Review: Pygmalion by Different Stages
by David Glen Robinson

Different Stages’ production of  George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Vortex in East Austin is low on the radar in this summer of spectacular productions, but theatergoers should search out this classic play, updated and made fresh as the violets in Eliza Doolittle’s basket by Director Norman Blumensaadt.  Different Stages has much to be proud of, at most levels, in this new production of an older and well-known play.  

The play derives ultimately from the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a fantastically gifted Cypriot sculptor named Pygmalion falls madly in love with a statue he has carved from ivory and named Galatea.  He despairs of finding an equally beautiful human woman to love and sacrifices and prays to Aphrodite for a mate.  Aphrodite brings the statue of Galatea to life in answer to his sacrifices.  Surprise, Galatea loves Pygmalion equally madly; they marry and have two children.  The myth and its variants became popular sources for literature and entertainment in the nineteenth century.  George Bernard Shaw was an old-school socialist and social activist.  So in his play on the myth, Pygmalion, he gives the topic a metaphoric shift in having a professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, raise a street urchin, Eliza Doolittle, from low class to the genteel class.  He brings her to life, so to speak, by elevating her in class.  His sculptural tools are education, speech, and elocution.  Shaw also drops the name Galatea from the title.  We are to concentrate our energies on the male, Prof. ‘Enery ‘Iggins.  

But we cannot.  Eliza Doolittle and the other characters are so enriched in the play and in Different Stages production that we hang on every word of their speeches and stories.  We are given a brightly limned image of class-stratified England in the late Victorian period.  Part of this quality is due to the costumes and styling, apparently very close to Victorian fashion.  The costume credit goes to Ann Ford as “costume wrangler.”  Styling and makeup went uncredited.

Tom Chamberlain, Amy Lewis, Bobbie Oliver (photo: Brett Brookshire)

The set design is another treasure by Ann Marie Gordon.  For the thrust Vortex stage, she built a presentational straight wall stage left to stage right, with double doors upstage center.  Most of the entrances were through these doors or through the house.  The set was re-dressed between acts by the servants, in character and in costume, who provided the set with period antique furnishings.  When finished with the stage, the servants gathered at the double doors, and as they backed out they uttered in unison “Shaw!” (or was it “Pshaw?”).  One interesting element was the furnishing of Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room in Chelsea.  The furniture pieces gathered on that set seemed to belong to the earlier Empire period, not the Victorian.  As Mrs. Higgins was an older woman, her antiques would have hailed from that earlier period.  If this is a deliberate, subtle touch—well done.  If it is all incidental, it is still fascinating set design.

There is some bad news, but it is not all that bad.  This reviewer attended in the second weekend of the production, when the script and dialogue should have been second nature for all involved.  Yet a couple of times characters called each other by the wrong character name, and there were a few mix-ups of pronouns—“to her” instead of “from her,” etc.  Minor line bobbles loom larger in a play all about speech.  Also, the opening scene is an exterior, the Portico at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden.  The cast is standing on the curb, bundled, huddled, and shuffling around like groundhogs deciding on the season.  Eventually, one of the characters said “this rain.”  And Col. Pickering entered with an umbrella.  The cast was conveying cold when they were trying to convey rain.  The critique here is of their lack of support from the design fields.  There was no theatre rain (this on the very stage that supported Vortex Rep’s Water), no soundtrack thunder, and no lighting grid lightning.  A step up by even one of these design fields would have ensured the magic, important at the beginning of a play.

