There's No Rain In Spain

Pygamalion -- even in a less-than-perfect production -- retains the power to amaze.

by Cary M. Mazer


Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, through April19, 785-0100

Have you ever actually seen Bernard Shaw's 1914 play Pygmalion?

You know: it's the one in which the irascible phonetics teacher Henry Higgins (played at Bristol by Edward Keith Baker) wagers his colleague Colonel Pickering (Alfred Hyslop) that he can so transform the speech and manners of the impoverished cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Glory Crampton) in six months that she can be passed off as a duchess at an embassy reception.

Take away the songs and the phonetics lessons, and what you're left with is absolutely astonishing.

If you've seen the '30s movie (with a screenplay by Shaw), the '50s Broadway musical My Fair Lady, or its '60s film version, you haven't seen Pygmalion.

The play as written isn't the romance (though Shaw misleadingly calls it that in his subtitle) of a student and teacher who fall in love. It isn't a play about the process of transformation (we never actually see the lessons that Higgins administers - there's no "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" here). And we don't actually see Eliza's triumph at the embassy ball.

The play is not about the process of transformation but about its effects. And what is being transformed is not just language, but the social categories - of money and class - that language locks into place. Higgins unlocks the jail cells that imprison individuals in their respective classes. But the freed inmates - both Eliza and her trash collector father (Nick Ullett), elevated to the middle classes by a twist of fate and dramaturgy - newly "disclassed," are still left imprisoned by the social codes and gender barriers of society at large. Having narrowly avoided the economic temptations of prostitution when living below the poverty line as a flower seller, Eliza, now transformed into a useless and ornamental lady, is left with few options except to buy and sell her affections on the equally mercenary genteel marriage market.

Take away the songs of the musical (wonderful though they are), take away the phonetics lessons (though director Richard Edelman does manage to work in a single one from Shaw's screenplay), and what you're left with is absolutely astonishing.

A staging of a Shaw play, at its best, leaves you in a constant state of sheer astonishment. Even after repeated viewings (and I have seen Pygmalion, as written, several times), a Shaw play makes you see and understand and be confused about social and moral and ethical and political issues that you were too complacent even to have noticed before.

Well, Edelman's production is not Shaw at its best. It's relatively stodgy, conventional, uninsightful, a bit overplayed, and a bit chintzy. Nor is the acting at all spectacular - though Crampton has presence, stature and a winning personality; Baker's hamminess works reasonably well for the self-dramatizing egotism of Higgins; and there are some nice supporting performances by Hyslop, Ullett, Hazel Bowers as the long-suffering Mrs. Higgins, and Trevor Davis as the rapt and sniggering Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

But when Eliza finally stands up to Higgins and sails out the door and out of his life, it no longer matters that there's a genuine affection between the two (that he's "grown accustomed to [her] voice and appearance"), and it no longer matters that we are all secretly rooting for a conventional happy ending. It's completely shocking, and absolutely right. We are left feeling grateful that Shaw can still astonish us, and that Edelman and his actors trusted the script enough to let him do so.