by guest author Lauren DeBlasi Jackson
Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?
If you, like me, recognize the above quote from the musical My Fair Lady, it probably also fills you with a sudden, all consuming feminist rage, a mantra of ‘what the fuck what the fuck’ drumming along in your skull as you wonder at the sheer audacity of that line.
Here I am to tell you, in part, what the fuck, and it starts as it ends, with fans.
Some say that the internet has changed how creators and fans interact with a piece of work, and there are a million and one think pieces on the internet about “death of the author” and how much control a content creator has over their work once the information superhighway gets a hold of it, with plenty of criticism given to things like fan theories, art, and fic. But this didn’t start with the internet. It goes back, way back, and today we’re looking at a man who tried to fix a terrible play and got nothing but grief and a musical with the wrong ending for his trouble.
Taming of the Shrew is, unequivocally, my least favorite Shakespeare play. If you don’t know the plot, a man psychologically, emotionally, and physically abuses a woman for four acts to the uproarious laughter of the audience, and at the end she is forced to give an asstastic speech about how all wives should be obedient to their husbands and never cross them.
Enter my boy, George Bernard Shaw.
I’m sure he read the play long before he ever saw it in a theater, but when I picture his reaction, he’s always sitting in a row of seats by himself while the rest of the audience empties out around him, with a popped monocle and a silent, stupefied look on his face, much like me when I had to bear witness to the abomination that was Spiderman 3. He finally gets up, with purpose in his eyes, he goes home and churns out Pygmalion.
Pygmalion, a play in which a man psychologically, emotionally, and physically abuses a woman for four acts to the uproarious laughter of the audience, and then she makes a FANTASTIC speech about what a lunatic fuckup he is and walks out of his life forever.
Welp, audiences hated it.
They hated it because the primary couple didn’t end up together at the end. They hated it because they watched a man torment a woman for two hours and collectively thought, “well, they belong together, why is she rejecting him?” and they hated it so much that when the play was staged the productions began changing the ending back to the Shrew ending, where the abuser and his victim live ‘happily ever after,’ and if that thought is as chilling to you as it was to me, congratulations, neither of us are monsters.
George Bernard Shaw, predictably, asked audiences what the fuck they thought they were doing, but it was out of his hands. The content was out there, and it no longer belonged only to him. He wrote a whole-ass essay about why Eliza and Higgins shouldn’t be together, explaining with the calmness of a kindergarten teacher that Higgins is a manipulative asshole, and although Eliza isn’t making the best choices, they are her choices, not his, and that’s the important part.
Fans couldn’t give a fuck, and it got worse.
Shaw died in 1950, and thank Christ he did, because in 1956 they took Pygmalion and made it into one of the most popular musicals of its time, My Fair Lady, where a man psychologically, emotionally, and physically abuses a woman for two acts while they sing about it, and at the end she comes back to him and he demands that she go find his slippers.
Even as a child watching the film, I was wondering what the fuck.
Well, it was written in the 1950s, and that’s what the fans wanted.
It was a fan of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote Pygmalion, fans of Shaw who changed the ending of Pygmalion, and it was fans of Pygmalion who wrote My Fair Lady and gave us that terrible, soul crushing final line. On and on the cycle goes with the single truth shining through: no matter the original intent, once a work is in the hands of the fans it takes on a life of its own that fits the norms and societal pressure of its time, and this has been going on forever. Twenty thousand years ago Kronk the storyteller probably got pissed when Krek the younger storyteller changed the ending of his ‘tale of the bear fight’ to make the bear more sympathetic because the younger generation was really into bears all of a sudden.
Where am I going with all of this? I’m telling everyone, every creator, past, present, and future, that fans will never go away. They will always have a proprietary interest in the media they consume, and that interest will seep out as theories, as fanart, as fanfiction, as entire goddamn productions or novels that turn the premise of the work completely on its head, and there is nothing creators can do about it. I mean, Pygmalion is literally a modern day AU of Taming of the Shrew and still Shaw sought to control his fans response to it.
As for me, I’m holding out for the next iteration of My Fair Lady, one whose ending doesn’t fill me with the dread of casual 1950s sexism, and an ending line that elicits a laugh instead of a groan.
Higgins, where the devil are my slippers?