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A Pygmalion Tale, but So Much More

By Heidi Madsen
From Insights, 2003

 

Born Yesterday is set in the very year of its composition, the year of the presidential succession of Harry S. Truman, the year of the A-bombs, 1945. World War II was coming to an end, and the theatre was shifting from plays that analyzed politics, war, and the evils of fascism to plays that analyzed people—plays such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. But, playwright Garson Kanin was still preoccupied with things political. He may have had some misgivings about the American people, how they felt about their country, how well they understood and appreciated their government, and whether or not they recognized their prevailing personal responsibilities to it.

Kanin’s script in its original form included elements which were later removed due to tensions inside the U.S. associated with the Cold War. No one at this time was above scrutiny. Hollywood was followed with fascinated attention as usual—but the government was searching the stars for signs of propaganda.
As a result, Born Yesterday lost a significant amount of its charge, political metaphors were diluted, and the play became the Pygmalion tale which it is thought of today.

Kanin wanted to address the subject of dictatorship. At the start of the war, before knowledge of the Holocaust, there were many, including scholars and American heroes, who bought into the ideology of the dictator with its claims and promises of social and economic equality. Some even participated in the infamous Berlin book burnings where the work and words of wonderful minds—Eintsein, Thomas Mann, Jack London, H.G. Wells, and thousands of others—went up in smoke. When Helen Keller was informed that her book, too, had been selected for incineration she responded: “Tyranny cannot defeat the power of ideas” (www.ushmm.org/outreach/propag.htm, Nazi Propaganda and censorship). This, then, is truly the prevailing theme of Born Yesterday.

With hints of farcicality to lighten the underlying seriousness of the subject, Kanin would place dictatorship inside modern American culture and call it Harry Brock, self-made millionaire and scrap-metal war profiteer from Plainfield, New Jersey.

In the opening act of Born Yesterday, Brock has just arrived in Washington, D.C. along with his entourage: his lawyer (every dictator needs a lawyer) Ed Devery, an alcoholic and ex-secretary to a supreme court justice; his cousin and stooge Eddie Brock; and his girlfriend of nine years, former chorus girl Billie Dawn.

Brock is determined to do business where he wants, how he wants, and as big as he wants. He has come to Washington to secure legislation that will help his million-dollar junk business and has bought himself a senator, Norvall Hedges, to help ensure this.

Typical of the male tendency to choose beauty and then become dissatisfied with it, when Senator and Mrs. Hedges meet Billie, Harry begins to worry: “Every time she opened her mouth tonight, something wrong came out.” Devery, who is paid to give unwanted advice, suggests he send her home, but Brock has a better idea. He will hire Paul Verrall, a reporter with The New Republic, to show her the ropes and hopefully smarten her up a little.

At first, Verrall sees Brock’s proposition only as a way to discover more about him and his business dealings—already alert to the fact that they were not entirely on the level—and to find outexactly what Harry is doing in Washington. Verrall needs names, facts, and specific misdeeds before he can “get it to the people.” However, he knows that “a world full of ignorant people is dangerous”; and, notwithstanding his obvious attraction to the ex-chorus girl, he desires to empower Billie with information which could free her from those who would degrade her through the misuse of their power. She is “breathtakingly beautiful,” but she does not have to stay “breathtakingly stupid.”

Requiring only a jump-start from Verrall, Billie begins to read and to exercise her mind; she visits the National Gallery. She recalls her roots--the worthy care of a concerned father who wanted her to make her way through life reputably, usefully, and felicitously.

It has been said that Born Yesterday is a Pygmalion tale inasmuch as Billie’s so-called intellectual transformation can be compared to the physical and mental transformation of Eliza Doolittle. Eliza, in George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, was molded into something beautiful, something statuesque, but her sculptor was startled when from the statue, a soul emerged. And while, with Born Yesterday, we do start to see the woman inside emerge from somewhere blank and uninteresting, what occurs inside of Billie could be more appropriately defined as an awakening rather than a transformation--an awakening to things previously known--an empowerment.

Obvious parallels can be drawn between Billie’s childhood and the American democratic structure and between the non-nurturing environment of stifling dominance and vicarious living which she experienced with Harry Brock and the human condition found under a despotic dictator.

If Harry Brock is a metaphor for dictatorship, Billie Dawn can either be an allegory representing the countries who had been invaded and used, or one for an unconscious America strangely inviting to people

in power. Either way, Kanin did not condone the misuse of power. Much like Shakespeare, Kanin was able to make political commentary safely through his characters. For instance, Paul Verrall, at the end of Act 3, sums up best what Garson Kanin was trying to tell us: “It’s enough to break your heart. You see a perfect piece of machinery--the democratic structure--and somebody’s always tampering with it . . . trying to make it hit the jackpot.”


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