By: Dennis Bates
One of my favorite lines from the play “My Fair Lady” comes from the slightly pompous and very proper Professor Henry Higgins when he rails about how different nationalities speak. When he gets to the French, he has this to say: “The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.” Something about the tongue-in –cheek nonchalance of that sentence has always tickled the British genes in me. Almost anything that pokes fun at our cousins across the channel usually does.
As with any truly classic British humor, however, the statement takes on a bit of itself as well. That’s why the statement fits so well in an American play about an uppity Englishman. It’s a joke within itself, poking fun at the very thing it seeks to make fun of. Professor Higgins is more concerned with proper pronunciation and diction than he is the substance of the statement he seeks to pronounce correctly. In fact, he bets his best friend that he can turn an ordinary flower girl from a working class area of London into a proper lady just by teaching her how to speak correctly, which is to say, as he does.
Of course, anyone who is familiar with the play knows that by the end of the play he has passed her off as a lady in all the proper circles, and her proper manners and speech has no doubt been the key to her success. In fact, ultimately the Professor himself realizes that he is in love with her and his loveable, but quite proper mother applauds Lisa for being able to force her son to finally grow up. Would she, however, been quite so thrilled if her son had brought home the rag tag flower girl Henry first took in, whose speech was barely intelligible? For that matter, would Henry himself have fallen in love with Lisa the flower girl, had she not cleaned up well?
While outwardly different at the end of the play, I have always had the sense that inwardly Lisa hadn’t really changed that much. Her heart overflowed with love, but it always had. Her vulnerability when Higgins was unkind at the end was just better camouflaged but none the less the same as she felt when she was overlooked on the streets, even though she spoke of being a “good girl,” when her virtue was challenged.
If anyone really changed, it was Henry. Although he still showed shameless chauvinistic tendencies to the very end, in some small way, he learned how to love who Lisa was and what she did at least as much as, if not more than the way she pronounced it. At least, I hope so. That’s what was always the most important as far as I’m concerned.
I feel the same way about society in general and churches in specific today. With all the whirl of technology and all the glitz and glimmer of multimedia gadgets, have we let the medium become the message? Has televangelism phonetics translated unassuming flower girl Christians into proper ladies who look good, but only pronounce things properly? Is a mega church with a full orchestra, and cameo appearances by famous people necessary to praise the Lord?
Or was Lisa right in the very beginning when she said all she needed was a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air where things would be loverly and real, regardless of how you pronounced them?