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Playing Eliza in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion

Updated: Feb 1, 2022


I had just turned 16 in April of my senior year in high school. The Buffalo Seminary was an all-girls prep school for the upper crust in Buffalo. One had to apply for admission and the academics were considered excellent. Five Jewish girls in a class of 50 were accepted each year. We were clearly not the debutants who “came out” each year. I never knew what that meant until I read a lot of Jane Austen in college. Here are our lovely daughters, eligible bachelors, ready to be married. Let’s dance! Only other debutants in our class were invited to these events. That was simply the way it was. We five did have some non-Jewish friends but mostly we hung out together. Merlie and I competed for the lead in Pygmalion but I had a few advantages—my sister acted in summer theater and had worked with the drama teacher at Sem during the last few seasons. Jill was good at accents and helped me develop the cockney I needed. I remember the audition and my letting loose with Aaaaaooh I’m just a flower girl, I aayam! That cinched me the role. Not sure Merlie ever forgave me. A very homely but tall girl with acne played professor Higgins. I remember wishing the part had been given to Ann, a tall athletic girl I admired. I have recollections of rehearsals, but the daunting task of learning all those lines remains a blur. I think I just inhaled them easily and naturally at that age. I look back now in wonder as I grope for the name of a bird species or best friend.


We worked hard, the sets were painted, the lights were arranged, the night came, and I was terrified. My sister was very excited for me, but I felt sick. But then, with Aaaaaooh I’m just a flower girl, I aayam! I was off and running. In the early scenes I was dressed in rags, hair awry, not too clean, and really got into it. When the curtain opened later in the play onto a drawing room, with a cleaned-up me sitting rigidly at a tea table, an audible gasp went across the auditorium. I spoke in a nasal high-born British accent and kept my movements in check. We had them!


What glory and fame for a day or so! I loved the sudden respect in my sister’s eye. Joanie, you were GREAT! And I could see that she meant it.

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