Sunday, June 19, 2005

Spreading One's Wings

Why do I love My Fair Lady so much? I mean, I LOVE this movie. Actually, it's not even really the movie I love; I fell in love with the songs and the stories long before I ever saw the movie. My mother had the original Broadway cast recording on vinyl (Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle) and I listened that disk nearly into nothingness. The brutal struggle between Eliza and Henry has always captivated me.

Partly because of its starkness. The war between the sexes has rarely been illustrated so nakedly, so savagely, so honestly. Both characters enrapture me: Henry with his complacent self-assurance and Eliza with her take-no-prisoners drive to better herself.

But also because I'm a sucker for musicals, and it was early on in this viewing that I realised why that is. When Eliza crosses Convent Garden after being scorned by Henry, and walks in among her fellow lower-class sufferers, she starts in on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly". And they all join her.

Who wouldn't want to live in a world with such a powerful sense of community, where all one has to do is break out into song and suddenly is surrounded by dozens of compatriots who lend their enthusiasm to your efforts, all in key and on the beat!

I think this is one of the great joys of the musical -- it takes us into a world where we can imagine a community consisting not only of the people around us, but the world itself. Invisible orchestras explode in glorious accompaniment, total strangers know all the steps and there's always a spotlight on you as you take your bows. The musical sequence is, among other things, an assertion of community, and thus, identity. Eliza's first song in the film grounds her in her "natural" community, shows us how rich a source of comfort it is for her. She BELONGS here, or at least, she could.

But it is never in Eliza's character to accept what is given to her. She's a goer, Eliza is, and despite all Henry's protestations that HE is responsible for all that happens, that HE created her himself, the truth is that it is Eliza who comes to him with her dream of escaping where she belongs. She drives the movie, her dreams and her belief that she can transform herself.

And what does Eliza transform herself into? Although the standard view is that the movie drastically "romanticizes" Shaw's original play Pygmalion?, the truth is more complex than it first seems. Shaw sends Eliza off to a well-established fate, providing a stable scenario with which to end things. My Fair Lady recognizes that the struggle between Eliza and Henry is far more entertaining and satisfying (especially to the participants) than any stable state could ever be. Are they lovers? Roomates? Spouses? Their relationship is impossible to define, rooted as it is in the constant tug of war between their towering personalities.

My Fair Lady is about more than the battle of the sexes. Seen more broadly, this frothy musical offers us a lesson in something eternal and resolutely human: the struggle we all go through in learning to accept and understand that which is not us. The medium chosen is a gender-based struggle, but what both Eliza and Henry discover is that there is more to the world than what they themselves are comfortable with, and that learning to live in that state of flux, where you have to simultaneously fight to retain your sense of self, and open oneself up to that which is outside of the self, is where we feel most alive, where we are most engaged with ourselves and the world around us.

"Where the devil are my slippers?"

Henry signifies that he accepts Eliza's gauntlet, and we know the battle will continue. I like to imagine them growing old together, still squabbling, still challenging each other and disagreeing. And hurting one another, because unless we are willing to be hurt, to be crushed even, we aren't really taking any chances. And if we aren't taking a chance, we're not growing.

Henry and Eliza are at their best when they are together, and what I think I love most about My Fair Lady is how it lets them be together without needing to wrap a ribbon and slot their relationship into a socially-accepted descriptor. We're all at our best when we aren't settling for other people's definitions.