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Pygmalion – Footnotes

Oct 20, 2023 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion include an intriguing fact about a special guest at the premiere of the play, more observations on the ending of the play and what happened afterwards to Eliza, and a tribute to the genius of Alfred Doolittle.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Premiere in Vienna
Pygmalion premiered at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna on 16th October 1913 in a German translation by Siegfried Trebitsch. Trebitsch was a playwright in his own right, and first met Shaw on a visit to England in 1903, when he offered to translate his works and help build the playwright’s reputation in Europe. Trebitsch became Shaw’s sole German translator, and they maintained a regular correspondence during his lifetime.

In the best spirit of a footnote, I discovered in Michael Holroyd’s biography of Shaw the tangential but tantalising fact that the opening night in Vienna was attended by none other than the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination eight months later would precipitate the first World War.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller
in the film Pygmalion 1938

Victor Gabriel Gilbert – Flower Seller Making a Bouquet

The Ending or What Happened Afterwards?
We talked at length in the podcast about the discrepancies in the ending of the play and its several variations on stage and on film. The way the play ends prompts speculation of course about what may happen thereafter in the lives of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins.

In the original version of the play as performed in 1914 the ending is somewhat ambiguous, Mrs Higgins believing that Eliza has gone, while Higgins apparently maintains his assumption that Eliza will return to pick up her chores where she left off:

Mrs Higgins  I’m afraid you’ve spoilt 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. Goodbye. 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.

However Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the actor playing Higgins, could not resist suggesting that there was romance in their relationship by the way that he played Higgins’s response as Eliza was leaving. He didn’t change any lines, but by the hundredth performance his improvisation consisted of his throwing flowers after Eliza. This was “unbearable” to Shaw, who wrote to Trebitsch saying that “the notion of her marrying Higgins is disgusting”, stating flatly that “Eliza married Freddy.”

To properly correct any impression that Eliza and Higgins would end up together, Shaw added a lengthy prose postscript to the first publication of the play in 1916 outlining ‘what happened afterwards’, and setting out all of the reasons why they would not marry. He first points out that Higgins has already stated that no woman could surpass his mother in his eyes, which Shaw grants as a powerful and legitimate reason that he would choose to remain a bachelor. He also argues that Eliza has seen enough of Higgins’ “domineering superiority…impetuous bullying… and coaxing cleverness” to want to marry him. He also reminds us that Eliza has told us of Freddy’s insistent love for her. Shaw concludes that given the choice between Freddy and Higgins: “Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or of Freddy fetching hers?” He states explicitly that Eliza marries Freddy, and because he does not have an income to support her, they go on to open a flower shop together.

When Shaw came to write the screenplay for the 1938 film, he included a concluding sequence showing Freddy and Eliza happy in their flower shop. However in the event the producer Gabriel Pascal shot three different endings to the film, preferring to go with the most romantic treatment. In this version the self-mockery of Eliza’s final line as she returns, “I washed my face and hands before I come, I did”, suggests a return to her acquiescent position. When Shaw was questioned about the romantic interpretation of this ending, he replied “20 directors seem to have…devised a scene to give a lovelorn complexion at the end to Mr Leslie Howard (as Higgins): but it is too inconclusive to be worth making a fuss about.” Which sounds uncharacteristically amenable.

Shaw made a final attempt a year later in 1939 to adjust the ending, which thereafter became the established published text, along with his postscript on what happened afterwards. Eliza vows to marry Freddy, “as soon as I’m able to support him”, even announcing that she will advertise that she can “teach anybody to be a duchess just the same” as Higgins has taught her. As a matter of interest, the current Old Vic production offers a visual sequence of her doing just that as a postscript to the play. Higgins is thrilled by Eliza’s statement of defiance and independence, and therefore assumes that she will not be reduced to marrying Freddy. She will stay with him and Pickering as “three old bachelors” together.

When Eliza finally “sweeps out” – the stage direction suggesting an act of independence – Higgins “roars with laughter”, exclaiming incredulously that “she’s going to marry Freddy”. But as Michael Holroyd observes his laughter now “sounded… hollow”, as if he may just begin to discern that she will not return. We certainly understand that whatever she does she has broken free of his command.

Alfred Doolittle
The character of Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, is a comic delight, much of the humour coming from the twisting logic of his rueful analysis of social politics and morality. His self-identification as a member of the “undeserving poor”, for example, is teasingly contradictory. He both ironically volunteers that he is undeserving because of his own moral failings, but also implies that society unfairly determines that he is undeserving. Is he undeserving simply because noone deserves to be poor? There is a certain truth in his claim that the undeserving poor “don’t need less than a deserving man: [they] need more”, and that “they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving.” A reality which many may recognise in our current strained times.

Yet of course we also don’t take Doolittle’s stance completely seriously because he does his best to undermine his own integrity at every turn. He admits to not being a responsible father, that he will drink away the money that he extorts from Higgins, and that he “can’t afford” any morals. He presents himself with such wit and charm, however, that he all but convinces Higgins of the merits of his arguments: “Pickering: if we listen to this man another minute, we shall have no convictions left.”

One of the reasons that we so enjoy the character of Doolittle is that he is so unaffected as he invades the stuffy drawing room of his supposed social superiors. Shaw knows that we will love a social disruptor, and we admire him for his confidence and comfort in his own skin. As Shaw wrote in a note to Edmund Gurney the actor playing Doolittle in the first production, “I want it to be clear that the dustman has much more social talent than anybody present…Doolittle is a born genius at the game.” 


John Marquez as Alfred Doolittle
Old Vic Theatre, September 2023
Photo by Manuel Harlan

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