Romance: A Dramatic Convention from Shakespeare to ‘My Fair Lady’
Most writers find it extremely difficult to convey the feeling of love via the written word. In fact, many people feel inspired to write by that challenge alone. Love cannot be summed up in a sentence or a paragraph, let alone a song or a poem. Nobly, a few writers choose to write plays and musicals trying to sum up those elusive feelings of love, lust, and everything in between. Through the ages, a few dramatic conventions came into being in order to try to assist writers in their quest for describing love. In Broadway musicals, such as My Fair Lady, for instance, the plot must include a primary and secondary love story to keep the audience in rapture. The idea of the love triangle (or, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a more extended love square) has also helped a lot of writers track their characters’ desires. Some plots, such as that of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, attempt to describe love in a more simple way by simply focusing on the relationship between two complex and infinitely human characters. When tracing all of these narratives, a metamorphoses occurs: the narrative structure that authors use has varied over time, and no form seems to be better than the other, as they all exist in their own worlds, just as lovers do.
Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, plays with the idea of the love triangle by making it a love square with four characters rather than just three for the sake of symmetry. Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander all switch partners in the play multiple times in a comedic stab at how love, with all its complexities, can really be rather simple. Although each of these pairings in the love square have their own intricacies in their specific relationships to one another, Shakespeare’s extension of the classic love triangle really functions as the primary love story in the play. It almost seems like hyperbole when all of the characters almost become one at the end through a joint wedding in which their names are barely even distinguished from one another, with Demetrius referring to them all collectively as, “fair lovers” who are “fortunately met … For in the temple, by and by, with us/ These couples shall eternally be knit” (Shakespeare 4.I.177-81). The wedding scene in particular binds these four individual people into one, more symbolic entity, that being the normal primary romance in the play.
Dramatically speaking, all romantic plays and musicals seem to agree about the fact that there should be one primary romance going on to keep the audience focused and engaged. Shakespeare’s variation of the love triangle that uses four people instead of three heightens the audience’s interest even more than just two characters would, as these characters are all complex and relatable in their own ways. However, their love feels more subtle than that of more eccentric characters such as Titania and Bottom, which might be why their wedding was so overarching and vague about their persons. At most weddings, the ceremony highlights individual characteristics about each aspect of the couple. However, in this wedding, all four of them are consistently referred to under one categorical term, such as, “fair lovers” or “these couples.” The two relationships that might as well be one in the love square are meant to represent a normal and uncomplicated type of love that those in Shakespeare’s time admired.
Titania and Bottom, however, have a far more complex secondary love story going on here. In fact their story seems secondary because it might not be a story of love at all, rather it seems like a story of fantasy and forbidden perverted passion. Their story has to be less central because of its overtly sexual nature and how sexual media was far less fit for direct consumption than romantic media was (although Shakespeare was known to push these cultural boundaries). For example, Bottom and Titania are not equals in their story. Bottom is a mortal as ugly and plain as an ass (his transformation signifies their differences further) and Titania is not only a queen but also a fairy queen, which represents their class differences. Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena are all of similar social statuses, so their love does not feel as forbidden as Titania’s and Bottom’s attraction to one another. The most unconventional aspect of Titania and Bottom’s relationship might be how attracted to Bottom Titania feels. For instance, when Bottom sings nonsense, Titania asks, “what angel wakes me from my flow’ry bed?/ … I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again./ Mine ear is much enamored of thy note” (Shakespeare 3.I.112-22). In this quotation, Titania not only claims that Bottom, who literally looks like an ass, seems like an “angel,” but also acknowledges that he is, in fact, a “mortal.” Just these two words suggest how wrong it seems that Titania finds herself attracted to Bottom. Her desires seem even more perverse when they turn out as overtly sexual, with Titania finishing the scene with lines such as,
the moon, methinks, looks with a wat’ry eye,/ And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,/ Lamenting some enforced chastity./ Tie up my lover’s tongue, bring him silently (Shakespeare 3.I.177-80).
Perhaps Titania herself laments her own “enforced chastity” and ties up her “lover’s tongue” so that they do not need to speak about her forbidden desires. Her attraction towards Bottom, someone so much socially lower than her in every way, must feel especially shameful to her. Although this narrative has far more depth to it than the ordinary and expected story of the primary extended love triangle, Shakespeare, like Titania, faced societal obligations to keep the more eccentric love stories a bit subtler than that of his main characters.
In a somewhat similar fashion to the primary and secondary love stories in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, My Fair Lady follows the Broadway structure of having a clear cut primary and secondary love story with songs for each. However, clearly modern theatrics have changed a bit, as in My Fair Lady, the secondary romance feels like the more conventional and less complicated one. This relationship of Doolittle and his bride is not nearly as unexpected as that of Titania and Bottom. After all, in the song “Get Me to the Church on Time,” Doolittle asks the townspeople to get him “to the church on time,” as he drinks too much to count on himself making it to his own wedding. While this song means to be comical, it has a rather serious element to it as well. This secondary relationship feels less complex than the secondary relationship in the earlier work of Shakespeare. Maybe the shift to more focus on the primary relationship in theatre and make that one more nuanced was just another way to entertain audiences. Or perhaps more modern writers felt more freedom to explore more controversial relationship troubles in an upfront manner.
