May 20, 2010
Courtesy of Marc Acito NPR.com
In Act One of My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl learning to speak like a lady, fantasizes about meeting the king. Of course, because it's a musical, she sings:
"One evening the king will say, 'Oh, Liza, old thing - I want all of England your praises to sing. Next week on the twentieth of May, I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day. "
Since I'm not Julie Andrews, I'll spare you the rest, but suffice to say Eliza envisions all of England celebrating her glory. The only ones who recognize Eliza Doolittle Day, however, are music theater geeks like myself. And while an evening of cocktails and show tunes sounds like fun, it's insufficient to mark the occasion because Eliza's message is all too relevant today.
You see, My Fair Lady is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and both pieces explore the ramifications of learning how to speak properly at a time when elocution was valued as a symbol of education and upward mobility.
Emphasis on the was.
Listen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt say "the only thing we have to feah is feah itself," and it's almost inconceivable that ordinary Americans trusted someone who sounded like Thurston Howell III. We are now in an age when Sarah Palin speaks to a quarter of the electorate even though she talks like she's translating into Korean and back again. Even the rhetorically gifted President Obama has felt compelled to drop his g's while tryin' to sell health care reform.
Nowadays soundin' folksy has become more important than sounding educated. As Eliza's teacher Henry Higgins says, "Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak." But our country's biggest competitors are learning proper English and, judging from all the Indian call centers, learning it quite well. Our country was built by people striving to move up, not dumbing down. So on this Eliza Doolittle Day perhaps we should all take a moment to think before we speak.
Marc Acito is the author of How I Paid for College and Attack of the Theater People.