The mid-20th century musical ‘My Fair Lady’ transcends not only social class, but also time, to offer real lessons about the interactions between men and women, as well as the educated and the masses.
Musical Summary: Act One
Written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady tells the story of a young woman in Edwardian London and her chance encounter with a linguistics professor. The musical has been a perennial favorite since its first showing.In Act One, Eliza Doolittle is a flower girl with a severe Cockney accent trying to get by in Edwardian London when she encounters Henry Higgins, a famous expert on accents who is immediately disgusted by Eliza’s voice.
He offers to tutor her, which gains the attention of bystander Colonel Pickering, an amateur student of Indian languages. Pickering and Henry excitedly introduce themselves to one another, and Higgins invites Pickering to stay with him during his time in London.For her part, Eliza wonders in the song ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly’ why she does not have access to a middle-class life. She thinks that by taking Higgins up on his offer, she may be able to gain employment in a shop. After being reminded of her fate in a meeting with her father Mr. Doolittle, a ne’er-do-well in search of drinking money, she makes her way to Henry’s home. In his cruel and mocking lessons with Eliza, Henry eventually teaches her proper speech.
Unknown to Eliza, Henry bets Colonel Pickering that he will be able to introduce Eliza at an embassy ball with no one the wiser to her common roots.In the meantime, Eliza’s father has heard she is living in Henry’s house and feigns outrage to gain drinking money. In a moment of superiority, Henry places Eliza’s father in contact with an American millionaire looking for an expert in morality. Finally, Eliza makes a breakthrough, noted in the song ‘The Rain in Spain,’ prompting Henry to take her to meet his mother at the Ascot races.
Unfortunately, Eliza relapses into her Cockney slang, disgusting many, but gaining the affection of a man she originally sold flowers to, named Freddy.However, Eliza’s slang disappears in the days leading up to the embassy ball, and Henry passes her off as a perfect lady. She is among the most charming ladies at the ball and is proclaimed to be so refined as to be of originally royal blood.
Musical Summary: Act Two
In the second act, the circumstances of the bet become clear to Eliza, and she feels used, leaving Henry to return to the life she once knew.
Accompanied by the smitten Freddy, she realizes that this life is no longer for her, especially after encountering her newly-respectable father. The flippant advice given by Henry has paid off for Eliza’s father, who is now the beneficiary of a substantial pension from the American millionaire. Eliza feels forced to marry Freddy, since Freddy loves her, but she still seeks the advice of Henry’s mother.For his part, Henry has disgusted Pickering, who now has moved out of Henry’s house to stay in official government housing, and Henry is generally miserable without Eliza.
Seeking the advice of his mother, Henry stumbles upon the meeting between her and Eliza. Both hide behind hurt and pride to declare that they no long need the other, and Eliza leaves.As Henry returns home, he realizes just how much he loves Eliza, and reflects on his poor treatment of her.
He plays the recordings of his mistreatment of her, singing ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,’ and as the recording stops, the very alive Eliza appears, speaking in a Cockney accent. The ending is ambiguous, as Henry immediately asks for his slippers.
While the action is very much the story of Henry and Eliza, a number of supporting players make their roles possible.Eliza Doolittle is a Cockney flower girl with an independent attitude and disciplined outlook.
Despite this, she is enormously insecure with her status as a flower girl and sorely wants to be middle class.Henry Higgins is a renowned linguist who openly questions why anyone would want to speak anything other than proper British English. He is chauvinistic about more than just language and is very dismissive of Eliza, despite the fact that he does wonder why women find him repulsive.
Colonel Pickering is a linguist who has just returned from India and is eager to share his findings with Henry Higgins. He serves as a foil for much of what Henry does. Equally chauvinistic, he does treat Eliza warmly, but it is his bet with Henry that will eventually cause Eliza to leave.Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, spends much of his time in bars and pubs until a chance meeting with Henry causes him to suddenly gain respectability.
Mr. Doolittle finds himself conforming to middle-class standards by dressing sharply and marrying his girlfriend.Freddy is Eliza’s suitor, having met her originally when she was a flower girl. He is utterly enamored with her, though he will ultimately fail to win Eliza’s affections.Mrs. Higgins is the proper lady that Eliza wants so badly to be, in addition to being Henry’s mother.
Despite her initial shock at Eliza, she advises the young girl plainly about her son.
A Few of the Songs
More than 20 songs and reprisals occur in My Fair Lady. Some of the most beloved songs are as follows:
- ‘Why Can’t the English?‘ exemplifies Henry’s frustrations with lower-class accents.
- ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly‘ is Eliza’s lamentation on her hopes to become a respectable middle-class lady.
- ‘The Rain in Spain‘ celebrates Eliza’s mastery of proper pronunciation.
- ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face‘ shows Henry’s heartbreak over losing Eliza.
Widely regarded as one of the best musicals of all time, My Fair Lady tells the story of poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle and her encounter with linguist Henry Higgins, who teaches her how to speak like a middle-class lady. The musical addresses issues of elitism, sexism, social class, and love in ways that can be both hilarious and heart-wrenching. Ultimately, viewers are meant to see that while love may not always be outwardly warm, that does not make it any less comfortable.
My Fair Lady Overview
|Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner||writers of My Fair Lady|
|Eliza Doolittle||a flower girl with a severe Cockney accent trying to get by in Edwardian London|
|Henry Higgins||a famous expert on accents, dislikes Eliza’s voice and offers to tutor her|
|Colonel Pickering||an amateur student of Indian languages and guest of Mr. Higgins|
|Mr. Doolittle||Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father in search of drinking money|
|Freddy||a young man Eliza sold flowers to|
|Mrs. Higgins||a proper lady and Higgins mother|
|The bet||Higgins and Pickering bet whether or not Higgins can pass Eliza off as a lady at a ball|
|True love||builds between Higgins and Eliza|
|Open ending||the ending is open to interpretation by audiences|
When this lesson ends, students should be able to:
- Identify who wrote the Broadway musical My Fair Lady
- Describe the characters of the musical
- Explain the plot of the show