Apr 6, 2015

My Fair Lady: A Gay Couple in Edwardian England

My Fair Lady (1956) is one of my all-time favorite musicals, but there is no beefcake, so I'll illustrate it with some nude shots of actors who have played Henry Higgins in their other roles..

It's about an elderly gay couple in London at the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering,

Henry, an instructor of elocution, claims that language is the key to social status; he bets Pickering that he can take anyone of the lower class, give them elocution lessons, and pass them off as nobility.

Ok, why not try Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle?

Henry doesn't have much use for women, even as friends.  He is definitely a man's man.

Henry: Would you be slighted if I didn't speak for hours?
Pickering: Of course not!
Henry: Would you be livid if I had a drink or two?
Pickering: Nonsense.
Henry: Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?
Pickering: Never.
Henry: Well, why can't a woman be like you?

But he agrees.  Eliza moves into their house, and the lessons begin.

Everyone thinks that Eliza and Henry have an amorous relationship.  Henry's mother, who has suspected him of being gay for years, is delighted.

Eliza soon becomes indispensable in the household, keeping track of Henry' appointments and performing secretarial tasks.  She even gets a little crush on him.  Though he doesn't share her romantic inclinations, Henry begins to think of her as a friend and confidant.  He expects that, when the contest is over, she will stay on.

I've grown accustomed to her face
She almost makes the day begin
I've grown accustomed to the tune
She whistles night and noon

Eliza wows London society at the contest, and is proclaimed "of noble birth."  Everyone congratulates Henry, not Eliza, who concludes that she was being used an experiment, and leaves in a huff.  But she is persuaded to return.

 Henry, never one for apologies, or hugs, says "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?"  Curtain down.  The end.

That's right -- no fade out kiss.  There are hints that the two might become lovers, but they remain only hints, a heterosexual subtext in what is a rarity in musical theater, a plot about male-female friendship.

The 1964 movie adds a little more heterosexual subtext, but the original play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, has substantially less.

Of course, heterosexual critics and audiences try their best to force the text into the trajectory of a heterosexual romance.  Sometimes they don't even notice that Henry and Pickering are a gay couple.

Henrys: Jack Gwillam, Reg Livermore, Ian Richardson, Rex Harrison.

See also: Sherlock Holmes, Gay Icon and The Gay Connection in The Sound of Music.

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