Monday, May 17, 2010

Interpretations, in the End

The first time I ever learned that there were people out there who didn't like the ending to My Fair Lady, I was in college. I was admiring a picture of Audrey Hepburn (I'm pretty sure it was from Breakfast at Tiffany's, but memory fades.) my friend had up on the wall of his bedroom and mentioned it to him.

"I love Audrey Hepburn," he said, "except at the end of My Fair Lady."

I didn't ask why. Although I wondered.

Years later, talking with another friend and her husband My Fair Lady was brought up (probably by me, but I can't be sure about that) and she mentioned how she preferred the end to Pygmalion. I asked about the difference since I hadn't read the play, and she said the difference was that in Pygmalion Eliza doesn't go back to Higgins.

I don't remember discussing it any more, but I do remember thinking that if Eliza didn't show up at the end of the movie then My Fair Lady would have to end either after Higgins sings (or "sings" when talking about Rex Harrison) "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" or after Mrs. Higgins says, "Bravo, Eliza." Both seem logical endings, with the former being much more sad.

I wondered, though, if something was wrong with me that I've never felt disturbed by the end of the movie/play. I can see why my friends would prefer Eliza not to show up in the study at the end: she's freed herself from a controlling, self-centered, arrogant, asshat of a man and taken her fate into her own hands. (If it had ended this way for my whole life, I would probably agree with them.) Most people who like the end probably like it because they think Eliza and Higgins are in love and now -- sigh -- they can be together, forever, and get married.

Me? Well, the more I've thought about it since that first time the more I realize that I like the end of the movie/play because Eliza has taken hold of her life and, frankly, I think she's chosen the best life for herself that she could find in early 1900s London.

She doesn't return to Higgins because she's in love with him. Yes, she cares for him a great deal, she probably loves him, but she is not in love with him, as seen here:
Higgins: In short, you want me to be as infatuated about you as he is, is that it?

Eliza: No, I don't. That's not the sort of feeling I want from you. I want a little kindness. I know I'm a common, ignorant girl, and you're a book-learned gentleman, but I'm not dirt under your feet.

What I done-- what I did was not for the taxis and the dresses, but because we were pleasant together and I come to-- came to care for you. Not to want you to make love to me and not forgetting the difference between us, but more friendly like.
The important bit again: "Not to want you to make love to me and not forgetting the difference between us, but more friendly like."

She cares about him, probably does love him, but Eliza Doolittle is not in love with Henry Higgins. I've always thought that she looked at him as the older brother she never had or the father she wished she had (although the father position is probably better filled by Pickering).

And Higgins isn't in love with Eliza. "I've Grown Accustom to Her Face" is a song about fondness. About how he likes that she's around. He sings, "I've grown accustomed to the tune that / She whistles night and noon." because it's part of the background of his life making what he thought was a nice life even better and more comfortable. "I've grown accustomed to the trace," he sings, "Of something in the air; / Accustomed to her face." She's made his life better in a smaller, simpler, and, perhaps, stronger ways than he made her life better.

Then why, if it's not love, does she come back to him, right?

Academics and economics.

When she first comes to Higgins she wants to be a girl in a flower shop. She wants to earn a better living for herself. She wants to move out of her social class and into a class that she sees as better. Eliza never expects to live with Higgins, though. She thinks she'd do it like her friend who took French lessons. She'd come to Higgins's house once or twice a week, clear up her accent, get a job in a shop, and move on with her life.

By moving into Higgins's house and working with him on a Daily basis, Eliza is pushed into the world of academia. As she speaks her vowels and practices her "h" sounds and says those tongue twisters she also overhears Higgins and Pickering discussing dialects and the human condition. It's easy to imagine that sometimes she might have even join in the discussions, once she starts to speak-up.

After the ball, knowing that the grand experiment is over, what's she to do?

Can she go on and work in someone's flower shop and be happy?

Can she really marry Freddy?

I don't think she can do either one.

