EVA AND ELIZA: MIRROR IMAGES

Josep MarĂ­a Pou has staged J.B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls at Teatre Goya here in BCN for the first time in Spain, with the exception of a 1973 version for TVE’s Estudio 1 (um, the good old times when drama had a place on Spanish TV… The new version didn’t apparently get the expected share last year…). I find Pou’s production very good as regards acting but disappointingly conservative as regards stage design. The memory of Mario Gas’s version of Priestley’s Time and the Conways, which I saw in 1992, doesn’t quite abandon me throughout Pou’s production. As happens, Stephen Daldry rescued Inspector, coincidentally also in 1992, in a production for the National Theatre of London, rightly famous for its stage design. This production just returned, this time to the West End, in 2009 (trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7jGR61PM6k).

Anyway, this is not my point today –though maybe it should if I think of the great session on radical stage design that Taisma Caparrós offered my class last Thursday. Rather, as happens, I’m teaching Shaw’s Pygmalion and it strikes me that the suicide girl in Priestley’s play, known among other names as Eva Smith, could very well be a mirror image of Eliza Doolittle, a very unhappy one.

A left-wing political play masking as traditional detective fiction, An Inspector Calls was first staged in the extinct USSR in 1945, then in London in 1946. It is set, however, in 1912, months before the sinking of the Titanic, mentioned by the pompous patriarch, Mr. Birling, as an example of British achievement that can’t fail. Pygmalion was written, precisely, in the Spring of 1912, but first staged in London only in 1914, after the Viennese production of 1913 and just a few months before the start of calamitous WWI. Eva, aged 24 in 1912 and Eliza, aged 18-20, according to Shaw’s directions, are thus contemporaries –working girls surviving as they can.

Whereas London offers Eliza –a street seller of violets who will not sell herself for money in the streets– the romance of her transformation into an ersatz lady, thanks to her bumping into bachelor phonetician Higgins and his pal Pickering, Eva is not so lucky in her northern Midlands town, Brumley, where the Birlings rule. I won’t spoil the play for you but, basically, Priestley narrates through the inquiry of the Inspector into the death of this girl (if she is one and not five…) the sad fate of abused working girls who simply demand better wages. There’s no Higgins to rescue Eva from the gutter and she sinks as low as possible. The Inspector can only apportion blame.

I marvel at how the two plays denounce the workings of patriarchal capitalism by focusing on a young woman, whether present (Eliza) or absent (Eva), and also at how well both plays explain the complicity of upper-class women with patriarchy. It seems that Pou was tempted to update the play to our times but found it would damage its credibility. I really don’t think so –particular points might need adjustment but the Evas of this world are still trapped 100 years later by unemployment, sexual exploitation, the jealousy of uglier women and a narrow-minded morality. Eliza’s story appears to be, by contrast, a mere fairy tale, though of a rather cruel kind. It is also, I believe, not so difficult to update (Willy Russell did it perfectly in his play Educating Rita).

If written by a woman both Pygmalion and An Inspector Calls would have been deemed feminist plays about the victimisation of women. Written, as they are, by men their politics appear to be socialist above all. I wonder what Eva and Eliza would tell each other if they could meet in that other world, where fictional characters live… and die alone.

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