not convinced that it has ceased to be about him wanting his own happiness above all things–it’s just that now his desires include her presence in his life.
Given that context, I’m uncomfortable with taking a “Eliza, where the hell are my slippers?” ending and calling it love.
I second what Jeff said.
Higgins barely has an arc in the story. I honestly believe that if he really learned his lesson, then “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” shouldn’t be the last song. He’s ONLY JUST recognized the error of his ways in that song… now will he put that new truth (don’t control people, all people have dignity, you aren’t the center of the universe) into practice? Based on the last line “Eliza! ….Where are my slippers?” I’d say absolutely not. It would be just as incomplete a character arc if Eliza had learned of her own self worth, but HADN’T walked out and left Higgins.
Also, what is Eliza falling in love with anyways? There’s no humanizing moments for Higgins that SHE sees, much less that she benefits from. If Henry Higgin’s realization is offscreen and Eliza doesn’t see it, what exactly spurs her to go back in the first place? Plot, and writer’s contrivance, and nothing else. The plot superseded both characters in this instance, and it’s made all the worse and unlikeable because of it.
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