observations and opinion
If you had the chance to spend a half hour with Henry Higgins (of My Fair Lady) or with King Arthur in Camelot, which Englishman would you choose?
Higgins is a boor, a snob, a tyrant – a bastard actually and a little creepy, considering his social re-engineering of Eliza Doolittle. And then, having scraped the street off her through a series of humiliations, the Professor falls for her. Sort of – he had grown accustomed to her face, as he put it.
Arthur is a different sort of chap. Although a warrior, he is fretful in the face of romance. A romantic, his idealistic life is shattered by reality: a bitter son, the faithless Guinevere, a vision of society broken by the greed of others. He ends an exile, trying to revive his dream of the Round Table from afar.
When the Grade 8 play came along, these were the two male leads dangled before us. Blessed with too many eager young actors, the teacher Mrs K decided to do both My Fair Lady and Camelot, simultaneously. It was easy to see which boys would take the leads: my best friend would be one, and I would be the other. And with us, some lucky girls would be Eliza and Guinevere.
But what we didn’t know which young actor would play Arthur and which Higgins. For me, the choice was plain: I wanted to be Arthur. Being the broken-hearted sort myself, he felt familiar. More important was the likelihood that Guinevere would be played by a girl named Kath. Kath, unfortunately for her and far less fortunately for me, was the strawberry blonde girl of my dreams. If she were cast as Eva Braun, I’d have signed up to play Hitler.
What my heart yearned for, however, made as little difference to casting the plays as it did to anything else in life. What mattered to the director, oddly enough, was putting the right actor in the right role. And on that score no-one had the slightest doubt: I was just the boy to be Henry Higgins.
That’s not how I saw myself. In my skin, I was a hopeless, right-thinking idealist with a massive crush on Guinevere (Kath). I was Arthur. But on the outside to all who thought they knew me, I was Higgins: imperious but not imperial, roiling but not royal, not a brave heart but a bastard. Or at the very least, a snob – looking haughtily down at others – not from a throne, but down my nose.
At the time, it felt wrong. This was not who I was or who I wanted to be. But as is so often true, the outer shell that others saw portrayed an aspect of the person within, which he himself was blind to. For all my insecurities, I was arrogant. Perhaps it was a protective stance, but there is no doubt that I believed – and was seen to believe – that I was smarter than others and that being smarter was important. Very important.
I was an actor, all the time: when you grow up the way I did, in a house full of drunken agonies and war, you teach yourself to keep secrets. No-one on my street was ever to know what went on inside our door. It felt disloyal to tell people what my parents were like or how they lived; it felt dangerous to betray the secret; and it felt like I would be judged, both as a traitor and maybe as a victim, if the world found out. And that was unbearable. So I learned to keep the truth buried, to trust no-one, to use my talents for self-protection – against dangers often more imagined than real.
So it was, when told I would be Higgins, I made a meek protest of the choice. It was disappointing not to be crooning at Kath / Guinevere, but Higgins was familiar. My young ego took pleasure in being seen as the part I played each day. So I would be the domineering, controlling, biting Professor Higgins. Too young and unsophisticated to glimpse or even guess at the frailty in the man, I saw him as I had apparently been seen. And with a script so madly condensed that any gentleness or complexity was erased, I played Higgins in the cartoon form: impatient, intelligent, imposing.
So it was, that I accepted – not for the first time, not for the last – the role offered, the role that permitted me to hide behind a Potemkin village of words and poses. It became evident soon that this would work much better if I could be less astringent and more accessible – more affable, at least. And so I learned to be friendly, to be funny, to be aware but not too dangerous. A nicer Henry Higgins.
We grow up, and as we do, the roles we play become the person within, while the person within leaches out and merges with the part. We draw a spotlight around ourselves, or find them, so that the character can be seen. But there is a dark ache in the caves and crevices where our true selves do not walk, cannot even breathe.
The show, I think, was a success. I loved “The Rain in Spain” – on reflection you can see in it, how Higgins was not just a bully but also was thrilled to be a teacher. It was great fun. The play was a whirl of work and fun and fear and courage on stage. I played my part. And I think I was a pretty good Higgins, for a 13 year old boy.
Months later, long after the show was over and as Grade 8 came to an end, Mrs K approached me in the hall outside her classroom. She asked to have a word.
“You should go to university” she said. Her voice was soft but insistent: “You must.”
You must. I nodded. She was right. But I could feel danger creeping up around me.
“And if you ever have any trouble – if you need….” she paused. “ help” she paused again. That word, that word “help” hung there in the air. “If you need help, I will be here.”
“Help.” I knew what it meant: it meant “money.” And it meant “support” and it meant “help.”
I don’t remember my thoughts. I remember fear, and confusion. No-one had ever said that I was going anyplace. No-one had ever said that I deserved help. No-one had ever offered me “help”.
No-one had ever – I thought – even seen me. But suddenly, in the hallway outside English class, on the last day of school, I was unveiled. I was stripped bare. My secrets were seen and, almost, spoken. Mrs K could see me in there, could see that I needed help, could see that I was alone, and had come to tell me: you’re not alone.
I couldn’t speak. A word would confess everything and I wasn’t ready to do that. A hand closed around my throat, to hold the secrets in. They burst out through my eyes, silent, covering my cheeks. I stood, stony, shaking, silent and afraid.
But I knew inside, the way kids always know, this was as right and good a thing as so many other things are wrong and bad. Just being seen, just for a moment, just hearing those words told me that maybe, just maybe, I deserved to be known. To be helped. To be more of myself than I had ever dared to be.
Maybe even, to be King Arthur.