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Reviewed by:
  • Pygmalion
  • Felicia J. Ruff
Pygmalion. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Grindley. The Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, New York City. 8 November 2007.

The irony of Pygmalion played amid the neon glare of 42nd Street, featuring a Hollywood star, and staying open during a union strike would, I imagine, provoke a sardonic critique from the play's author. But had Shaw been able to attend the Roundabout's production, he might have been amused by the fact that despite tourist-oriented promotional material that focused exclusively on Claire Danes's celebrity, the production's real star turn was delivered by G. B. S. This was in large part due to director David Grindley's careful excavation of Shaw's original text and stagecraft. The production's conservative artistic approach was, ultimately, radical, subverting audience expectations, de-emphasizing romance in favor of other relationships, and highlighting the play's inversion of class and theatrical conventions.

The reception of a production of Pygmalion nearly a century after its premiere is framed unavoidably by film and musical versions, particularly the romanticized narrative of My Fair Lady, which recontextualizes Shaw's 1912 original as a Cinderella love story. Even a Shavian purist can't help but hear [End Page 290] a Lerner and Loewe melody underscoring a scene in the library, or anticipate Rex Harrisonesque sex appeal as Professor Higgins swoops onstage, or await Doolittle's choreographed high jinx. As Liza flings the slippers in act 4, the musical's unifying ending inevitably transposes onto the prop. It isn't Shaw's fault that the more sentimental aspects of his play's narrative, which have been grafted onto Pygmalion by later adaptations, dominate in popculture variants; however, directors must now negotiate a storyline that has come to emphasize romance over rhetoric.

David Grindley's fastidiously traditional directorial approach made Shaw's text primary, thereby reinstating the original's politicized arguments, theatrical characters, and irreverent satire. Ranging from the tastefully decorated rooms to Higgins's and Pickering's tweed jackets and the rain in Covent Garden, the simple and recognizable production elements helped to downplay the audience's more fairytale expectations. Grindley's conventional approach to Shaw's stagecraft returned attention to the play's core, particularly in its parodying of sacrosanct subjects like social-reform movements, the New Woman, middle-class morality, and nineteenth century theatre conventions.

Grindley's aesthetic combined with Jefferson Mays's asexual portrait of the arrogant phonetician, which further extricated Shaw's play from being read as a flirtation between professor and pupil. This anti-romance was never more evident than when the divinely attired Claire Danes as Liza sat on the settee beside her tutor, provoking only cerebral arguments from the man. This Pygmalion was driven less by Liza's seductive beauty than by Higgins's egotism and Cambridge-oriented, scientific rationalism. Mays's Higgins featured no sex appeal, instead deftly executing the man's obstinacy, biting rhetoric, and self-absorption. However, Mays never turned his Higgins into a cold-hearted melodramatic villain; rather, his professor remained comic, if poignant, in his own lack of social manners and grace.

The director, by minimizing the love affair, thus freed the production to concentrate on other relationships, highlighting those between mother and son, and father and daughter. On some level, the prominence of parental relations was based on the powerful performances of the actors in the roles of the elder generation. When Sandra Shipley, as Mrs. Eynsford Hill, remarked that "[w]e're so poor! And she gets so few parties, poor child!" she brought a poignant, unsentimental delivery to what, in another actress's hands, could be a throwaway line. One understood the socioeconomic plight in which the mother found herself as she exited, looking at Henry's mother, who responded with a sympathetic though unsentimental gaze. Helen Carey as Mrs. Higgins matched Clara and Freddie's mother's poise, refinement, and depth; amused by her son, she offered him unindulgent love while providing maternal protection to Liza.

Grindley's production never backed away from the power in intellectual argument, particularly evident in Jay O. Sanders's portrait of Alfred Doolittle, which emphasized clever insight...


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pp. 290-292
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