Why Fair Lady?

I was a good student, but that certainly did not mean I enjoyed tests. Of the four most common types in the 1960’s — true or false, multiple choice, fill In the blank, or essay — I was (surprise!) a specialist in the last of these, writing pages of blather, long on patter, short on matter.

But in high school I discovered my crown jewel in the tiara of testing: the oral exam. I loved the oral exam because it was the only type of test that taught me more about being a future teacher than they did about how I performed as a student.

No, I did not like orals just because they allowed me to eventually talk myself into some kind of right answer. True, I had been a verbal firehose since my “mama” and “dada” days. But my first oral exam in junior English class delighted me in that it was the only type of examination where I would learn just as much about what my teacher knew about the exam topic as she would learn about what I knew. I don’t think we used the term “interactive” much back in the 60’s, but this was my grand introduction to learning through give and take.

My Honors Senior Seminar had only nine of us in it, allowing our teacher to have each of us come to her classroom after school one week to be tested during a live discussion. We had been assigned to read George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It was a very timely assignment, since the musical version, My Fair Lady, was a major movie that same month. We were asked to see the movie on our own before the exam, and be prepared to discuss the differences between Shaw’s drama and the blockbuster movie.

Shaw’s play was about Professor Henry Higgins, a pompous linguistics teacher, who makes a bet that he can train a Cockney flower peddler (Eliza Doolittle) into speaking like a duchess. The play's unusual title — Pygmalion — refers to the name of a famous sculptor from Greek mythology who falls in love with Galatea, his own beautiful marble creation, and wishes to give her life. Once she is sculpted, his marble Galatea bends to speak to him, just as Higgins trained his “Galatea” Eliza to speak properly for him. 

Because I was also taking a course in Greek and Roman mythology that semester, my teacher asked me to discuss Shaw’s purpose in relating Higgins and Eliza to the Pygmalion myth. During my discussion I thought of mentioning how ugly the name “Pygmalion” sounded in English, but given the fact that my teacher was Miss Freudenberger, I wisely refrained. 

What I most remember is something she mentioned to me almost as an afterthought. She wondered if the mythical story of Galatea speaking directly to her artist symbolized the timeless truth that if a piece of art does not speak directly to its audience, then it is not truly art. How many times during the sixty years since that exam have Miss Freudenberger’s words come back to me when I have gazed uncomprehendingly at an allegedly great painting or been bored or baffled by a supposedly brilliant book. I've felt comforted that even though these "great works of art" didn’t speak to me, my inability to appreciate them might not have been all my fault. Thanks, Miss F! 

And so as an homage to my high school teacher, I want to conclude with a nifty little tidbit that I hope you find as fascinating as I found her revelation about what makes true art. As I mentioned earlier, it’s understandable why the creators of My Fair Lady would not name their musical after the discordant-sounding Pygmalion. But why call it “My Fair Lady”? Is it because Higgins turned a common flower girl into his fair lady? I don’t think so.

In the original Shaw play, when Higgins tells Eliza that he will teach her how to speak with an accent as if she were born in Mayfair, the highest class, snootiest area of London, the cockney Liza is intimidated and refuses to cooperate.

“What?” Higgins asks in astonishment, “You don’t want to speak like a lady from Mayfair?”

“NO!" Eliza wails in her strongest Cockney accent. I ain’t nevvah gonna be no MIE-FAIR LADY!”

I hope that my little musical pearl gives a lilt to your Monday morning. If not, try humming I Could Have Danced All Night. That always works for me.

Older Post Newer Post