PYGMALION. By George Bernard Shaw. York Theatre Royal. On until June 17. Tel: 01904 623568. www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Shaw's Professor Henry Higgins is a new man - except when it comes to women. Timothy Ramsden explains
Damian Cruden, director of York Theatre Royal's production of Pygmalion, suggests an exercise for students of Shaw's play: never mind flower-girl Eliza Doolittle's famous "not bloody likely"; take the now mild-seeming swear-words that linguistics professor Henry Higgins uses and convert them into language that would shock today.
Cruden points out that Higgins's housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, can't bring herself to repeat one of Higgins's expletives. For Higgins is a new man of 1912 - bright, scientific and challenging in a time of ferment and new ideas in British politics - in all ways except one. When it comes to women, Higgins is, says Cruden, "dysfunctional because of his upbringing by his mother. Higgins's problems in dealing with women are like Shaw's, who was constantly at odds with women."
Higgins's friend, Colonel Pickering, is more conservative and a romantic, falling in love with Eliza in a paternal way. He is also devoted to Higgins, giving way to his opinions, often backing him up in his bad behaviour. Eliza describes herself as "a good girl", and Cruden believes she is "a beautiful human being". As a dustman's daughter, she would normally have spent her days up her waist in rubbish - instead, she has escaped to flower-selling. But her ceiling in life is, Cruden says, "her accent, and how people perceive her. So she's trapped in perhaps 10 to 15 years of remaining life and will descend into alcoholism or will marry the wrong sort of man (meaning a life of prostitution)."
Eliza forms an intense pupilteacher relationship with Higgins and she is "absolutely aware there is something to be loved (in him)".
It is only stretching things slightly to imagine, in terms of the times, they might marry. However, Higgins fears any such attachment.
There is a deficit of love in Eliza's life, with her train of stepmothers.
Cruden agrees with Shaw that she will find love with Freddie Eynsford-Hill.
His family has seen better days and Cruden is convinced Freddie recognises the Covent Garden flower-seller to whom he was so attracted in the society lady his family later meets. Freddie's laughter during the later meeting is because his mother fails to recognise who Eliza is. Passing the cause of his humour off as the new small-talk is a deliberate ploy. He is no buffoon, or Eliza could not love him.
As she could not go back to flower-selling and as the only alternative on running from Professor Higgins would be ending up in the Thames, this is probably just as well.