Last week I went to a musical with some friends. My Fair Lady is a play I’ve always enjoyed. In the past, I have experienced it as a beautiful love story. The prickly, selfish, clueless man finally meets a woman that breaks through those prickles and teaches him to care about someone other than himself. He helps her develop skills that give her access to a better life; she helps him develop relational skills that gives him access to a better quality of life; finally they come together in mutual love.
The story I watched unfold last week was not that same, satisfying love story.
Eliza is young and stuck. She’s stuck in her lower class world because of the way she talks. She wants to work in a flower shop, where she can make more money and be more respectable. She wants out of the life where circumstances seem to be forcing her. When she hears Henry Higgins boast that he could teach anyone to talk proper English, she takes him up on the offer.
Instead of teaching her to talk as a respectable flower girl/shopkeeper, he gets caught up in his own dream and sees her as his tool to achieve it. He’s sure he can teach her to talk like a true Englishwoman born into nobility. He could pass a street flower girl off as a duchess. He gives no thought, and discounts others who do, to how that would affect Eliza. In fact, throughout it all, he never shows the least sign of even recognizing Eliza or her feelings, much less empathizing or understanding them. Even when he supposedly realizes he loves her, all his words show is that he’s gotten used to seeing her face, to hearing her voice, to having her near. She can find his slippers. He never voices anything that made me think he even tried to understand anything from Eliza’s perspective.
Is Henry Higgins a clueless, somewhat selfish bachelor who begins to learn in the course of the play, to notice and care about another person? Is it realistic to believe that the after-life of this story includes a healthy romantic relationship between him and Eliza? Or is he a selfish, myopic and heartless man who finds another person to stroke his ego and indulge his selfishness?
For my part, instead of watching a touching, comedic love story, I observed the beginnings of a poignant, but blatant emotionally abusive relationship. The actions, words and reactions of both characters were classic examples of such a relationship.
Isn’t that what fiction is meant to do? Shouldn’t the reader (or viewer) be immersed in the experience? That realistic portrayal of human emotions is the mark of a true storyteller, is it not?
I still believe My Fair Lady is great show. I identified with Eliza so much it was almost painful. (Okay, let’s be honest. It was painful.) Even so, I enjoyed the show even as I flinched. And, once again, I was inspired to keep writing in the the hopes that one day . . . just maybe . . .I’ll be able to write something as moving and lasting.