“Eliza...where the devil are my slippers?”
What's in an ending? What is it about the way a story closes that defines everything to come before it? As one of Broadway's most classic musicals, My Fair Lady prides itself on offering an ending that wraps the story up in a nice, romantic bow that leaves audiences sighing happily over the reconciliation of the musical's leads. Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, a will-they-won't-they pair who spend their entire story at odds and interlocked in a struggle for power and respect, are the epitome of a trope that audiences have enjoyed in romances for years: the sparring couple. The pair of leads who, despite bickering and expressing biting disagreements, cannot contain the romantic, sometimes sexual tension sizzling underneath all the seeming dislike for each other. Audiences agonize over the painful conflicts and want them together. Audiences wish desperately for these characters to set aside their differences and admit their feelings for each other. And, in the case of My Fair Lady, audiences express delight when Eliza finds it in her heart to forgive Henry and return to his waiting arms. A tale of change, forgiveness, and compassion—what romance-adoring audience could ask for more?
Apparently, according to Bartlett Sher, a modern audience could. In Sher's Broadway revival of “the perfect musical,” the ending with reconciliation and shared love is gone. In its place, Eliza decides that Henry is not the right one for her and, in a tenderly tragic moment, bids a silent farewell to the phonetics professor before disappearing from his life forever. Many of today's critics and theatregoers applaud this decision; after all, the way Professor Higgins treats poor Eliza throughout the show is nothing short of reprehensible. Why should Eliza relinquish her personal freedom and sense of self-respect in order to return to a selfish, condescending child of a man who never showed her the care she needed and craved?
But, for all the applause for this bold decision, there's also a side to the discourse that argues against Sher's choice. Who does this director think he is to change the ending of such a classic musical?! Why would Sher discourage a tale of change, of realizing mistakes and overcoming setbacks with the pure power of love?! Much debate can be made over whether or not Sher's choices were the right ones to make, both in regards to preserving the integrity of the original piece and presenting a story that's acceptable to modern sensibilities. So today, I'll be taking a look at the history of Eliza and Henry's relationship and ask myself: Is Bartlett Sher right?
“Goodbye, Professor Higgins. You shall not be seeing me again.”
When Eliza Doolittle utters this line in My Fair Lady, her intention at the moment is to replicate her original Pygmalion counterpart, who defiantly declares in the final act of the famous play that she will not see the “cruel tyrant” again. This moment—in both versions of the complicated story of Eliza and Henry's friendship —is a defining moment for our leading lady, a moment of towering empowerment where dear Eliza realizes she can do well without Higgins and his classist, sexist attitudes. And, in both versions, after her declaration, Eliza proudly exits the scene, more sure of herself than ever before and ready to begin a new life filled with countless possibilities. Both the audience and Henry Higgins are left to watch her leave, each party wondering whether Eliza is truly serious in her bold claims. Will Eliza succeed on her own and marry Freddy, or will she come crawling back to Professor Higgins, ready for reconciliation and eager to begin a relationship?
First, it's important to explore where it all began. The history surrounding the nature of Henry and Eliza's dynamic is an old and consistently ongoing discourse. After all, the original Pygmalion doesn't end on any reconciliation between Eliza and Henry at all! The aforementioned scene where Eliza declares her independence from Professor Higgins and goes off on her merry way is the last we see of her, and Higgins, laughing to himself, spends every final second—even as the curtain falls—stubbornly believing Eliza will fetch his tie and gloves just as he demanded. In this tale, there is no change in the dynamic between Eliza and Henry. There is no difference in the way Professor Higgins regards Eliza, no evolution that encourages much of wanting the two to end up together in a healthy, fulfilling relationship. Instead, the audience is meant to sympathize with Eliza and cheer her on as she tells Higgins off. How, then, did this ending become romanticized to the point of audiences longing for Eliza to return to Higgins in My Fair Lady?
The truth is that George Bernard Shaw, after writing his play and seeing how productions handled a conclusion for Henry and Eliza, was dismayed to find directors missing the point of his ending entirely. Some productions tacked on epilogues where Higgins tossed flowers up to Eliza in a grand, romantic gesture. Others changed the ending entirely to make Eliza choose not to leave at all. It seemed that audiences were dissatisfied with the idea that Eliza wouldn't want to be with Henry.
