London Letter

MY Fair Lady comes home

BEVERLEY BAXTER June 21 1958
London Letter

MY Fair Lady comes home

BEVERLEY BAXTER June 21 1958

MY Fair Lady comes home

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

No one knows whether ghosts walk or indulge in ironic laughter, but if they do then Bernard Shaw’s ghost must have had a night out in London recently. For the last two years the fame of My Fair Lady, the musical comedy based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, had spread from New York to the outside world. Returning Britishers from America acquired a special dignity if they had seen the piece on Broadway, and in New York itself a man's importance soared if he procured a couple of seats. Therefore, as I had long since ceased to be a London dramatic critic, it was merely as a forlorn hope that I wrote to Emile Littler who, with his brother, controls the famous Drury Lane Theatre, and suggested that he might sell me two tickets for the opening night in London. Like a good friend Emile first wrote that it was quite impossible and a week later sent me two seats on the aisle for the premiere and at ordinary prices.

When the great night came the streets were crowded with people who just wanted to see the fortunate ones making their way into the theatre. The flashes of cameras were like the silent bombardment of an enemy trench. In fact it was

one of those occasions which can only take place in a metropolis.

Among the notable first-night guests were the lord chancellor and his wife, although it was the first time I have ever seen any lord chancellor at a musical comedy. But there was a special reason for it. Lord Kilrr.uir is married to the sister of Rex Harrison, who was playing the male lead. Incidentally Lady Kilmuir is a most attractive creature who could have done well on the stage if she had followed in her brother’s footsteps. Fier voice has autumnal tints.

So the curtain went up on the familiar Covent Garden vegetable market with the professor of phonetics becoming interested in the Cockney exuberance of Eliza Doolittle. Rex Harrison was never intended by nature to sing but what does that matter? Both he and good old Stanley Flolloway, the latter a long-established London favorite who had played the leading male Cockney role in the New York production, were welcomed home with cheers.

At the end of the performance there were curtain calls and flowers until it seemed we would never get home. When finally we went out to try to steal a taxi there was a bigger continued on page 56

the triumph of this brilliant new show.

Now let us apply the critical instinct. There are some good songs in the show and, for a change, the chorus plays a vital part in the London scene instead of merely standing around and waiting for the next cue. And although Rex Harrison sings like a crow he has a debonair charm which does something to the opposite sex. Nor is that a mere pose. In real life Rex has adhered to the principle of “marry in haste and repent at leisure."

But when we had gone home and I was sipping an amber liquid by the fireside I tried to understand what there is in My Fair Lady as compared with such musicals as Oklahoma, Carousel and even The Merry Widow, which was triumphantly revived at the Sadler’s Wells opera house only a few weeks ago.

I shall never forget the first night of Oklahoma which, incidentally, was also performed at Drury Lane. We had lived for long in the midst of destruction; undernourished and weary we could not believe our senses when, after the war had ended, the vibrant production of Oklahoma gave us—not destruction—but the joyous birth pangs of a new territory. The haunting clop-clop of the Surrey With the Fringe on Top is still in my memory although it is so many years since we first heard it at that wonderful premiere.

Then there were the rest of them— Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, The King and I. Not since Gilbert and Sullivan had there been such a perfect partnership as that of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

In 1948 I went to America on a speaking tour and one of my engagements was the Dutch Treat Club in New York. After my oration the assembled guests and members went back to their various tasks but two men waited behind to shake hands. Thinking that they might be constituents who were visiting New York I advanced upon them and the bigger man of the two said: "We just thought we would like to say hullo. This is Dick Rodgers and I’m Oscar Hammerstein. We wondered if you would like to see our show while you’re here.”

What a contrast they made—the big. bulky, sentimental Hammerstein who writes the story and the lyrics, and the keen-eyed, unsmiling Richard Rodgers, the composer of luscious melodies and haunting refrains. I was told on that visit that Hammerstein was always trying to let some unfortunate producer have the rights to put on their new show of the moment, but that when Rodgers, the musician, finally concluded a contract the doctors had to supply restoratives to the lawyers.

But now to return to the London theatre of today. A few months ago there was a gasp of astonishment and even horror when it was announced that the subsidized second opera house of London—Sadler’s Wells—was going to break with tradition and put on The Merry Widow. There were angry letters to the press and it looked as if the matter might even be raised on the floor of the House of Commons on the grounds that the money of the taxpayers, which provides the subsidy of Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, was being wrongly used.

But what a first night The Merry Widow provided. Instead of jazzing females we had pretty ladies in long skirts, utterly feminine and therefore utterly adorable. As for Lehar's music it has the perfect bouquet of good wine. Obviously the theatre-going public had grown tired of bounding females and epileptic ragtime.