Marrying Freddy's out because he's self-centered and an idiot. If there's any conversation to be had between the two of them, it'll be about him. (His song is about how he feels to be near her, which is sort of flattering, but I'd have more respect for him if he sang about how it felt to be with her.) It's like he thinks she's a trinket that he can put in a case and admire because it makes him feel good to know he has something so nice. There's only status in him, no vigor or life, no real thought. By the end of My Fair Lady Eliza learns how to think and isn't likely to marry just for money.

Working in a flower shop could be more likely, but where's the challenge to Eliza. She's been working and learning for months. Not only does her way of speaking change, but her view of the world (and the world's view of her). Before, she knew how to read and write, but that was all. After, she knows how to analyze what she sees and reads and use it to her advantage. The ball was where the audience sees her using the things she had been taught to her advantage: adapting as the situation changes, and letting the people think of her what they want. Working in a flower shop isn't a place where she could stretch her mind.

She couldn't marry an idiot (if she had, I would hate the movie/play with a passion). She wouldn't be happy simply selling flowers. What other choices did a woman, with no money, have in the early 1900s?

Eliza had another choice. Was it the perfect choice? No, but I think it was better than the alternatives.

Perhaps what really gets to the people who don't like the ending is that the last thing Eliza tells Higgins before showing up in his study at the very end is that she can do bloody well without him, but she, in the end, decides she does need him. I can understand how that could stick in their craws, but I still think that, for the time she lived in, she made the best choice.

9 comments:

AE said...

A) Her new 'vocabulary+' and demeanor turn out to be a TOTAL farce.

B) She is OBVIOUSLY in love with Higgins or is

C) Dependent, now, on the Man's finances while

D) Higgins is playing hard-to-get for reasons

E) Unknown.

ticknart said...

A) Of course it's a farce! It's supposed to be phony. She learned how to talk and act appropriately to fool people. There was nothing about changing who she is and how she thinks. She's going to have to continue to work at her accent and demeanor until they become natural to her, if she wants.

B) No, she's not. She does care about him, though.

C) Of course. She gave up everything to learn with the man. She has no money of her own and no place to live. Even her father, who has money in the end, doesn't want to help her.

D) He's pretty much a misogynistic asshole, who's less misogynistic at the end, but still an asshole.

E) There's an argument to be made that he's probably gay.

Now, two questions for you:
1. When was the last time you watched the movie?
2. Do you like the end of My Fair Lady?

heels said...

From the Wikipedia article:
"The scene ends with another confrontation between Higgins and Eliza. Higgins asks if Eliza is satisfied with the revenge she has wrought thus far and if she will now come back, but she refuses. Higgins defends himself from Eliza's earlier accusation by arguing that he treats everyone the same, so she shouldn't feel singled out. Eliza replies that she just wants a little kindness, and that since he will never stoop to show her this, she will not come back, but will marry Freddy. Higgins scolds her for such low ambitions: he has made her "a consort for a king." When she threatens to teach phonetics and offer herself as an assistant to Nepommuck, Higgins again loses his temper and promises to wring her neck if she does so. Eliza realises that this last threat strikes Higgins at the very core and that it gives her power over him; Higgins, for his part, is delighted to see a spark of fight in Eliza rather than her erstwhile fretting and worrying. Mrs. Higgins returns and she and Eliza depart for the wedding. As they leave Higgins incorrigibly gives Eliza a number of errands to run, as though their recent conversation had not taken place. Eliza disdainfully explains why they are unnecessary, and wonders what Higgins is going do without her. Higgins laughs to himself at the idea of Eliza marrying Freddy as the play ends.

Pygmalion was the most broadly appealing of all Shaw's plays. But popular audiences, looking for pleasant entertainment with big stars in a West End venue, wanted a "happy ending" for the characters they liked so well, as did some critics.[16] During the 1914 run, to Shaw's exasperation but not to his surprise, Tree sought to sweeten Shaw's ending to please himself and his record houses.[17] Shaw returned for the 100th performance and watched Higgins, standing at the window, toss a bouquet down to Eliza. "My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful," protested Tree. "Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot."[18][19] Shaw remained sufficiently irritated to add a postscript essay, "'What Happened Afterwards,"[20] to the 1916 print edition for inclusion with subsequent editions, in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married.

