1900. The Paris World Exhibition opens, and with it, the second Olympic Games of the modern age. The Boer War is in full swing, and England is caught up in a spasm of intense imperialistic fervor. Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Bernard Shaw are the literary toasts of London, and a young Harry Houdini tours Europe. Oscar Wilde, poetical genius and advocate of reformed dress, dies alone and ill in Paris at the age of 46. The “cinematograph” and its wonders are introduced to a breathless world. Socialism is on the rise. In ever-greater numbers, Englishwomen begin to demand the vote.
Victoria is still Queen, but the Victorian period is over. The twentieth century has begun.
Several months ago, my fellow Ciarán Hinds fans and I were indulging ourselves in a favorite pastime I call Two Martini Casting. In TMC, you can propose any role you wish for the actor in question, however offbeat, eccentric, or unlikely. Dracula, Ramesses II, Captain Nemo, Shah Jahan and Mrs. Muir’s Ghost were some of the memorable suggestions.
As remote as any of these possibilities may be, it seems even more unlikely that Mr. Hinds will ever undertake the role of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney heroine of G. B. Shaw’s immortal Pygmalion. (True, he did more than a few roles in drag during his time at the Glasgow Citz. But in spite of my deep faith in his actorly abilities, I’m afraid he would make a rather unattractive flower girl.)
Thus I conceived the idea of reversing all the genders in the story, so that Eliza becomes one Edgar Dooley, a burly costermonger in Covent Garden, and Eliza’s imperious instructor of phonetics becomes Henrietta Hilliard, noted suffragette and graduate of Girton College, Cambridge. The gentlemanly linguist Colonel Pickering becomes the ladylike Sybil Pilkington of the Society for Psychical Research, and applied philosopher/dustman Alfred Doolittle is re-christened “Rose.”
I’ve never had the good fortune to see Pygmalion staged, but the 1938 film with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller (directed by Anthony Asquith) has always been a favorite. As the notes on the Criterion DVD remark, Pygmalion is a philosophical drama disguised as a romantic comedy. Shaw was a pointy-headed intellectual, yet in Pygmalion, serious ideas about social justice are effortlessly communicated. The genius of the work is that it is not merely a social allegory, but a story about two people falling in love, characters whose personalities are fully-drawn, and whose reactions to each other ring true.
In 1958, a young and stunningly talented Julie Andrews played Eliza in a musical version of Pygmalion called My Fair Lady. The soundtrack from this Broadway hit became another touchstone for my story.
And then there’s the 1964 film with Rex Harrison, who also introduced Henry Higgins on Broadway. Eliza was, of course, played by Audrey Hepburn. One of the world’s most beautiful women, Audrey was a good actress, but not good enough to be convincing as Eliza the flower girl. One felt, in fact, that Eliza was only pretending to be a flower girl, but that in reality she was a Hungarian aristocrat, and probably of royal blood.
Here’s a scene from Edgar Dooley’s first visit to Hilliard House.
Hetty rushed to the bookshelf and plucked a volume from it, handing it to Dooley. “Not one in ten costermongers is literate,” she told Sybil. “If this man can truly read, he possesses exceptional aptitude. Read that, if you please!” She pointed to a spot on the page, and Dooley peered at it dubiously, then began to read in a deep, clear voice: “’Ow, now, ’Oratio, yew tremble an’ look pyle. Iz not this somefink more ’an fan’asy? What fink yew on’t?”
Hetty looked at Sybil, and smiled. “I’ll do it! The challenge is irresistible. He is so deliciously uncouth, so horribly low and dirty—”
“Ooow, Missus ’Illiard,” objected Dooley heatedly. “I washed me fyce ’n’ ’ands before I come, I did. I ain’t dirty.”
Hetty had been regarding him closely, chin in hand. “Biddle! Biddle!” she called.
Biddle stepped in immediately with Jenkins at his side. He had obviously been waiting just outside the door. “Yes, Madam?”
“Take this man away and bathe him thoroughly from his toes to the top of his head. And when you have rendered him utterly immaculate, barber him without mercy. Is there a good fire in the kitchen?”
“Yes, Madam, but—”
“Remove all his clothes and burn them. Ring up Gamage’s for some everyday things; we can take him to Savile Row later.”
“But what is he to wear in the meantime?” asked Biddle, taken aback.
“Wrap him in brown paper.”
“You ain’t no lydie to talk of such fings,” said Dooley, sullen again. “Takin’ away me clothes, and talkin’ of fings as is private-like! And bavving! Baths ain’t ’elthy, everyone knows that. I’ll catch me death!”
“We want none of your Lisson Grove prudery here, sir!” cried Hetty. “You must learn to be a Duke! Why, a Duke would be unashamed to disrobe in the very center of Trafalgar Square at high noon. What has he to fear? He is a Duke! And once all the clothing is stripped away, you are every bit his equal, man!”
“Ehmm, Madam,” said Biddle, “Do you truly mean to introduce this person to the Hilliard household so… so baldly?”
“Yes! As naked as the day he was born!” cried Hetty. Dooley looked scandalized. Biddle, who was more accustomed to Hetty’s forthrightness, said, “What I mean, Madam, is that we know nothing of this man’s family or background. What if he is married?”
“Ow, I ain’t married,” said Dooley. “’Oo’d marry me?”
“By heaven, man,” said Hetty, “before I have finished, they’ll be sweeping the Thames for the bodies of all the women who throw themselves from bridges for love of you!”
“Woman, yer off yer chump. Daft, she is!” said Dooley, rising to his feet as though to depart.
“Take him away,” repeated Hetty, waving a hand at Biddle and Jenkins. “I shall make a Duke of this scabrous costermonger!”
“Ow, now wait jest a bleedin’ minute,” said Dooley, alarmed, as the butler and footman each told hold of an arm to march him from the room. “Bavving ain’t condoosive to ’elth! I tole yew!” His protesting voice faded as they headed up the stairs, though a few telltale bumps and thumps could be heard through the wall.
Henrietta sighed happily. “Life is a series of inspired follies. Don’t you find it so, Sybil?”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Next time: a photographic album of Henrietta’s life in 1900 London!