The perils of social mobility

by George Bernard Shaw

For some reason, despite loving the film My Fair Lady, I was convinced that this, the play it is based on, would be a bit stuffy and clever-clever. I had no idea how close the film is to the original script, with many of its funniest lines being Shaw. If anything the play is even funnier.

I read this book very carefully, because I was reading a 1947 Penguin edition printed on Bible-thin paper that felt as though it might disintegrate any moment. Though produced cheaply for a mass audience, it is still a thing of beauty, with illustrations by Feliks Topolski, extra scenes written for the 1938 film, a prologue and epilogue by the author, not to mention lengthy interjections from him at the start of most scenes. This is definitely not what reading a play usually feels like.

Bernard Shaw’s tongue is firmly in cheek from the start, with an attempt to write Eliza’s accent abruptly stopped partway through the first scene with the interjection “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

Professor Higgins is, of course, lovably eccentric, bad tempered without realising it and single-minded to boot. He and his friend Colonel Pickering are confirmed bachelors who deliberately ignore all raised eyebrows at them taking a young pretty girl under their wing. Eliza is an impressively strong female character. She has been supporting herself by selling flowers and calculates that if she submits to the professor’s tutelage she can earn a little more in a flower shop. She gets angry when she realises that they have made her appear too refined for such work and only suitable for marriage. She doesn’t want to rely on a man to look after her.

I don’t usually like reading plays; I find it difficult to lose myself in mere dialogue, but in this case Shaw’s interjections/scene settings are so long and descriptive that I almost forgot it was a play. As a bonus, there is an epilogue in which Shaw explains what comes next for Eliza and the rest of the cast, and why it is not the ending that many fans of the play and film might expect. It’s a very nuanced, interesting conclusion.

In short, I loved this and now want to watch the 1938 film, though mostly I want to watch My Fair Lady again.

The play first produced in Berlin, 1913; in London and Paris, 1914.
The film first produced 1938.
First published 1916.
Film version published by Penguin Books 1941.