My Fair Lady

My article about the Broadway play My Fair Lady was just published in SHAW: The Journal of Shaw Studies. Today I’m writing a second post about some issues I thought about when I was writing it. (Click here to read the first post.)

I often hear questions about how to make yourself sound smarter and more academic. There’s a widespread belief that if you learn a couple of big words, everyone will think you’re brilliant.

No, no, no. They’ll think you’re pompous and boring.

Writing that article about My Fair Lady it was a challenge: How do you talk to serious scholars about a popular Broadway show? The answer is that you spend a lot of time looking for thoughtful and interesting things to say.

When someone asks me to teach them a couple of big, show-off words, I always try to send them down a different path. “Read,” I tell them. “Read a lot. Learn as much as you can. You’ll always have something interesting to talk about, and people will think you’re smart.”

When I was in high school, I lived in a small town with a small library. I read just about everything that looked interesting – including a biography of two great 20th century actors, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. I had no idea then that I was going to become a Shaw scholar. I was reading – for fun – about two famous actors who happened to know Shaw and often appeared in his plays.

Turns out the academic gods were smiling down on me. When I started writing my latest article about Shaw, I remembered a Lunt-Fontanne story that I thought would be a good fit.

But there was a problem. I’d read the book more than 50 years ago. I live in Florida now. No way was I going to head back to Long Island in hopes of finding that biography on the shelf of that library. How on earth was I going to get my hands on it?

I decided to look at biographies of the Lunts on Amazon. Maybe something would ring a bell. And what I discovered was that only one biography had been published – at the same time I’d been in high school. Fist pump! Even better, a used copy cost less than three dollars.

Here’s the story I told in my article:

To maintain control over his plays, Shaw had friends everywhere who kept a close eye on performances. Actress Lynne Fontanne complained, “You could not cut a line without Shaw finding out.” But not even Shaw could control line readings, facial expressions, timing, gestures, and other performance details. In 1926 Fontanne finally discovered a way to alter some of the lines in Pygmalion without being found out. Henry Travers, who played Alfred Doolittle, “had a slight stutter and he had got into a habit swallowing and twisting sentences and words around.” Fontanne tried the same trick when she played Eliza Doolittle—and, she reported afterward, “Shaw’s spies never found me out.”

(I just ran the story through a readability checker. It came in at ninth or tenth grade level. Yes, I practice what I preach!)

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