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Why doesn’t Henry Higgins marry Eliza Doolittle at the end of Pygmalion?

Audrey inspects a film

Pygmalion recently played at the Old Vic in London. It proved to be a very interesting take on the play, which in so many ways has become an old warhorse of the theater. Olivier Award winner Bertie Carvel, whom many detective show lovers will recognize as the title character in Dalgliesh, played Henry Higgins. I had expectations of a Higgins who would share some small bit of Adam Dalgliesh’s personality. Urbane, sophisticated, good-looking, somewhat hesitant in the company of women…

But this Henry Higgins bore little resemblance to Adam Dalgliesh. Carvel stored his appealing looks in a closet somewhere backstage! This Henry Higgins, true to George Bernard Shaw’s conception, was pale and rather nasty looking. Shaw described Higgins as a bad-mannered, middle-aged bully. In this production, Higgins had an odd tic, quite off-putting. Every few minutes he stuck out his tongue as far as he could extend it, then he drew it back in, then back out and in again.

Now it is clear from Shaw’s writing that Higgins is a man of few or no friends; he doesn’t meet Colonel Pickering until the first scene of the play. Before him, there seemingly was nobody. His own mother can’t stand him and refuses to invite him to her teas for fear his rudeness will upset her guests.

The fact that he cannot keep Eliza Doolittle, played by Olivier Award-winning Patsy Ferran, around as his companion, much less wife, should not be a surprise. Keep in mind that in My Fair Lady, Shaw’s original play is tinkered with, tampered with. When we see beautiful Eliza end up with sexy Rexy Harrison, it makes sense. This Henry Higgins, first conceived in the mid 1950s and redesigned in a hit film in 1964, despite his negative attributes and inability to understand women, has sex appeal!

Here, in the Old Vic production where Olivier Award-winning director Richard Jones has designed a very plausible storyline, there is a close relationship between Higgins and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. They both lack an understanding of societal behavior.

They both are most at home creating comprehensive scientific or linguistic theories on large white charts. I am not the first person to come up with that comparison. 

However, Sheldon is capable of marital happiness with Amy Farrah Fowler, while Higgins is not someone who can marry. One reason is that Amy is in many ways Sheldon’s equal, whether he admits it or not. Both have quirks but both have high-level education. And I cannot imagine either finding anyone else as willing to share their lives (other than the forever-patient Leonard and Penny!). Together Sheldon and Amy become a love match, win the Pulitzer Prize, and have children.

On the other hand, Eliza can never be Higgins’ equal. The stifling British class system of the time prevents that from happening. No matter how beautifully she speaks and conducts herself, she will always be a guttersnipe to Higgins and his imperialist ways. And so she is better off marrying the rather simple but devoted Freddy Eynsford Hill. Freddy knows how to love; Higgins does not. 

As I walked away from the theater, several young people were discussing Higgins as a man on the Autism Spectrum and one of them mentioned Asperger Syndrome. Considering how close this interpretation is to the original Shaw perception, which had its premiere in 1913, it’s amazing how modern the interpretation is.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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