He continued to protect the play's and Eliza's integrity by protecting the last scene. For at least some performances during the 1920 revival, Shaw adjusted the ending in a way that underscored the Shavian message. In an undated note to Mrs. Campbell he wrote,

When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on 'constant battleship' you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final 'Buy them yourself.' He will go out on the balcony to watch your departure; come back triumphantly into the room; exclaim 'Galatea!' (meaning that the statue has come to life at last); and — curtain. Thus he gets the last word; and you get it too.[21]

(This ending is not included in any print version of the play.)

Shaw fought uphill against such a reversal of fortune for Eliza all the way to 1938. He sent the film's harried producer, Gabriel Pascal, a concluding sequence which he felt offered a fair compromise: a romantically-set farewell scene between Higgins and Eliza, then Freddy and Eliza happy in their greengrocery/flower shop. Only at the sneak preview did he learn that Pascal had shot the "I washed my face and hands" conclusion, to reassure audiences that Shaw's Galatea wouldn't really come to life, after all."

ticknart said...

I never doubted that Eliza left Higgins for good in Pygmalion, but it sickens me that she goes off and marries a useless human being like Freddy. Maybe he's better, more grown-up, in Shaw's play, but he's an insufferable man-child in My Fair Lady.

So, in Shaw's world all Eliza's growth leads to is marriage? Does Freddy know her background? Would he be okay with her not being of the middle- or upper-class? Could he continue to accept her occasional slips into her old way of speaking?

Ending with Eliza not going back to live/work with Higgins, fine. I could be happy with that.

Ending with her marrying someone trying to climb the social ladder just to keep her from going back to a place where she can continue to grow, I can't stand that.

I hate it when intelligent female characters go goo-goo over simple, but good looking/rich male characters. Is that what smart women want, someone who can't challenge them?

I still like the end to My Fair Lady. It isn't perfect. In fact it's a little sad and pathetic, but so are the themes in the show.

Galatea may never truly come alive, but it's better to live as a human than to be occasionally trotted out and shown off as a trinket.

geewits said...

Interesting. I saw MFL at a dinner theater about 30 years ago and two of us went through two bottles of wine so I don't even remember the ending. I should rent the movie.

heels said...

But at least Freddy helps her open her own flower shop so that she can be self-sufficient. I think Higgins treats her more as if she's a trinket or a show-pony.

ticknart said...

Geewits -- I'm surprised you remember that it was the play you watched. And it's a great movie with an excellent cast, no matter what you think of the ending.

Heels -- From the stuff you pasted: "He sent the film's harried producer, Gabriel Pascal, a concluding sequence which he felt offered a fair compromise: a romantically-set farewell scene between Higgins and Eliza, then Freddy and Eliza happy in their greengrocery/flower shop. Only at the sneak preview did he learn that Pascal had shot the "I washed my face and hands" conclusion, to reassure audiences that Shaw's Galatea wouldn't really come to life, after all."

From the Pygmalion movie Wikepedia page: "Against Shaw's wishes, a happy ending was added, with Eliza fleeing Higgins with Freddy but then returning to Higgins' home (though whether permanently or on her own terms is left deliberately ambiguous)."

Shaw may have written the green grocer ending and it may have been filmed, but it's never been a part of the play or a movie, at least according to Wikipedia.

We already know that Eliza can be self sufficient from the very begining of My Fair Lady -- she makes money from her flowers and she has a little apartment -- but is self sufficiency enough for her at the end?

Higgins did treat her like a show-pony, no denying that, but after the show's over he wants her to stay with him. Sure, it's for selfish reasons, but not because he has an end to achieve anymore.

ticknart said...

After writing that, I'm thinking that part of the reason I'm okay with the end of My Fair Lady is because I despise Freddy Eynsford-Hill so much. I'd rather see Eliza as a ratty flower girl in the street again than see her married to him. Maybe he's better in Pygmalion, but I wouldn't know, I haven't seen nor have I read the play.

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