The Pygmalion syndrome

4th October 1996 at 01:00
My fair lady. Educating rita, Directed by Andrew Manley, Harrowgate Theatre

Director Andrew Manley is talking about his fascination with the Pygmalion myth. "Both plays," he says, "are about somebody finding an inner freedom, not just an educational one." Manley is directing My Fair Lady and Educating Rita in tandem at Harrogate Theatre, but - to be strictly accurate - his M F L is not the film musical script but the stage musical script, containing dialogue from Shaw's screenplay for the film of Pygmalion, with of course the Lerner and Loewe songs. Clear?

"It's good music," says Manley. "It comments in a very Shaw-like way on what is happening; it gives the internal thoughts of the characters. The music sits outside the play, but that's a bonus and not a disadvantage."

Sex, or the lack of it, was one link between the two plays. Willy Russell never saw any sexual attraction between tutor Frank and pupil Rita - he first imagined Charles Laughton in the role, and failing that he would have settled for George Melly. The attraction perceived by audiences was a complete shock to Russell. When Columbia bought the film rights they wanted the pair to end up in bed together, but Russell steadfastly refused.

From the day that Pygmalion opened, the big talking point was: why doesn't Shaw get Professor Higgins and pupil Eliza married? Shaw was shocked; he couldn't conceive of a teacher pupil attraction and a statue that's come to life cannot marry its creator. Eliza finds her freedom, but to be truly free and to find herself she has to break away from Higgins.

Both plays will share the same set. Higgins has a laboratory fit for an academicscientist. Rita happens on that set and gets "a resonance both of My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, and of Victorian education".

Manley has tried not to get cluttered up with detail, avoiding the temptation to have Frank's room awash with books and files. This is done so that audiences can concentrate on what the play is about - a confrontation between two people of entirely different backgrounds.

During the performance, Frank's desk will very slowly turn from a dominating position to sideways on, making Frank and Rita equal. Frank is disillusioned, not particularly brilliant and he has been in his job far too long. Set against Rita's fire power, his mind has been opened by the end of the play. He is questioning the rules of conventional education.

For her part, Rita can pass exams, Manley thinks maybe she can go on but questions whether she has lost her natural spark. Higgins runs home to mother, but his rigid thinking has been somewhat altered by Eliza.

Human beings, he now believes, might be about spirit not about surface things such as manners and accent.

Manley would argue that Eliza is a real and vital human being at the start; she has merely been given an accent.

"I don't think he's conventionally educated her. He just tells her how to speak, doesn't tell her about geography, history, literature - and she says OK, I've got that but now I've got to use my brain; I'm still a human being! Higgins doesn't think of her as a human being and arguably Frank doesn't think of Rita as a human being either.

"Both of them think: here is a complete lump of lard that I can shape! But in both cases the lump of lard has got true light before they start."

Harrogate Theatre until November 9 tel: 01423 502116

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today