April 11: Pygmalion opens in London, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Born

1914: Pygmalion is a play by George Bernard Shaw, named after a Greek mythological
figure. It was first presented on stage to the public in at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna on 16 October 1913, in a German translation.  Its first New York production opened on 24 March 1914 at the German-language Irving Place Theatre. It opened in London on this day in 1914, at Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s ‘His Majesty’s Theatre’ and starred Mrs. Patrick Campbell (pictured) as Eliza and Tree as Higgins, running for 118 performances. Shaw directed the actors through tempestuous rehearsals often punctuated by at least one of the two storming out of the theatre in a rage.

Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney Stage-04-11-1914flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a commentary on women’s independence.

In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures, which then came to life. The general idea of that myth was a popular subject for Victorian era English playwrights, including one of Shaw’s influences, W. S. Gilbert, who wrote a successful play based on the story called Pygmalion and Galatea that was first presented in 1871. Shaw would also have been familiar with the burlesque version, Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed. Shaw’s play has been adapted numerous times, most notably as the musical My Fair Lady and its film version.

Shaw mentioned that the character of Professor Henry Higgins was inspired by several British professors of phonetics: Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander J. Ellis, Tito Pagliardini, but above all, the cantankerous Henry Sweet

1967: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard opened at the National Theatre in London, following an original 1964 one-act incarnation entitled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear and an expanded version under the current name staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966.

John Stride played Rosencrantz and Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern.  “Waiting For God” actor Graham Crowden (1922-2010) appeared as The Player, and John McEnery played Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As well as playing on Broadway there has been a radio adaptation featuring Edward Hardwicke (1932-2011, Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes), Freddie Jones (currently in Emmerdale) and Martin Jarvis.  Although MGM acquired the film rights in 1968, a film version did not appear until 1990, directed by Stoppard himself.  It starred Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as the Player, and featured Ian Richardson (1934-2007, House Of Cards) and Iain Glen (Jack Taylor).

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