I have been a fan of Oak Park Festival Theatre since it was called Shakespeare in the Park. They do a fine job. This year’s performances of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew were no exception. I often have trouble decoding Shakespeare’s English in real time. Thanks to good directing and delivery, I had no trouble with Shrew.
If I had to classify these plays, I would call them “strange romances.” Both depict women who fall for men who treat them badly and men who have little respect for women. Hardly the stuff of which romantic comedies are usually made. I wondered what, if anything, these plays have to say about the mystery of relationships.
Pygmalion presents the well-known story (largely due to the musical version, My Fair Lady) of Eliza Doolittle in her quest to speak in a more gentile fashion so she can find better work than being a flower girl.
Eliza’s mentor, Henry Higgins, teaches her educated English and manners, yet gives her no credit for her success. While Eliza becomes a better version of herself, Higgins never evolves.
Similarly, in Shakespeare’s play, there is no evolution in the character of Petruchio, Katherine’s husband. He comes to Padua to “wive it wealthily.” He woos Kate because she is strong-minded and her rich father is having difficulty getting her a husband. Petruchio’s scheme to improve Katherine as a wife involves starving her, depriving her of sleep, demanding that she see the world according to his dictates. When she surrenders, I experienced little but embarrassment for her.
Despite knowing the outcome of both plays, I was rooting for Eliza Doolittle to find someone who would appreciate her and to leave Higgins to wallow in his lonely bachelorhood. Frankly, I wanted to see Katherine bounce a heavy object off Petruchio’s inflated ego. I believe it is the lack of any transformation in the male characters that left me wanting a different ending to both plays.
In My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner recognizes this flaw. When, at the end, Higgins believes that Eliza has left him, he admits, to his consternation, that he has “grown accustomed to her face.” I think it is this change in Higgins that makes me leave My Fair Lady with a smile, whereas I left Pygmalion feeling cheated.
Some might argue that Petruchio evolves to a small extent at end of Shrew. However, the concessions that Katherine has made are so much larger than his token affections that I give him no points for it. Had he expressed his appreciation for Kate by declaring his undying love (preferably on his knees), I would have left the play more satisfied.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell wrote, “Marriage is not a simple love affair. It’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.”
As I left Austin Gardens after each of these plays, I was aggravated. It took a while to understand what was bothering me. For the ordeal of relationship to work, the sacrifices and transformation must be mutual.
Charles Hughes is a therapist in, and a resident of, Oak Park.