Pear Avenue Theatre Presents PYGMALION, Now thru 7/14
The Pear Avenue Theatre's closing production of its 13th season celebrates the 100th anniversary of a classic play from one of our most revered and beloved playwrights, George Bernard Shaw. Written in 1912, Pygmalion premiered on the London stage in April, 2014, and became an instant hit for Shaw and his leading lady, Stella Campbell, in the role of Eliza. Audiences for the last century have enjoyed this timeless tale of an East End flower girl and her West End phonetics tutor. Pear veteran actor and director Michael Champlin helms the production, which runs today, June 20 through July 13, 2014 (no performance on July 4th).
Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend, Col. Pickering, that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an elegant upper-crust event by training her in the external trappings of gentility, the most obvious evidence of which is perfect enunciation and speech. The play, much more than a simple romance, is actually a scathing critique of the rigid British class system of the day as well as a commentary on the inequality of economics and gender.
Pygmalion is directed by Michael Champlin, celebrated local actor, director, and teacher. Champlin directed The Illusion by Tony Kushner for The Pear, garnering a Silicon Valley Small Theater award, as well as Bach at Leipzig, The Apple Never Falls, No Good Deed and numerous children's theatre productions. His local acting credits include Angels in America, Part One, Our Town, Nickel and Dimed, Northanger Abbey, The Real Thing, Fifth of July, Cherry Orchard, and this season's acclaimed one-man performance of This Wonderful Life at The Pear; Side Man at Dragon Theatre; Romeo & Juliet with Shady Shakespeare; and Breaking the Code at Bus Barn Stage Company. Featured in the production are actors Ray R. Renati* as Henry Higgins, and Katie Rose Krueger as Eliza Doolittle. The stellar ensemble includes Caroline Clark, Helena G. Clarkson, Daniel Hurst, Troy Johnson, Ann Kuchins, Leslie Newport, Jackie O'Keefe, and Todd Wright .
(*member, Actors Equity)
George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion between March and June 1912, but its opening night in London was on 11 April 1914 - almost 100 years ago, and some 15 weeks before Britain declared war on Germany. In a culture of increasing competition, countries were extending their empires by winning wars? and individuals were improving their places in society through the acquisition of money. Shaw ridicules the random absurdity of vast incomes with the story of an elderly dustman who has the appropriate name of Doolittle. As the result of a joke describing him as England's most independent moralist (rather like Shaw himself), he is left a fortune and obliged to deliver improving lectures every year. He describes himself as ruined by money.
Shaw's ideal, which he wished to impose on the 20th century, was equality. He did not mean the political clichés of equal opportunities and level playing fields. What he looked for was something nearer equality of income and equality of accent. "The reformer we need most today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast," he wrote in the preface to his play. Such methods of cutting down social barriers were his gesture towards removing the power for change from financiers and fighting men. His dream was of a revolution without bloodshed or misery.
Henry Higgins' social experiment, turning an East End flower girl into a West End lady, reaches a very different conclusion from the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses where the legendary King Pygmalion made a statue of a girl with whom he fell in love when it came to life. "A Romance in Five Acts" was Shaw's subtitle to his play. But he enjoyed describing it, not as a romance, but a didactic attempt to show how the science of phonetics could pull apart Britain's antiquated class system. However, the autobiographical subtext to his play became a strong undercurrent that threatened to carry this theme out of his control.
The voice tests that Higgins gives Doolittle's illegitimate daughter Eliza are a foretaste of the respectable voice tuition given to prime ministers Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. They also bring to mind the singing lessons Shaw's mother had in Dublin. Her teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, was a Svengalilike personality and a Catholic. Mrs Shaw moved her Protestant family into his superior Dublin house and in 1873 followed him to London, leaving her 16year old son with his semialcoholic father George Shaw. The adolescent boy began to wonder which George he had been named after. Was he, like Eliza Doolittle, illegitimate? Illegitimacy carried far greater moral opprobrium than it does today.
The painful relationship with his mother left Shaw feeling unlovable and he developed a need for public attention to take the place of love. Orphaning himself from his family, he became the child of his writings, a 20thcentury celebrity with the brand name GBS. He omitted the worrying name George from his publications - and instructed friends: "Don't George me."
Early in 1913, Shaw's mother died. It was as if the source of her son's unlovableness and need for emotional protection vanished. He found himself violently in love with Stella Campbell, an actress some years younger that he had long admired -something he had never experienced before, not even with his wife Charlotte.
Stella was charmed by Shaw taking so many years off her age [by casting her as Eliza]. But she escaped his advances and, during rehearsals, took a few days off to marry George CornwallisWest. Shaw was deeply wounded. Of his 57 years, he wrote, "I have suffered 20 and worked 37. Then I had a moment's happiness ... I risked the breaking of deep roots and sanctified ties ... what have I shrunk into?"
The rehearsals and many later productions of Pygmalion became a nightmare for him. Everyone wanted Eliza to marry Higgins. But he strongly objected (as he objected to the idea of his mother having a love affair with George Vandeleur Lee). He wanted Eliza to have employment and teach phonetics. That was the feminine equality he sought. He rewrote passages of the play to make this clearer. But the stage directions point to a sexual relationship that helped future directors get round his objections. Nothing seemed to go his way. Even when he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Pygmalion in 1939, additional romantic dialogue had, unknown to him, been inserted. Shaw could, however, congratulate himself on having won a major battle. When Franz Lehár proposed making a romantic musical of Pygmalion, Shaw strongly rejected the proposal. It was not until six years after his death, in 1956, that My Fair Lady came into being.
Despite these many difficulties, Pygmalion has become Shaw's most popular play. It is focused both on the past and the future, coming from autobiographical sources in his early years and carrying his vision of a classless future without unemployment and excessive incomes. When a modern audience sees Eliza's predicament it asks: why can't Eliza marry Higgins and have a job? That was not a valid question a century ago.
(Michael Holroyd is George Bernard Shaw's authorized biographer.)