Pygmalion, Greenwich Theatre, London, Sunday 11th October 2015
Against accusations that he was a misogynist, Higgins would respond, a la Finchy from The Office, that he couldn’t be, because his mum is a woman. And he loves his mum.
Indeed, this line of counter argument would be particularly apt coming from the Professor. As Billington points out, Higgins is openly and unashamedly infatuated with his own mother. This is one of the reasons the otherwise intense, and sometimes affectionate, relationship between Higgins and Liza Doolittle does not translate into romance.
The primary reason, however, is that Higgins is a psychopath, manipulating the flower seller solely for his own intellectual satisfaction. She is nothing but a toy to be shaped in such a way that allows Higgins to win a bet with a chum, regardless of the impact on his victim.
Watching the play with a focus on this kind of behaviour from Higgins, I was struck by two parallels with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
The first relates to Higgins’ initial treatment of Liza; manipulating her from a position of intellectual and class privilege, essentially for sport. This reminded me of Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s and Sir Toby Belch’s malicious toying with Malvolio’s love for his mistress. The cross-gartered yellow stocking scene is played for laughs, but we watching two members of the aristocracy trick a servant into total humiliation.
In modern comedy parlance, Higgins, Aguecheek and Belch’s are all “punching down” in how they use their power to win laughs.
The second similarity relates to the conclusions of the works. In contrast to Liza, who leaves for a life of married wealth, Higgins conclusion is as indeterminate as Malvoilio’s. The loyal and “most notoriously abused” servant leaves the stage swearing “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” But the audience sees no such resolution before the play ends, very shortly afterward. Higgins is too proud to reveal that he is hurt, so we are left wondering if a man so learned has learned anything at all from his experience with Liza.
A final comparison is with The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a more obvious connection, one further embedded for me personally by the mere four days between the shows. Both are concerned with the façade of class and use fantastic wit and wordplay to prick the pomposity of contemporary middle class mores.
In that sense, Billington is right that Pygmalion is both a “socialist” and a “great and extraordinary” play. I just struggle to understand why Higgins is not seen by more people as the monster he is. After all, somebody read Pygmalion and decided to make comedy musical My Fair Lady. Get ready for Blurred Lines the rom-com…
3 down – 98 to go.
Thank you Greenwich Theatre.