In Her Own Image
Pygmalion at the Leverett Old Library Tonight through Saturday at 8
THE "PROBLEM OF THE POOR" provided the main drama for the middle class of late Victorian England. To ignore the poverty in the middle of their riches would only bring the rumblings of working-class revolution closer to home. To indulge those who had themselves ignored the middle class doctrine of self-improvement would only encourage their own tendency to gratify themselves. The only answer that remained was reform. If the middle class was to save society from the touch of the "undeserving" poor, the sole solution was to save the "deserving" poor by recreating them in a middle class image of themselves.
Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw's bitter, biting parody of this social philanthropy, exposes its futile results. Shaw, a leading Fabian socialist of his day, believed that it was not the workers but the middle class that needed to be changed, not suddenly but through a "gradual" permeation of socialist ideas and institutions in their capitalist midsts. His dubious hero in Pygmalion is exactly the kind of man who would not be receptive to tactics such as these: a leading London phoneticist determined to translate a flower girl into a "duchess" so effectively that, he wagers, no one will be able to tell. But Eliza, the Cinderella duchess, is not "fit for" either class. Not totally accepted by those of her new station in life, totally unable to return to the life of the city streets, she is forced to brave the world alone. By chasing after a false illusion of middle class splendor, Shaw implies, the poor have lost everything they ever knew, including themselves.
Recreating Shaw's recreation of English society to the letter, the current Leverett House production of Pygmalion lends just the touch of self-irony to his characters that the members of the middle class in England so sorely lacked. By accenting those moments in the play, both humorous and poignant, when two people cannot quite connect, director Samual Bloomfield has skillfully done justice to the underlying point of Shaw. Even the beautifully painted flats of Jeff Goodman's and Cindy Ruskins's set unfold mysteriously from Covent Garden to Higgins' library to his mother's house and back and forth again without apparent connection.
But for all their obvious success, the actors in the Leverett production, like the philanthropists of the British middle class, pay a price. While their brisk delivery, faithful to the rhythms of dry British humor, works to maintain what is essentially a static play in lively motion, this fast-clipped pace skims over the surface of deeper meanings. Part of the problem here is built into the play itself which shows Eliza Doolittle before and after while leaving out the tranformation process. But part of the problem is Bloomfield's decision to emphasize the constraints of class rather than the human beings who are trying to break these constraints.
And so sometimes a mood is missed. Returning from the garden party which was Eliza's trial by fire, Higgins and his companion Colonel Pickering are filled with the nervous energy of expectation instead of the self-satisfied exhaustion they should be feeling after the successful ordeal they shared. But ironically even this weakness ends up working in favor of the production. This Pygmalion links its audience to the lack of connection between the classes in this age. It is as though, instead of having tried to make real contact with the poor, the actors, like the middle class philanthropists they are parodying, simply leave the money and run.
PYGMALION IS A PLAY about individuals triumphing over class boundaries. The ultimate success of any production of the play depends on the actors' handling of the lead roles. Maura Moynihan's protrayal of Eliza is rich enough to do justice to Shaw's famous study of the poor flower girl. From the first moment when she pleads with passers-by in a beguiling drawl, Moynihan gives a superlative performance. Whether clothed in rags or in a silk robe, she mixes the pride and shame of a woman who knows she is a truer lady than those who only appear to be. She is a yielding Eliza, melting over a bowl of soap "smelling like primroses" but she is also a Liza quick to assert her own worth. "I'm a good girl, I am," Eliza repeatedly tells Higgins. And with a slip into the old accent or a beautifully rolled letter "r" that is a hint too beautifully rolled, Moynihan welds the link between the new kind of good girl and the old.
Moynihan's Eliza commands the action because of the connections she suggests; Andrew Agush claims the stage as Higgins precisely because he has forged no links. Agush's absent-minded professor moves entirely in a world of his own making. Fixed on the idea rather than the person who's talking, his tongue whetting his lips and his eyes twitching, Agush's Higgins can only understand Eliza's predicament once it is placed in his own scheme of things. "Take your hands out of your pockets, Henry," his mother scolds and Higgins obeys. But a moment later the hands are back in place. As with Moynihan's Eliza, Agush's professor succeeds endearingly because the actor makes the faults seem the character's own.
Unfortunately, most of the other actors in the Leverett production never step outside the molds created for them by class. Anita Gilman, who plays Higgins's mother with a good deal of self-parody, is a notable exception to this rule. And as Freddy, who uncomfortabls senses the absurdity of his own pretensions, so is David Brown. But because the other actors do not have a clear sense of their characters, the interactions, already hard in so didactic a play, seem forced. Sociologically, this lack of established connection lessens the possibility of social change; dramatically, these less accomplished performances slow the play down.
But in spite of these weak links, the Leverett production carries Shaw's main point powerfully home. After the garden party when Higgins hugs all the laurels to himself, Eliza runs away to his mother's house. There they confront each other head on, finally recognizing their mutual lack of understanding. When Eliza, hurt and angry, says she will marry Freddy, Higgins answers "I'll wring your neck." "Wring away," Eliza says and the confrontation between Moynihan and Agush locks into place. But this time it is Higgins who yields. He realizes that she is bigger than the categories--poor girl to duchess--in which he has always placed her.
So Moynihan moves triumphantly to the door and disappears. As the lights go down on Agush, a single question is left. It is to the credit of the Leverett production of Pygmalion, and to Moynihan's performance, that we are left wondering not what Higgins believes or even what Shaw intended, but whether Eliza herself expects to come back.