Shaw, aggravated with the reaction, eventually wrote an entire epilogue in the form of an essay detailing what happened to the characters after the events of the play. In it, Eliza indeed married Freddy, and together they borrowed money from Colonel Pickering so they could open a flower shop. Henry Higgins did remain in Eliza Doolittle's life, but Shaw was insistent on the fact that they were no match romantically, that they remained purely friends who saw each other as sparring partners in wit and cleverness. And yet, despite Shaw's painstaking attempts to discourage Eliza and Henry as a romantic pair, the audience's love for the idea of this couple ultimately prevailed.
One may think that the ending where Eliza returns to Higgins' home and murmurs, “I washed me face an' 'ands before I come, I did!” is a My Fair Lady creation, but the truth is that Alan Jay Lerner lifted this reconciliation directly from the 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion, where, against Shaw's wishes or consent, an ending to hint clearly that Eliza and Henry could become “an item” was added in order to satisfy the audiences who longed for happy endings to their movies. The added ending is definite enough to establish that Eliza is willing to go back on her promise of never seeing Higgins again, but, in refusing to include a kiss or any kind of physical affection between the pair, also ambiguous enough to leave audiences wondering where the relationship will go from there. Is Eliza back for good? Has Higgins changed his ways? Will they work as a couple? Could they?
Alan Jay Lerner was clearly a hopeless romantic for the pair, which was why the 1938 film's ending was incorporated into My Fair Lady. However, Lerner knew that just having Eliza go back wasn't enough; there wasn't enough meat or reason to justify the idea that Professor Higgins was going to be a changed man who could give Eliza what she needed in a relationship. In Pygmalion, Henry's portrayal remains one-note and stubbornly hateful to the very bitter end, with no glimpse into Henry's potential change of heart or mind process in regards to how his feelings towards Eliza evolve over the course of the play.
Where the original Pygmalion leaves things off with a bang in Eliza and Henry's final argument, and the 1938 film adds the final scene to a story that otherwise sticks relatively closely to the source material, My Fair Lady has the luxury of thickening the story and characters with musical numbers that provide a better insight into the characters' thoughts, motives, and emotions. Of course, as an adaptation of the purposefully problematic character Shaw created in Pygmalion, the musical version of Higgins has multiple songs where he rants about the lower class, about women, about how much better men of a higher social standing such as him are than women, or those of the lower classes who speak “improper English.” In that regard, the My Fair Lady incarnation of Professor Higgins greatly resembles his original play counterpart, often to the great comedic effect of making the audience chuckle and shake their heads at how someone could be so heartless and despicable.
But, there is one point where the My Fair Lady Higgins differs from the Pygmalion Higgins, where a sense of sympathy and unironic affection are meant to grow for the character and, in a way, open up the possibility that he may perhaps be a good option for Eliza after all. That difference is the inclusion of the number “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” where Henry, after the explosive argument with Eliza that originally ended Pygmalion, walks home and wrestles over the realization that he's become used to having Eliza in his life, and, in his own stilted way, has even developed feelings for her. He struggles over these feelings; he in turns angrily denounces Eliza and gently reminisces on the little things she does every day that he's grown fond of. Ultimately, despite all the bitter and resentful talk of “never taking her back,” Higgins still finds himself stumbling into his study, turning on an old recording, and disdainfully listening to the first day that Eliza wandered into his house, asking for lessons and enduring his abusive talk. And, in the professor's eyes, there's something different from the attitude he expresses in regards to the way he treated Eliza in Pygmalion: remorse.
The romance in My Fair Lady is resolved not only in the sense that Eliza decides to “suck it up” and go back to Professor Higgins despite his abusive behavior. One can make the argument that Professor Higgins himself realizes the error of his ways and decides to open up for Eliza, to treat her better and see her as a true equal in their potential relationship. The inclusion of a song—along with placing 1938 Pygmalion's ending in the context of this self-reflective number—shows a growth in Henry Higgins that allows for the possibility that Eliza may be truly happy with him if she chooses to return. And, particularly in the playfully sarcastic way Rex Harrison delivers the line, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” one can understand that Higgins is poking fun at himself, a further sign that he sees his behavior up until this point as abhorrent. In short, My Fair Lady very much presents this romance as a story of changing for the better and learning to treat others with the respect they deserve. Higgins, instead of being an irredeemable tyrant from whom Eliza decides to escape, becomes a “softie at heart” whom Eliza considers giving a second chance. In actuality, it's a major change from the musical's source material, but necessary in order to even begin to make an Eliza and Henry pairing work.