In a play dealing principally with language, or more accurately phonetics and sociolinguistics, the cast stoutly held up their end of the bargain regarding British accents (although mostly standard British).  Prof. Higgins boasted that he could locate a person’s neighborhood within about two blocks in certain sections of London.  This lone boast reveals the deeper theme of the play.  In that deeply class-stratified time, to locate a person was to identify that person’s class.  The broad differences between Cockney speech and a Yorkshire accent are discernible even by Americans, Canadians, and Australians (identifying and pondering accents is a private little game enjoyed by all English speakers).  Everyone in a Victorian neighborhood belonged to the same class, and there was no class mixing.  Sociolinguistics, Higgins’ field, reinforced class distinctions.  Put another way, people wore the badges of their class not on their clothing but in their voices.  Higgins’ work in phonetics helped make finer and finer distinctions.  This being so, the character of Higgins was an essential class enemy of Shaw’s.  Pygmalion was the source for My Fair Lady, which was based on Shaw’s script for the 1938 film version, but this subtext of class was missing from the films.  Shaw, who died in 1950, would have reviled the Rex Harrison characterization of Higgins in the 1965 film—rich, elegant, a creature of love and yet one more false narrative of the upper classes.

Pygmalion’s Higgins, played by Tom Chamberlain, is ugly, ego-centric, and as violent as Shaw intended.  With his erudition in service to the masters, Higgins’ goal was without a doubt to keep the “undeserving” poor down and under control.  Chamberlain plays Higgins with gusto.  Higgins’ interest in Eliza Doolittle, the flower-selling guttersnipe portrayed by Amy Lewis, was strictly egocentric, an ego challenge thrown down by other males of respectable class.  Eliza endured several characterizations of herself as inanimate material or various species of animal.

The challenge was for Higgins to make a lady of the guttersnipe in six months.  Higgins’ funding source and foil was Col. Pickering, well-heeled, genteel, and late of Army service in India.  He also had a heart and offered some protection to Eliza when Higgins became too harsh.  He was played by Craig Kanne, always a finalist in the flat-out best actor in Austin contest.

Amy Lewis as Eliza played well with two vocal characterizations—guttersnipe and lady.  She did it all with apparent ease, especially the inarticulate screech that marked her and her class throughout the play.

Katherine Schroeder as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins house manager, offered an interesting take on the domestic class.  Strong-willed, she remonstrated with Higgins on several occasions, always trying to save Higgins from his excesses.

Alas, Mrs Pearce’s noble cause fell unavailing, and she could not divert Higgins from his commitment to doing social ill.  A signal example came when the lady Eliza lapsed momentarily and made her characteristic street yowl.  Higgins showed rudeness to the very lady he had created by crowing in her face that he’d proved her gentility to be only a veneer, and that beneath it she was still a screeching guttersnipe beyond all redemption.  The moment when he threatens to strangle Eliza and actually clutches her throat, source of the voice and all utterances, is one of the most profound plot reversals in world theatre.  Watch for it.  You, too, will have grown accustomed to her face.

George Bernard Shaw was a committed nineteenth century socialist and a major essay contributor to the Fabian Society, the champion of many socialist causes.  The advocacy of such entered many of Shaw’s plays.  As the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Victorian Age (seventh ed., p. 1809) states it:

Shaw created a drama of ideas, in which his characters strenuously argue points of view that justify their social positions—the prostitute in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the munitions manufacturer in Major Barbara.  His object is to attack the complacencies and conventional moralisms of his audience.  By the rhetorical brilliance of his dialogue and by surprising reversals of plot conventions, Shaw manipulates his audience into a position of uncomfortable sympathy with points of view and characters that violate traditional assumptions.

The issue with characters who trump advocacy positions, sometimes in plays set hundreds of years before the current time, is that they are simply the voice of the playwright, saying whatever he or she insists upon regardless of context.  Literary scholars, “lit crit types,” call this ventriloquizing, speaking through a character.  What softens this critical blow is that while it is decried by literary scholars who do not share the playwright’s philosophy, it is usually winked at by those who agree with the playwright’s positions.  And all of this, of course, shifts through time.  Shaw ventriloquized plentifully and was considered extremely radical in his time (plays banned, producers and actors jailed, that sort of thing), but now he is viewed more calmly as a guiding light that has led us to the greater equalities of gender, social, and labor we enjoy now.  And this is regardless of the new threats to these values.  This change in social milieu, partly as a result of Shaw’s social activism and art, is an important lens through which to view Pygmalion.