Therefore, when My Fair Lady arrived

London Letter continued from page 10

“Rex Harrison sings like a crow — but he has a debonair charm”

crowd than ever in the streets. In short London endorsed the verdict of New York so firmly that the Drury Lane Theatre will not want a new tenant for the next two years or more.

It was a night of complete triumph.

marred only by the unfortunate decision of the management that no one but the friends of the principal stars could be invited to the dressing rooms after the show. There were bitter exchanges with the management and finally the police

were called to eject fhe autograph hunters. Also there was resentment because no encores had been allowed. But there was a reason for that. The management naturally wanted the newspapermen to get away to their papers and proclaim

in London it was to find a vast and exciting public which was already feeling its way back to the Nineties when women were lovely gentle creatures and men were their devoted masters. The female acrobat is as dead as the dodo. The abundant days of good Queen Victoria are returning — they are returning, at least, in the theatre.

And what an author for My Fair Lady! Bernard Shaw, the man who spent so much of his time trying to debunk Shakespeare and, in a hundred ways, declaring his own genius, had posthumously written the libretto for a musical comedy. It is true that Shaw was not the sole author of My Fair Lady but when you analyze this musical play the triumph belongs not to the composer, the adapter librettist, or the lyric writers—but to that cantankerous genius, George Bernard Shaw.

More than in any other country men and women in Britain are judged by their accent. The Scot, of course, is a law unto himself, but in England a man, or woman, can be socially ruined by the manner of his speech. Wit or wisdom does not matter. If an unfortunate person says: “It's cowld isn’t it?” he or she is halfway to Siberia.

This was the truth that GBS saw. He himself had a pleasant yet pronounced Irish voice but the English put up with him because of his genius. Being a Celt he was attracted to the study of the English people who judged their fellow creatures by the manner rather than the content of their speech. So in the cauldron of his brain there emerged the plot of a Cockney flower girl who attracted the amused interest of a professor of phonetics, with the result that the professor decided to teach her how to speak like a woman of breeding. In fact he set out to prove that it is by no means impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

The shocker

Yet for some reason the authors of My Fair Lady decided to alter the big moment of the play when Eliza, having behaved and spoken like a perfect lady at a social gathering, replied to a young man's suggestion that he should escort her through the Park, with the famous riposte: “Not bloody likely!” In the play those words were always spoken with exaggerated refinement and it never failed to startle and amuse.

Why did the authors of My Fair Lady decide to substitute something far more vulgar and not half as funny? Believe it or not they were afraid that in these modern days the gory expletive would not shock anyone. Instead they put in something so crude that it produced nothing but an embarrassing silence.

Undoubtedly the best number in My Fair Lady is the rhythmic song The Rain in Spain, which is sung in the Ascot scene. This was pure Shaw, for in Pygmalion he tries over and over again to stop the Cockney girl from saying "the rine in Spine.”

There is only one shadow on the pleasant scene. I have no doubt that some enterprising London theatre management will now produce Pygmalion as a straight play and thereby cash in on the Shavian boom. If that happens the name of Bernard Shaw will be so connected with Pygmalion that the younger teeneration will forget, or never learn, that he wrote anything else.

Yet there is that other and greater GBS whose genius gave us Heartbreak House and The Doctor’s Dilemma. Neither of these plays has been performed in London for some years, although

in the death scene of the wretched twister of an artis* in The Doctor’s Dilemma I believe that "haw rose to his greatest heights.

There before us in The Doctor's Dilemma is the artist in his dying moments. He has treated his wife badly, and has cheated for money. The doctors, puzzled by his condition, are deeply interested in the case although they know that he is a wretched, worthless creature. From his death chair the artist mocks the doctors while they study him with the interest of scientists in a collapsing body.

Suddenly the young miscreant stops his jibes. In failing tones he tries to justify his life as an artist even though he has been a weakling, a cheat and a wretched husband. But his last moments are near. Feebly he folds his hands and then whispers his artist’s creed:

"I believe in Michelangelo, Velasquez and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed. Amen. Amen."

That is the other GBS, who in his best

moments commanded a musicianship of language only surpassed by Shakespeare himself. If My Fair Lady turns the groundlings toward the rich garden of Shaw's genius then it will have justified itself. At worst My Fair Lady is a form of blasphemy. But if Shaw is able to look down upon it from the top of Mount Olympus I am certain that he will approve. if only because it will bring thousands of pounds to the Shaw estate and thus help finance the great man's preposterous plan for a new English alphabet. *