Court Theatre

Does she or doesn’t she? Go back to him, that is. The question of whether Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower seller, returns to Henry Higgins, the fanatical phonetics teacher, is one of the most famous enigmas in the English-speaking theater. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s classic comedy, Eliza disdainfully turns her back on the domineering Higgins after he transforms her into a lady of breeding, and heads out for a life of her own; but sentimental audiences, and the theatrical professionals who pander to them, have been conniving to bring the pair back together ever since.

Never mind the intentions of Shaw, who insisted that “the natural and happy ending to the story” required Eliza to marry Freddy Eynsford Hill, the sweet and silly suitor who pursues her from the moment she makes her first tentative entry into high society. A romantic reunion between Eliza and Higgins, Shaw wrote, would be “a revolting tragedy.”

But you don’t spend five acts striking sparks between a man and a woman only to have the woman go off at the end to some other fellow. The romantic actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who in 1914 played Higgins in the first British production of Pygmalion (opposite Shaw’s erstwhile lover, Mrs. Stella Patrick Campbell), devised a bit of stage business just before the final curtain to indicate an inevitable wedding between the prickly professor and his presumptuous pupil. Shaw hated it, but audiences loved it. (“My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful,” Tree wrote Shaw in a letter. “Your ending is damnable: you ought to be shot,” retorted the playwright.)

And so it has gone over the years. The most famous instance, of course, is in the musical version, My Fair Lady. Eliza comes back just after Higgins has sung of his growing realization that he has feelings for her after all. If the immovable object, Higgins, were to bend just a bit, then the unstoppable object–an Eliza grown independent of the restrictions of class and gender–might be willing to backtrack.

Sentimental rot, of course. And thankfully, Kyle Donnelly will have none of it. As director of Pygmalion in a vibrant, elegant, and intelligent production at the Court Theatre, Donnelly has been as willing to put forth her own interpretations of the text as past directors have been; but rather than pandering, Donnelly probes.

Shaw was always uncomfortable with the identification of Pygmalion as romantic comedy; he liked to think of it as a didactic satire on the role of language in the English class system. (If Pygmalion “makes the public aware that there are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among the most important people in England at present,” Shaw wrote, “it will serve its turn.”) Instead, Donnelly turns our attention to questions Shaw raised but seems to have feared pursuing–to the conflict between intellect and emotion. Pygmalion, she knows, is a play about words: what is said, what is not said, how language can be used to reveal feelings–or to disguise or distort them.

The key to Donnelly’s interpretation is Nicholas Pennell’s fascinating performance as Higgins. Forget the studiously sensitive Leslie Howard in the movie Pygmalion; forget sexy Rex Harrison in the musical; forget charismatic stars like Alec McCowen and Peter O’Toole. Pennell’s Higgins is a definitive and original performance–and it’s not pretty. This Higgins is an eccentric bully, a brilliant but stunted man, a defiant freethinker who’s also a dependent mama’s boy.

Prissy and petulant, he stalks about his office like a puffed-up pigeon, but at his mother’s home he’s as obedient as a chastened schoolboy. When he proclaims himself a “confirmed old bachelor,” he’s not just bragging, he’s clinging desperately to a rationalization for his sexual insecurity. And when Eliza walks out on him–virtually forced to reject him by his bitter obstinacy–he neither barks with laughter, as Shaw originally dictated, nor sends a coy signal of regret; he sits stiff and still, determinedly–and self-destructively–alone. It’s a disturbing end to a play and a production that bounds brilliantly from giddy gaiety to stinging satire to serious social debate. The searing final battle between Eliza and Higgins perfectly unites comedy and drama.

Such a strong Higgins would be overwhelming without an equally strong Eliza; no worry there: Linda Emond, who’s grown enormously over the past few seasons, is perfect. Earthy and streetwise, but vulnerably girlish too, she grows from the “deliciously low” guttersnipe who asks Higgins to help her learn to speak well to the imperfect social swell–her impeccable diction hilariously highlighting her commonness of thought–to, finally, an independent woman who asks with wonder and terror: “What’s to become of me?” Under Donnelly’s skillful direction, the difference between Pennell’s external, highly technical acting style and Emond’s more naturalistic approach serves to embody the clash of the characters’ personalities.

Surrounding this central conflict are a series of marvelous miniatures: Nicholas Rudall as Eliza’s coarse rogue of a father, who like his daughter is elevated socially at considerable cost to his contentment; Denise DuMaurier as Higgins’s worldly-wise mother, at once bemused and appalled by the folly of human beings; Patrick Clear as that kindhearted bastion of convention, Colonel Pickering (here the classic “middle-aged” young man rather than the elderly gentleman Shaw envisioned); David New as pretty, pudding-headed Freddy; and, in a small but telling role, Rebecca MacLean as Freddy’s pretentious and pathetic social-climbing sister. With these superb performances–aided by Andrew B. Marlay’s luscious costumes, Jeff Bauer’s elaborately detailed turntable set, and some well-chosen Mozart horn concertos for background music–Donnelly creates a social tableau of Dickensian richness as well as Shavian thoughtfulness. Court’s magnificent Pygmalion captures the world the play was written in and for–a society whose members only barely perceived that they were moving through a drastic transition, a society on the brink of war, whose assumptions about sexual and class relationships were about to be disrupted forever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.