Thursday, November 19, 2009

My Fair Doolittle

With his wonderful character Alfred Doolittle, George Bernard Shaw took a humourous poke at strict, judgemental charities in his play Pygmalion.

The complaint against the charities of the day was that they would help only those who were deserving. Being deserving meant that recipients of aid would accept the middle-class ethics of the, usually, Christian societies founded to help them.

The Fabians, instead, worked for gradual reform towards universality in the distribution of resources, regardless of the religion, morality, and work ethic of the recipient.

Alfred Doolittle will take a handout if one is coming his way, will avoid work if at all possible, and drinks rather a lot. Most important of all, he is quite happy with his life and sees no reason to change his ways.

Alfred Doolittle does not wish to become middle class.

Doolittle's daughter Liza, has begun phonetics lessons with Professor Henry Higgins and is staying at his residence. Doolittle appears, demanding his rights as a father, as he believes something is "going on" between the two. Really, he wants a little something for himself.

His explanation to Higgins of his position is brilliant. He is "one of the undeserving poor" and means to stay that way, but he has problems:
...up agen middle class morality all the time. If there'sanything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the samestory: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything asthey charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.
Higgins offers ten pounds, but Doolittle will take only five because the larger sum "is a lot of money: it makes a man feel prudent like; and then goodbye to happiness."

Poor Doolittle; unbeknownst to him, Higgins sets him up to be the equivalent of a modern day motivational speaker. Doolittle becomes middle class, modestly famous, lecturing for the Wannafeller Moral Reform World League for 3000 pounds a year and must live by middle class values.

The money did indeed make him prudent like, and he's not so happy about it. Higgins's mother asks what her son has done to Doolittle. He replies: "Done to me! Ruined me. Destroyed my happiness. Tied me up and delivered me into the hands of middle class morality."

Although humourous, Doolittle's position reflects the truth of the working poor, at least those who do not wish to reform. He hasn't the nerve to give up the money, no matter how it restricts him because it would mean the workhouse:
They've got you every way you turn: it's a choice between the Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class; and I haven't the nerve for the workhouse. Intimidated: that's what I am. Broke. Bought up.

Doolittle is a delightful character and demonstrates a most serious message, despite his humour.

Probably the most famous rendition of Shaw's 1912 play is the 1964 movie My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harison, and the late Stanley Holloway as Alfred Doolittle. There was also a 1938 movie version called Pygmalion.

Although a musical and more lighthearted than the play, My Fair Lady still delivers the message. Holloway's Doolittle has humour, grace, dignity, and eloquence.

This scene from My Fair Lady shows Doolittle's attitudes towards work, drink, marriage, and helping one's neighbour.

I was reminded of Doolittle while reading a blog post (on ARTS and ARCHITECTURE, mainly) about the Fabian society and the stained glass window designed by GBS to commemorate it.


Owen Gray said...

Our second son is completing his Master's thesis on Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple."

A Shaw play turns everything on its head -- and allows you to see things as they are, free from the strictures of "middle class morality."

ChrisJ said...

Wonderful about your son. Every day that I teach literature, I feel both blessed and guilty for having so much fun.

You're so right about Shaw.

askcherlock said...

My Fair Lady is certainly a classic film. I still use the line, "Wouldn't it be loverly!" My mum-in-law was a very proper British lady who also enjoyed the film. Thanks for the great memories.

ChrisJ said...

Thanks Askcherlock. Yes, great memories. I teach the Shaw play, so can see certain of the movie's scenes regularly.

Hels said...

My grandparents and parents held the Fabian Society to be the pinacle of peaceful and moral social change. As an adult I still believe it, although these days you don't hear very much about them.

Recently in right wing American blogs, along side images of Obama in full mufti, I have started seeing The Fabian Society standing for Nazism, Communism and Islamic terrorism (sic), all at the same time.

An example, from The Right Guy Show. "If you haven't heard it, the vote for Obamacare with probably be this Saturday....I really wish I could speak my mind, but unfortunately, the Secret Service would be at my door in minutes. All I can say is that these fabian socialist cowards have sold us down the river. I can only imagine that they believe that once they do their dastardly deed, it won't matter if they lose their jobs or not."

And a British blog called Dawkinswatch. "Fabian society are Communist Utopians in the school of Francis Bacon but they only differ with him because with the Marxist in terms of tactics, the believe in gradualism rather than a Bolsheviks or French Revoltion style carnage. But they can hire a Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as psychopoliticians to try to destroy Christianity, then they can ushher in a New Age. Let us remember that Fabian Socity a prationers in Necromancy, they work with another malovelent organisation called the Institute of Psychic Research, co-founded by an Archbishop of Canterbury, yes Church if England are practising Christianity only".

Lunatic fringe blogs, to be sure, but I bet Shaw and the Webbs would have been surprised.

ChrisJ said...

Thank you, Hels, especially for a new blog to watch for sheer nuttiness; the Dawkinswatch sounds so over the top. It's scary that it's real.

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