Andy Brown, Craig Kanne, Tom Chamberlain (photo: Brett Brookshire)

Shaw’s social criticism, socialism and detailed picture of class-weary England is depicted best in Pygmalion not by Higgins or by Eliza Doolittle but by Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, played by Andy Brown.  Alfred illuminates the knotted social problems of the English lower classes and shows the interlocked cause and effect that Shaw explicated brilliantly.  Alfred is thoroughly Dickensian, uneducated, despairing, violent, and alcoholic (although oddly articulate).  His wife gives him money to go drink and cheer up.  Perhaps this is where he gained the idea and practice of scamming the world for drinking money, as when he holds his hand out to Higgins for a fee for allowing Higgins’ “experiment” with Eliza, while accusing Higgins of taking an unseemly interest in his daughter.  

Easy money makes Alfred fear and repudiate “middle class morality,” “moralizing,” and work.  But he cannot drink away his self-knowledge, and he takes out his rage on his wife and Eliza; he threatens Eliza in one of their scenes together.  Naturally, Eliza hates her father. Alfred, nevertheless, is one of the play’s winners; he is granted Shavian redemption in one of those “surprising reversals of plot conventions” alluded to in the Norton quote above.

Andy Brown has immense stage presence, and he and Director Blumensaadt play it to the hilt without sending Brown’s performance over the top.  The role of Alfred in Pygmalion is Brown’s meatiest role to date with Different Stages.  Enacting a thickly accented character with clarity is tough for any actor, but Brown pulls it off.  Very well done.

Artistic Director Norman Blumensaadt has polished yet another gem from the vault of early modern plays.  Pygmalion is the sixth Shaw play produced by Different Stages over its long life, starting in 1981.  Blumensaadt has been at the helm the entire time.  In this, Blumensaadt shows a peculiarly valuable but usually unregarded virtue.  We might call it the persistence of persistence.  Nothing persists quite like it.  Different Stages has offered it theatrical insights for 33 years and counting.

Naturally by the time a company is recognized for its persistence, time has passed and the company has gained comfortable familiarity in the community.  Many then fail to recognize the high quality of a company and its offerings.  One hopes that this familiarity does not prevent people from attending and appreciating Different Stages’ shows.

Norman Blumensaadt displays this virtue of persistence and keen insight on theatre.  He might be considered the primus inter pares of a very small group of similarly persistent and long-term Austin playwright/producer/directors.  The group may include Steve Moore of Physical Plant Theatre, Andy Berkovsky at City Theatre, the redoubtable Ken Webster at Hyde Park Theatre, Don Toner of Austin Playhouse, Bonnie Cullum at the Vortex, Connor Hopkins of Trouble Puppet, and very few others.  These theatre producers present original work and cull world theatre archives for new insights on historical material (Shakespeare is always a great source).  These artists are not polishing their resumes.  They already have resumes, thank you, and simply want to work in their art.  

In contrast, no more than two years ago this writer offered a list of new, young, and vibrant directors with all the brands and earmarks of potential success.  As of this writing all of them have left Austin for the East Coast or have announced their departure dates.

Different Stages gives us George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and pulls out of it insights as clear and fresh as tomorrow morning.  The importance and artistry of this play have been obscured somewhat by its derivative My Fair Lady in various media.  Attend Pygmalion and refresh your intellectual palate with Different Stages’ wise and artistic take on a mythic and socially significant classic.

by George Bernard Shaw
Different Stages

June 27 - July 19, 2014
Vortex Repertory Theatre
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
 June 27 - July 19, 2014  
  • 8pm Thursdays - Saturdays
  • 7pm Sundays
No performance Friday, July 4 
Added performance Wed, July 16
Purchase Tickets here