Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Garden of Relationship: 'Just an Ordinary Man'

            George Bernard Shaw did not wish his masterly social satire on the relation of speech and class in Great Britain, "Pygmalion," to be turned into a love story. Shaw died in 1950, at the age of 94, and six years later one of the classics of the American musical theater, "My Fair Lady," opened on Broadway.
            We saw the show last weekend at The Lyric Stage in Boston. The thing about a classic is that it's good wherever, and in whatever medium, you see it. You keep discovering new lineaments of pleasure in the work's sturdy 60-year-old bones. It helps to have a top of the line production, of course, and that's what The Lyric delivered.
            Shaw was right about "Pygmalion." His play is not a love story, and its ending is provocatively ambiguous. Happily, good stories can be told in different ways, and each with its own enduring vitality. "My Fair Lady," while not a conventional love story, does give us some enduring love songs ("The Street Where You Live," "I've grown Accustomed to Her Face"), some purely light-hearted songs ("Get Me to the Church on Time"), and does deliver the predictable romantic ending -- exactly the one Shaw refused.
            But it also includes songs that offer a very cagey endorsement, in a Shavian vein, of Henry Higgins' claim of the right to do what he pleases. It's not an idea that has an place in the typical love story. But it is an idea that has ancestry in the British notions of the lifestyle of the gentleman. It's what what Mr. Bennett means, it seems to me, in "Pride and Prejudice" when he demands the right to escape his family (and his visitors) and their emotional claims on his attention by retreating to his 'library.' "I must have leisure!"he says.
            Two brilliant songs are "I'm An Ordinary Man" and "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" The first begins:
            ...I'm an ordinary man,
who desires nothing more than just an ordinary chance
to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants.
An average man am I, of no eccentric whim,
who likes to live his life free of strife,
doing whatever he thinks is best for him.
Just an ordinary man...

            As the play makes abundantly clear, Higgins is anything but 'ordinary.' Still when he says he wants to do is "live exactly as he likes... doing whatever he thinks is best for him," I am brought back to a seminal thesis in my freshman-year philosophy seminar with all those intimidating sophomores. The thesis: Why should our conduct not be guided purely by what we believe benefits the self?
           In the manner of musical comedy, the song takes off from there in a brilliant satire on the dangers posed by marriage to bachelor peace of mind:
           BUT, Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through.
She'll redecorate your home from the cellar to the dome,
then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you...
            Higgins's mischaracterization of his own personality is part of the fun: 
I'm a very gentle man,
even tempered and good-natured,
whom you never hear complain,
who has the milk of human kindness
by the quart in every vein.

            This paradigm is then contrasted to his amusing slander of typically 'female' behavior:
In a line that never ends comes an army of her friends,
come to jabber and to chatter
and to tell her what the matter is with YOU!
She'll have a booming, boisterous family
who will descend on you en masse.
She'll have a large Wagnerian mother,
with a voice that shatters glass...

            Given these notions of the disaster to be expected by allowing a woman to transgress on your bachelor freedoms, we can understand that even after Higgins acknowledges that he wants the absconded Liza Doolittle back in his life, he's unwilling to make even most base-line commitment to behave with consideration toward her. Why should she object to his rudeness, he argues, when hes not polite to anyone else?
            This leads to the second lyrical statement on gender differences:
            Why can't a woman be more like a man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
Eternally noble, historically fair;
            As for women, however:
Why does ev'ryone do what the others do?
Can't a woman learn to use her head?
Why do they do ev'rything their mothers do?
Why can't a woman behave like a man?
If I was a woman who'd been to a ball,
Been hailed as a princess by one and by all;
Would I start weeping like a bathtub overflowing?
And carry on as if my home were in a tree?
Would I run off and never tell me where I'm going?
Why can't a woman be like me?

            That little pronoun at the end of the song gives the game away. Higgins want his bachelor freedom, the freedom to pay no attention to the feelings of others, even as he wants others to hang about in case he needs them. He wants it both ways. He's grown "accustomed to her face," bachelor Higgins says of working class/new woman Eliza. He likes to see her around the house, but is determined to be free of any obligation to pay any attention to her existence as a human being as gloriously human and real and complex as he is.
            In Shaw's Pygmalion Higgins is just as self-centered and selfish, though in somewhat less floridly narcissistic terms. Liza demands "consideration" if she's going to remain, on whatever basis, in his life. In Pygmalion, Higgins's position is less hypocritical. He's for freedom and reason, rather narrowly viewed, as guides for human conduct, with scarce attention paid to the heart.
            But for Liza caring for no one but yourself is not acceptable. Shaw leaves the ending up to to us. For me, the better choice is pretty clear.
            If in fact you do want anyone "in your life," you've got to give a little. 

[The Lyric's production runs through Oct. 11. Here's a link to info and tickets:
http://lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=95 ]