Eliza and Higgins, for instance, have an extremely complicated primary relationship. Similarly to Bottom and Titania, they are entirely different people, from different classes and different positions (student and teacher, mortal and fairy). However, My Fair Lady’s plot focuses more on this complex and unexpected type of relationship than A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s plot does. Although both relationships are doomed, the characters in MFL try to work through their disappointment and sadness through song, making the relationship seem more complicated as the plot digs deeper into the content and context of what ends up happening with Eliza and Higgins. For instance, the song “Without You” stands to complicate the plot’s resolution: the end of the relationship between Higgins and Eliza. Not only are they parting ways in this song, but they are also explaining each and every reason why they find that action so poignant, with lyrics such as,
there’ll be spring every year without you … and there still will be rain/On the plain down in Spain, / Even that will remain/ Without you/ I can do/ Without you (Lerner II.213).
Although the lyrics do literally have Eliza and Higgins saying “I can do without you” to each other, the fact that they detail so many different events that they will have to do without one another gives the song a rather melancholy tone. For instance, throughout the song they realize all the events they will not be in each other’s lives for, that being circumstances such as “spring every year without you.” Although this song and the character’s emotions for one another might be less complex than Titania and Bottom’s romance, these primary characters are far more complex than the primary romance characters in Midsummer, perhaps because they do not get the same happy ending, which complicates a story line.
Oddly enough, although George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion falls in between Midsummer and My Fair Lady chronologically, it actually goes far outside the boundaries for typical theatrical relationships. Pygmalion focuses primarily on Eliza and her relationship with Higgins, and actually makes the entire relationship equally as complex as two couples. However it seems like a less well structured play than the other two especially in terms of romance, perhaps because Shakespearean drama and Broadway musicals have very specific genre conventions. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a classic example of a Shakespearean comedy, a very structured type of play. For instance,
The main characteristics in Shakespeare’s Comedies are: A struggle of young lovers to overcome problems, often the result of the interference of their elders, There is some element of separation and reunification, Mistaken identities, often involving disguise, A clever servant, Family tensions that are usually resolved in the end Complex, interwoven plot-lines, Frequent use of puns and other styles of comedy (Alliemacb)
Shakespeare structures his comedies this way for a reason – he found the best formula for keeping his audiences interested in what he had to say in his comedies. Shaw did not have such a clear formula, which explains why his romance plot in Pygmalion needed so much adjustment when Lerner and Loewe turned it into My Fair Lady, which one could argue is more well known than Pygmalion. For instance,
Musicals are almost always about pairs, complementary halves of a whole, initially at odds because of age, race, ethnicity, customs, attitudes, values, backgrounds, social status, manners, prejudices, competence, work ethic, appearance, or desires. Musicals often treat courtship, the attempt to convince another to adopt one’s attitudes or to adapt one’s own actions to another, as a metaphor for life itself. (Kowalke)
Shaw’s plays sometimes have a relatively loose sense of structure, which explains why the exposition of Eliza and Higgins’ romance was so messy and drawn out. For instance, because of all the plot that Lerner dedicates to Higgins and Eliza’s relationship, the audience gets to know so much more about the intricacies of their relationship than they would in any Shakespeare play or Broadway musical. At the start of the play, Shaw even describes something as tangential as Higgins’ opinions about women, writing,
A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon (1.125).
Unlike a Shakespeare stock character or a ingenue in a Broadway musical would never have time to develop such convoluted even if bigoted views on something as specific as language or gender. Thus Eliza and Higgins have a more complex relationship than the other couples because Lerner devotes so much of the plot to developing their characters.
By the time Eliza and Higgins have their final meeting, Shaw has given the audience such a complex portrayal of not only both of their characters but also their relationship that their ending becomes ambiguous. Eliza leaves, then Higgins asks to no one, “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?” (Shaw II.219). Because of Eliza and Freddy and the strange dichotomy of their teacher student relationship as well as their originally differing classes, the audience can only guess at what becomes of them, which explains why My Fair Lady was altered so much plotwise. An ambiguous ending was less possible in the musical because due to the conventions of musicals there is not as much time to set up such complex characters that would warrant an ambiguous ending.
The three different conventions of these narratives each add to the goals of each of their individual genres. Shakespeare’s comedy structure with his confused lovers let him tackle more provocative subject matter in terms of Titania and Bottom in a crafty and subtle way. Although the characters are more complex in Pygmalion than My Fair Lady, the character’s in Shaw’s plays serve to be complex and relatable while musicals are more for placid entertainment. These observations are significant because they show how much theatre conventions have changed in a back and forth manner over not only decades but also centuries.
Alliemacb. “The Main Characteristics of Shakespearean Plays: Comedy, Tragedy, History.” LetterPile. LetterPile, 10 May 2016. Web. 09 May 2017.
Georgius. My Fair Lady. New York: Roy, 1954. Print.
Kowalke, Kim. “THEORIZING THE GOLDEN AGE MUSICAL: GENRE, STRUCTURE, SYNTAX*.” Tennessee.edu. N.p., 2014. Web. 9 May 2017.
A Midsummer Nights Dream. Cambridge: U, 1936. Print.
Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. United States: Createspace, 2015. Print.W
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