The Beloved Characters We Have to Leave Behind

Sometimes your hero was the antagonist all along.

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Aug 10 2018, 6:38pm

Playbill cover courtesy of the Lincoln Center

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My favorite musical of all time, one of the few that I will happily just sit down and watch, is George Cukor’s 1964 adaptation of My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, it tells the story of a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle, who is taken under the instruction of professor of language and phonetics, Professor Henry Higgins.

Higgins is fascinated by the possibility that he might be able to remake Eliza, and in so doing subvert or at the very least mock the boundaries of the British class system. Eliza, on the other hand, is desperate for the possibility that she might transcend those boundaries and become the kind of lady for whom a comfortable and secure future is possible.

Higgins is a brilliant, insensitive asshole—a kind of prototype for the “difficult male genius” character that stars in so many detective procedurals or Aaron Sorkin shows. As played by Rex Harrison, he is smug, caustic, witty, and somehow still charming in way that is very easy to misread as being likable. But his vanity and his callousness cause him to ignore Eliza’s agency, which causes a serious breach with her in the last act of the play, where they have to reckon with their own relationship and the real consequences of the project they’ve successfully completed.

Still from 1964's 'My Fair Lady' courtesy of Warner Bros.

I have always loved Henry Higgins, and came to the realization only far too late about how manifestly oblivious and boorish he is. He was a charismatic antihero in a comedy of manners, an anti-Darcy who proves to be exactly what he is on the surface, and whose superciliousness is bone-deep and directed at everyone in the world around him. I have told myself, these last few years, that I’ve outgrown the character and haven’t really felt much of a pull to watch the movie that largely celebrates him.

So I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I saw the musical revival at the Lincoln Center this past weekend, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose (though Kerstin Anderson played the part when I went). By all accounts it was a really clever and thoughtful production, but I also wasn’t sure whether I really wanted an overtly revisionist or critical take on the play. I’ve become skeptical of this old favorite… but still, it’s my old favorite.

The reality was even more complicated, and I spent much of my time in the darkened theater both enjoying what I was seeing, and scrutinizing the hell out of my enjoyment. Because despite all the things that were different about this production, it was still roughly the same old Henry Higgins I’d always loved. And damn it all if I didn’t still like him.

Photo from the 2018 revival of 'My Fair Lady' courtesy of the Lincoln Center

I realized, watching the play, that I’ve only partially outgrown Higgins, or characters like him. It’s rather far more accurate to say that I’ve grown into the characters that surround him. It was easier when I was bright little boy—good with words and bad with people (or not knowing that I was good with them, which often amounts to the same thing)—to identify with the prickly, clever, and erudite Higgins. To make him into the hero of a story that’s not really even his.

Now I’m older, and I find it easier to see the story from other characters’ perspectives, and that makes a character’s flaws harder to write off as the charming peccadillos of a Great Man. Higgins isn’t as great or as special as he makes himself out to be, and even if he were, it still wouldn’t excuse the thoughtless way he treats his friends, collaborators, and employees. When I was a kid I wanted to be Henry Higgins. I got my wish in some respects, but along the way I also became Eliza, Colonel Pickering, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and Mrs. Pearce. I sympathize and identify with all of them too much to ever aspire to the kind of domineering arrogance that defines Higgins, and a million inferior characters in his image.

What about you? Who are your aspirational heroes and characters who you have developed a troubled relationship with?

Let me know in today’s open thread!