Vandamm's Pygmalion

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
March 10, 2014
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Lynn Fontanne as Eliza Doolittle.

Image ID: 485097

By the time that you read this post, the exhibition Pioneering Poet of Light: Florence Vandamm & the Vandamm Studio will have been de-installed.  The photograph and key sheets will be returned to the Performing Arts Library divisions.  But the blogging will continue since there are thousands of photographs representing thousands of shows, dances and people.

Appropriately, this photograph shows Lynn Fontanne crawling on the stage.  One of Vandamm’s muses (and frequent employers), Fontanne’s talent was focused on a long, influential career on Broadway and national tours, but barely documented in film.  She, with husband/co-star Alfred Lunt, made a few, didn’t enjoy it, and stopped. 

The image shows her as Eliza Doolittle at the end of the first scene in the 1926 Theatre Guild production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The brilliantly constructed scene introduces the characters in the colonnade of Covent Garden, for the rain to cease.  Eliza overhears Higgins state that he can teacher her proper English, “make a duchess out of a flower girl.”  She is skeptical, but when the scene clears, she grabs for the spare change that has fallen to the wet cobble stones.  That gesture stops being servile because the stage is empty—she sees an alternative future and grabs for it.   It leads to the second scene, and sparks the plot. 

Most of the Pygmalion images on the Digital Gallery are flat, scanned from negatives which may not have been selected for distribution to the press. This one is different.  Like the Medea images from 1919 (and an earlier post), the Pygmalion required that the actress and the photographer hit the floor.  This gives it energy and gravity—we believe that the flower girl can instigate the action and become a Shavian  new woman.  Like the actress. Like the photographer.