My Fair Lady Summary

Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe

My Fair Lady

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My Fair Lady Summary

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My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s classic play, Pygmalion, which was first performed in 1913. Its roots reach back to Greek mythology, and the story of the sculptor Pygmalion, who falls in love with one of his creations which then comes to life. The myth influenced a number of writers in the Victorian era.

Opening in 1956, My Fair Lady tells the story of Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, who is given elocution lessons by a professor, Henry Higgins, in order to to pass as a cultured lady. As act one begins, it is raining in London and the attendees of an opera are waiting for cabs at Covent Garden. As Eliza Doolittle is selling her flowers, she is bumped into by a man named Freddy. Her violets fall into a puddle, but an older man buys one from her. Eliza becomes angry when she realizes that a man is writing down her speech patterns. The man, Henry Higgins, studies phonetics and explains that he can determine anyone’s background from their accent. He says that it is speech patterns, not money or appearances, that determine social status. He announces that, given six months, he would be able to turn Eliza into a proper lady. During this scene, Higgins invites the older gentleman, a linguist named Colonel Pickering, to stay at his home.

The next morning Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, receives money from his daughter to buy a drink. A bit later Higgins and Pickering are talking at Higgins’ home when the housekeeper tells them that a woman with a terrible accent is at the door. Eliza has come to take elocution lessons, in order to obtain a position in a flower shop. Pickering then bets Higgins that he cannot actually transform Eliza, and offers to pay for the lessons. In preparation for a coming out of sorts at the Embassy Ball, Higgins works, not only on Eliza’s speech, but on her manners and way of dressing as well.

Meanwhile, when Alfred Doolittle hears that Higgins is working with Eliza, he wants to use the situation to make some money for himself. He goes to Higgins’ home and accuses him of threatening Eliza’s virtue. The two men agree that Eliza will continue to take lessons and live at Higgins’ house and Doolittle receives five pounds from Higgins. Eliza’s education continues, focusing particularly on her dropping of the letter “H”. She becomes overwhelmed to the point that she fantasizes about ways of killing Higgins. Eventually, Eliza masters the phrase, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” pronouncing it in the manner of an upper class woman.

The first time Higgins brings Eliza out in public they go to Ascot Racecourse. Henry’s mother helps Eliza make conversation, by following his suggestion that they limit the topics to health and weather. Things are going well until, caught up in the excitement of the race, Eliza calls out in her Cockney slang. Freddy, the young man who bumped into Eliza at the start of the play, happens to be there and is taken with her. She rejects him and he vows to wait outside of the Higgins house for as long as necessary to win her over.

When the Embassy Ball arrives Eliza impresses all in attendance. One of the guests at the ball is Zoltan Karpathy, who was once a student of Higgins and who then became a rival. The hostess of the party has hired Zoltan to discover Eliza’s roots by analyzing her speech. In spite of warnings from his mother and Colonel Pickering, Higgins lets Eliza dance with Zoltan.

At the opening of the second act it seems that Higgins’ work with Eliza has been a success. Zoltan has determined that Eliza is Hungarian and is from a royal background, making her a princess. Pickering congratulates Higgins on his success. Eliza feels abandoned now that the experiment has ended. She is ignored by Higgins, who only acknowledges her when he cannot find his slippers. This kicks off an argument between them, and Eliza gets ready to leave. When she does, she finds Freddy waiting outside. She stops him when he begins to profess his love for her, requesting that he show her, rather than just using words. Together they go back to Covent Garden where, because of their new refined look, they are not recognized. Alfred Doolittle is there, dressed in an exquisite suit. He explains to Eliza that an unexpected bequest has made him wealthy and he will be marrying the woman he has lived with for many years.

Eliza realizes that she no longer fits in at Covent Garden, so she and Freddy leave. When Higgins wakes up the next morning he finds himself feeling lost without Eliza. He does not understand why she left after her success at the ball and comes to the conclusion that men are superior to women. Pickering is upset with Higgins and he too leaves. Later Higgins seeks his mother’s advice and finds Eliza having tea with her. Eliza tells him that Pickering made her feel like a lady but Higgins only ever treated her like a flower girl. She credits Pickering with teaching her to be a lady. She tells him that he only wants her to do things for him, while Freddy loves her, so he is the one she will wed. She tells Higgins that he will never see her again. While making his way home, Higgins realizes that he has become attached to Eliza but cannot admit that he loves her. At home, his listens to a recording he made of Eliza when he first started working with her. The voice on the tape morphs into Eliza’s actual voice and she appears in the room. What the future holds for them is unclear, as the play ends with Higgins asking Eliza where his slippers are.