‘Apologies to the King,’ Part 2: The Failure of ‘My Fair Lady’

Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?

Last week I wrote about a theatrical mechanism that I like to call “apologies to the king,” in which a return to the status quo shouldn’t invalidate a play’s messaging, given its historiographical context. The most famous example is Puck’s actual apology to the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This week I’d like to examine how a play’s final lines can invalidate its narrative in order to please the audience.

Consider My Fair Lady: the quintessential 1956 classic musical starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in the original Broadway production, and Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film adaptation. It’s a piece most folks know and many adore, yet after reading through the book this week, I found that the same prickly line stood out to me above all the rest – the same way it did during my first critical reading of the text back in college. It’s one line at the end of the play that served to placate the audience back in its original run, but now that line tarnishes the sheen on this Golden Age musical – especially in a post-#MeToo read-through.

Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are in a toxic relationship (to say the least), and after Eliza very clearly severs ties with Higgins during her final song, “Without You,” we see her transformation as complete: She’s moved from naïve street urchin to wizened lady, wise enough even to see Higgins as an abuser and leave him. 

Higgins reflects on his feelings for Eliza in what I would describe as the worst love song ever, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Ultimately Eliza returns to him, catching him in a moment of vulnerability as he reviews the tapes he’s captured of her voice. 

The play does an adequate job of showing us that Higgins perhaps realizes he was wrong, and through a 1950s lens it might be OK to have the pair reunite at the end of the play. However, Higgins’ final line of the play, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” shows us that this clearly isn’t the case: that Higgins’ behavior hasn’t improved and presumably won’t in the future. 

So why include the line at all? Why have Higgins stubbornly adhere to his abusive tendencies and force Eliza to resign herself to staying with a man who doesn’t deserve her time in the slightest? For that insight, we have to look almost 50 years earlier, when the ending of Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based, ended with Higgins delivering a similar line and Eliza leaving him outright.

Staged productions of Pygmalion were changed to feature a happy ending in which the two reconcile, much to the dismay of the author, George Bernard Shaw. Audiences loved the characters and were angered to see them drift apart, so the ending was changed to appease audiences.

My Fair Lady tries to offer the best of both worlds by adapting the original ending, but stopping short of having Eliza leave once more. It makes the ending somewhat ambiguous but heavily implies that the two will remain together, despite Higgins’ nasty shortcomings. 

It’s interesting to note that in the 2018 Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, the ending has once again been adapted to feature Eliza leaving Higgins after this final line, revoking the happy ending and making this production closer to Shaw’s original intent in Pygmalion.

That 2018 revival isn’t unique in how it has tried to adapt problematic material in beloved musicals for modern productions, and next week we’ll look at 1945’s Carousel to examine some other challenges that arise both when reading classic musicals through a modern lens and remounting them for a modern audience.