My Fair Lady

Notes & Glossary

The story of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady is based on the non-musical play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, which, in turn was based on the tale of "Pygmalion" from ancient Greek mythology as retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story is about a misogynist on the island of Cyprus named Pygmalion who builds an ivory statue of a woman, which he names Galatea, and works on it until it becomes so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He prays to Venus (Aphrodite) who takes pity on him and brings the statue to life. They eventually have two daughters. Shaw’s idea was what would happen when Galatea takes on a life of her own, and is free to reject Pygmalion. Thus in one sense Higgins is Pygmalion and Eliza is Galatea.  However, in the epilogue to Shaw’s play, Eliza marries Freddy.  Many readers have been appalled at that idea, including Lerner, which is why the ending of My Fair Lady is changed. Thus the real Pygmalion is Shaw, who brings two characters to life, Higgins and Eliza, and they take on a life of their own. Our knowledge of human nature suggests that Eliza is too strong a character for the likes of Freddy. (I owe this insight to Maya Angelou.) 

The title My Fair Lady is from the cockney pronunciation of Mayfair lady, as in the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down".  Mayfair is one of the richest districts of London, located in the West End. The name comes from a fair that was formerly held there each May. The story is about how a Lisson Grove girl becomes a Mayfair lady, and the consequences of that transformation.


Act I, Scene 1: Covent Garden

Act I, Scene 2: Tenement Section, Tottenham Court Road

Act I, Scene 3: Higgins’ Study

Act I, Scene 5: Higgins’ Study

Act I, Scene 6: Outside Ascot

Act I, Scene 7: Ascot

Act I, Scene 8: Outside Higgins’ House, Wimpole St

Act I, Scene 9: Higgins’ Study

Act I, Scene 10: Embassy Promenade

Act II, Scene 1: Higgins’ Study

Act II, Scene 2: Outside Higgins’ House

Act II, Scene 3: Covent Garden Flower Market

Act II, Scene 4: Higgins’ House, Upstairs

Act II, Scene 5: Garden of Mrs Higgins’ House


Today, the monetary unit of the United Kingdom is the pound sterling, abbreviated £ (from Latin libra). It is currently the third-most used currency in international trade (after the U. S. Dollar and the Euro). It is subdivided into 100 (new) pence, abbreviated "p".  Before the monetary reform of 1971, the British pound sterling was divided into 20 shillings. Each shilling was then divided into 12 pence. (Pence is plural for penny when denoting value, but pennies when counting coins. Thus five pennies are together worth five pence.)  The abbreviations for pound, shilling, penny were £. s. d., respectively, from Latin Libra, solidus, denarius. The first coin to be minted in England was the silver penny, called the sterling, or "little star". It took 240 of them to make a pound, so that became a pound sterling. After the Norman conquest (1066) the unit of shilling was introduced.  But until much later there were no pound or shilling coins; these were merely units of account. Some of the monetary units and coins referred to in the play are: 

Formal Dress

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, moved to England in 1876, lived the rest of his life there, and died in 1950. He is primarily known as a playwright; his most famous plays include Arms and the Man (1894), You Never Can Tell (1897), The Devil’s Disciple (1897) , Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1902-03), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Pygmalion (1912-13), and Saint Joan (1923). Oscar Strauss’s musical adaptation of Arms and the Man, called The Chocolate Soldier (1908), was popular, but Shaw detested it, and he forbade any further musicalization of his work. Thus My Fair Lady could not be made until after Shaw’s death.

Shaw used his work, particularly his plays, to promote his political beliefs, usually through the vehicle of humor. He was a socialist, although not a Marxist; Shaw believed socialism should be brought about without violence.  Thus he one of the founding members of the Fabian Society, which sought to promote socialism through gradual (usually democratic) means. At age 25, he became a vegetarian. He was a passionate advocate for the rights of women and for the working class. He also was a eugenicist, and wanted only the best of society to breed. He ardently opposed the First World War, although that cost him much support. After the war, he became impatient with the democratic process, and tended to admire Mussolini and Stalin. He went to the Soviet Union and met Stalin, praising his "reforms", despite evidence of mass murder. Another of his interests was spelling reform, which he employed to a limited extent in his writings--one can see that in Pygmalion. He willed a portion of his estate to promote a new alphabet for English, but the legacy was too small, until it began to expand, ironically, when My Fair Lady became a hit!

More notes

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote Life of the Party (1942), What’s Up? (1943), The Day Before Spring (1945), Brigadoon (1947: film 1964), Paint Your Wagon (1951: film 1969), My Fair Lady (1956: film 1964), Gigi (film: 1958; stage version adapted from the film, 1973), Camelot (1960: film 1967), and The Little Prince (film: 1974).

My Fair Lady was such a huge success, that tickets for their next Broadway production, Camelot, were sold out for several months before it opened. It was no My Fair Lady, but it still achieved international success.

Additional places mentioned in Shaw’s Pygmalion, but not in My Fair Lady.

Another glossary

More information and another glossary can be found at this site.