But, in changing the story in such a way, My Fair Lady presents the problem of not representing what Shaw intended with his original play. It's difficult to justify the musical as a true adaptation of Pygmalion when the main crux of what drives the dynamic between Eliza and Henry in the original story—that being a conflict surrounding bigoted views towards women, language, lower classes—is tossed aside in favor of giving audiences a lighthearted romantic comedy. What's more, Shaw was openly resentful of the 1938 Pygmalion film having the added ending, so a musical adaptation that goes out of its way to justify a romance that the original creator was very adamantly against has the unfortunate result of going against the very fabric of what drove Shaw's work.
Ultimately, this begs the question: Is there a way to present My Fair Lady that both keeps with the spirit of the classic musical and respects Shaw's story?
This, of course, brings us to Sher's ending in the 2018 Broadway revival. While many theatre fans have taken issue with the idea that Sher decided to make changes to the original musical, I don't see it that way; rather, all Sher did was offer his own interpretation of the lines that were already in the script. After all, it's not as if any lines from the final scene were changed or eliminated (unlike, say, this past season's Carousel revival). Instead, what Sher did was work off of the romantic build-up between Eliza and Henry in the musical's version of events and use those to offer a new, fresh take on the ending. Higgins still realizes he has feelings for Eliza, but these feelings aren't played in such a way that pushes him to change into a better man. He acknowledges that he's “grown accustomed” to having Eliza in his life, but he doesn't translate this realization into seeing Eliza as his true equal. So, when all is said and done, the lack of self-reflecting on Higgins' part leads his famous “Where the devil are my slippers?” line to be said not in a self-depreciating way, but rather as a genuine demand. And Eliza, understanding that Higgins still doesn't see her as an equal human being and never will, decides once and for all to leave for good.
This production of My Fair Lady chooses to end things not on a romantic note, but rather on a similar note to Pygmalion. A Henry Higgins who has feelings for Eliza, but still regards her as gum under his shoe, bears more resemblance to his Pygmalion counterpart than the Henry Higgins who reflects over his actions and actively becomes a valid love interest. An Eliza Doolittle who feels compassion for Henry, yet realizes that pursuing a relationship is harmful to her own wellbeing, bears more resemblance to her Pygmalion counterpart than the Eliza Doolittle who returns to Henry willingly after defiantly declaring she will not be seeing the professor again.
In establishing the romantic connection between our leads, yet choosing not to bring them together at the end, Sher accomplishes a perfect blend of the lighthearted, romantic beats that make the musical so charming to audiences and the underlying message of independence for Eliza that's present in Pygmalion. Choosing to end the musical on a note of Eliza making the choice to leave after Higgins makes a careless request of her even stands as a nod to Pygmalion, where Eliza's final farewell to Higgins happens as Higgins ignores Eliza's threat of leaving and instead orders her to fetch him a tie and gloves. Sher agrees with Shaw on one key thing: despite any compassion or underlying feelings present, a relationship between Eliza and Henry could only end in a never-ending cycle of Eliza fetching slippers for Professor Higgins.
In today's world of bringing domestic abuse to light and encouraging healthy relationships, a tale where the leading lady decides to pursue a life better than a life of serving a disrespectful tyrant resonates with audiences more than a story where an abusive character decides to change for the better at the last possible moment. Redemption narratives work, and they often work well, but more time and care needs to be put into establishing a love story if a writer is going to include redemption as a central theme driving the romance that brings two characters together in a “happily ever after” ending. And My Fair Lady, as it originally stands, not only undoes the theme of female empowerment in Eliza Doolittle's choice in Pygmalion, but also expects the audience to believe that Henry Higgins will be a changed and perfect man for Eliza with nothing but an implication set by the final two scenes in the show.
Bartlett Sher's ending brings us back to what George Bernard Shaw wanted with Eliza and Henry. In tearing the pair apart during the very scene that was once added to bring them together, Sher returns the audience to the idea that Henry and Eliza can never be compatible; Eliza walking out on Henry's abusive behavior a second time succeeds in bringing us full circle. While some fans may prefer the “romantic comedy” approach that's present in My Fair Lady originally, I find that I appreciate Sher's attempt to make the musical more justifiable as a true adaptation to Pygmalion. After all, at the end of the day, a finale where Higgins and Eliza reconcile romantically is no different than the production of Pygmalion that annoyed Shaw by closing with Henry tossing flowers up to Eliza. We must ask ourselves: What would George Bernard Shaw want?
(Photo credit Joan Marcus)