Sunday 11 December 2016

The passion of Shaw's fair ladies

Published 30/04/2011 | 05:00

When young Irish actress Charlie Murphy makes her Abbey debut this week, as the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, she will be stepping into one of the most illustrious women's roles of the 20th century.

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Eliza made her debut almost a hundred years ago, in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, the Nobel-winning playwright from inner-city Dublin. She was played by Mrs Patrick Campbell -- an actress whose fame was as great as her name was unlikely, and who was controversially embroiled in a dramatic (though unusual) affair with the playwright. Then, in 1956, Eliza made another dramatic entrance -- but this time she was singing.

Julie Andrews made the role her own in the Broadway musical version of Shaw's play. Or so she thought. My Fair Lady became the longest-running musical ever (at that time), but when Jack Warner, of the Hollywood studio Warner Bros, decided to make the film, he rejected Andrews for Audrey Hepburn.

"Julie Andrews was just a Broadway name," he later explained. "But in Clinton, Iowa, and Anchorage, Alaska, and thousands of other cities and towns in our 50 states and abroad, you can say 'Audrey Hepburn' and people instantly know you're talking about a beautiful and talented star. In my business I have to know who brings people and their money to a movie- theatre box office."

His logic acquired an unintended irony at the 1964 Academy Awards. My Fair Lady (almost) swept the boards, taking eight Oscars out of 12 nominations. But there was one category in which the film was notably absent: Hepburn wasn't even nominated.

(Hepburn, who had sung her own songs in Breakfast at Tiffany's, didn't have the vocal range for Eliza Doolittle; instead, she lip-synced to soprano Marni Nixon, who was known as the "Ghostess with the Mostess" for her dubbing of Hollywood's leading ladies.)

The Best Actress gong that year went to none other than Julie Andrews -- for Mary Poppins, which Andrews had been offered after losing out in My Fair Lady.

"My thanks to the man who made all this possible in the first place," she said, accepting her Oscar, "Mr Jack Warner."

The man who made it all possible in the very first place was George Bernard Shaw, an Irishman of Protestant stock who had found fame and fortune as a writer in fin de siècle London, where he was known by his byline, GBS.

Shaw seems to have been unfairly neglected by contemporary Irish culture. (This is the first ever production of Pygmalion at the Abbey; at the National Theatre in London, however, it was staged in both 1992 and 1999.)

Like WB Yeats, he was a Nobel winner; like Oscar Wilde, he was a London celebrity and star playwright. He was almost as eccentric as Yeats, and as consumed by hidden passions as Wilde, and yet the image that persists is of an austere intellectual.

He was certainly an intellectual, and an extraordinarily prolific one: he wrote over 60 plays, and his collected prefaces alone run to almost 1,000 pages. And there was a degree of wilful austerity about him: he was a vegetarian in the earliest years of that movement; he only ever wore wool; and he was a late sexual developer (he lost his virginity at 29) whose marriage was apparently chaste.

Further, like Sam Beckett and Harold Pinter, Shaw has been ill served by the coining of an adjective out of his surname. Both "Beckettian" and "Pinteresque" are now lazy terms to describe absurdity and ominous silences; "Shavian" (which was originally the less obscure "Shawian") is of even less use, as Shaw's work was so diverse as to make any attempt to describe it in a word meaningless.

(An early, more functional use of "Shavian" was as a euphemism: when Eliza Doolittle roared "Not bloody likely!" in Pygmalion, audiences were so shocked at the use of the word "bloody" on stage that it was referred to as "the Shavian adjective".)

Yet the Shaw that wrote Pygmalion was a man consumed by great passion, and animated by wit and a surprisingly daredevil recklessness. He was then 55, and had been married for 14 years to Charlotte Frances. Their relationship is thought to have been one of companionship, not sexual; yet Shaw was reluctant to have sexual affairs.

Instead, he indulged in intense romances that were consummated on the page, and he often showed Charlotte the love letters he received. One of these correspondents was a young stalker who Shaw had unwisely indulged: Erica Cotterill, a 20-something who had fallen in love with the playwright through his plays, and then with the man, through his letters.

She wrote brilliant but wild love letters to him, visited his home unannounced and, when he met her, in order to persuade her of her folly, she attempted to force herself upon him.

"What would have come if you have not held me back and I had knelt down to you?" she later wrote to him. "Would you have laughed then? Would you have felt nothing of what was in me flooding round you?" (These quotes are from Michael Holroyd's magnificent biography of Shaw.)

Whatever Shaw felt, Charlotte felt it was time to intervene: she wrote to Erica and barred her from seeing her husband, with apparent effect.

Shaw would later know how Erica had felt, however, when he wrote Pygmalion for the leading actress of the day, Mrs Patrick Campbell. Shaw had conceived of a play about her as a Cockney flower girl years before. By the time he wrote it, she was far too old for the part, at 47. But she was the doyenne of the West End, and Shaw could conceive of no one else in the role.

He invited her to a private reading, and she immediately recognised that the role was meant for her. She wrote to Shaw the next day, thanking him for "thinking I can be your pretty slut". They met to discuss it, and Mrs Pat took his hand and placed his fingers on her bosom. Shaw was instantly "violently and exquisitely in love".

"I did not believe that I had that left in me," he wrote to her, later. But he wasn't, it seems, talking about sex: he was talking about a teenage-type infatuation. Again, he showed his letters to his new "lover" to his wife. "My love affairs are her unfailing amusement," he explained to Mrs Pat.

Mrs Pat was, in fact, Stella Tanner. At 20, she had become pregnant by a Patrick Campbell, and they had duly married. Shortly afterwards, Campbell high-tailed it off to Australia, in search of his fortune, leaving his wife in London with two young children. By the time he returned, eight years later, she was an acclaimed West End actress (using his name). He left again, and this time was killed in the Boer War.

Despite her relative freedom, and Shaw's evident desire, they never consummated their relationship. Eventually, Mrs Pat told Shaw she intended to marry another man, one who was prepared to divorce his wife for her, and she rather brutally cut Shaw off. He was devastated, and found his early bias against romance reinforced.

"The quantity of love that an ordinary person can stand without serious damage is about 10 minutes in 50 years," he wrote, later.

The conflict between romance and cynicism has direct expression in the final scenes of Pygmalion and of My Fair Lady. Shaw was determined that the ending not be a "happy ever after" one; the producers on the West End, and later in Hollywood, were equally determined it would. When Shaw visited the production on its 100th performance, he found the actor-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who was playing Henry Higgins, had changed the final scene.

"My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful," argued Tree. "Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot."

Which brings a nice touch of suspense to this new production at the Abbey: the story may be much loved, but who knows quite how it will end?

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