The chill in London’s Covent Garden on a March night in 1912 doesn’t deter Professor Henry Higgins from notating the Cockney cacklings of flower girl Eliza Doolittle. When Eliza protests, the pompous linguist grows indignant, bemoaning her mangled pronunciation of his native tongue.
Higgins encounters fellow phonetician Colonel Pickering, just arrived from India, and invites him back to his home on tony Wimpole Street. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” Eliza muses, if she had a small room with some comforts. On her way home, she encounters her reprobate father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Alfie), who’s scraping by “With a Little Bit of Luck.”
Eliza calls on Higgins, offering to pay for elocution lessons. Intrigued, Higgins wagers with Pickering that, by changing this guttersnipe’s speech, he can pass her off as a duchess. When Pickering questions Higgins’ intentions, the professor pooh-poohs his concerns, saying he’s an old bachelor, content with his solo life.
Doolittle shows up, expecting to be paid for Eliza’s indenture. Eliza storms in, frustrated at Higgins’ shoddy treatment of her and vowing revenge. But Higgins works relentlessly, wearying the entire household, until Eliza can properly pronounce “The Rain in Spain.”
Higgins tries out Eliza at his mother’s box at the Ascot race track. She blunders badly. But she does win the admiration of young gentleman Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Next, Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to the Embassy Ball, where she’s so convincing that even Higgins’ suspicious former student believes she is of royal blood. The men celebrate their triumph.
When Eliza returns to the streets of Covent Garden, her old comrades don’t recognize her, either by sight or voice. She realizes she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore.
Meanwhile, Doolittle gets an unexpected windfall, causing his common-law wife to insist on actual marriage. Resigned, all he asks is to “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Discovering Eliza has bolted, Higgins rails against the female sex. He confronts her at his mother’s home, where a newly confident Eliza proclaims that she can now do without him. Higgins leaves, only to realize, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
One question faces him: Is it too late?
e-Luminations: My Fair Lady
The following is an edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
“I’ll take her down in Bell’s Visible Speech; then in Broad Romic,” proclaims Professor Higgins when he learns a woman with an interesting accent is standing in his foyer. While these two actual methods of phonetic notation standardized language pronunciation, they couldn’t convey the meaning of the Cockney English spoken in the working-class East End of London.
A glossary of definitions:
“There’s a tec taking her down.” The word detective was born around 1850. It was shortened to “tec” by the 1880s.
“Garn!” Cockney slang for “Go on!” expressing disbelief and ridicule.
“He’s off his chump.” The word chump was first used in the 18th century to define a thick lump of wood. By the late 19th century, it had come to mean “blockhead.” So “off your chump” means “out of your mind,” or “crazy.”
“I don’t want no balmies teachin’ me.” The use of “balmy” to mean an irrational person dates to a mid–19th-century mishearing of the word “barmy.” The Old English word “barm” means the froth on a head of beer. By Shakespeare’s time it meant a person whose own head seemed full of froth.
“Governor.” Cockney English speakers use the term “Governor” for “boss,” as in One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. But one need not be an employee to use the word. Alfred P. Doolittle calls Higgins “governor” as an honorific, albeit an informal one.
“Move your bloomin’ arse!” In Pygmalion, Eliza shocks Higgins’ mother and her friends not at the Ascot races but at a tea party in which she exits with the phrase, “Not bloody likely.” Various theories abound as to why Victorian England decided the word was vulgar, but Shaw’s use of it so shocked sensibilities, “bloody” came to be known as “the Shavian adjective.”
My Fair Lady substitutes the offending word with the less shocking euphemism, “bloomin,” but Eliza uses it to modify “arse.” This term for “buttocks” dates back over a thousand years, but is still considered inappropriate in formal circumstances.