In an interesting case of art mimicking life, Jason Eisner, a professor in the Computer Science Department and the Language and Speech Processing Center, will costar as the linguistics Professor Henry Higgins in Third Wall’s production of My Fair Lady. The play debuts on Friday, Nov. 9.
Eisner described it as “the role of a lifetime.”
“You understand, I ONLY get to play the romantic lead when it specifically calls for a pompous 50-year-old linguistics professor,” he tweeted.
A professor in Computer Science, Eisner boasts over 3,500 Twitter followers, along with a joint appointment in Cognitive Science. His area of expertise seems to lie at the crossroads between the two departments; it’s computational linguistics or, in layman’s terms, getting computers to understand, produce and learn human languages.
As Eisner explained, the character of Higgins was inspired by philologist Henry Sweet. Sweet devised a precursor to the International Phonetic Alphabet — an alphabet used to represent the various sounds of spoken language — which Hopkins students learn today.
Eisner is more than ready to fill Higgins’ shoes on stage. As a child, he learned to do an English accent by listening to the original cast recording of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady.
“At my conference in Belgium, I ran a couple of speeches by one of the British linguists here, and he green-lighted my accent,” Eisner wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “What he actually said was, ‘You don’t sound like a regular person, of course, but you do sound exactly like anyone doing Higgins.’”
After completing his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, Eisner studied at the University of Cambridge in England, where he performed alongside (and rode on the shoulders of) Sacha Baron Cohen in Fiddler on the Roof before becoming a linguistics professor.
Eisner first became involved with the Baltimore theater scene after seeing The Sound of Music with his son, whom he took to audition for The Wizard of Oz. Although there weren’t many roles available for children, Eisner ended up playing the Scarecrow.
He noted that he has thoroughly enjoyed being a part of local productions since then.
“It’s an indulgence to be able to spend eight hours a week rehearsing. I am glad to have the blessing of my graduate students to engage in an extracurricular activity once in a while,” he said.
Eisner actually knows what Higgins is talking about when he mentions “bits of linguistics” a few times during the play.
But does Higgins?
“Not always,” Eisner said. For one, Higgins is under the impression that English is the only language that has dialects, accents and variations, which Eisner finds “totally nuts.”
In addition, in the song “Why Can’t the English?,” Higgins sings, “Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning. / And Hebrews learn it backwards, / Which is absolutely frightening.”
“He’s referring to the fact that Hebrew is written from right to left, but so is Arabic!” Eisner said.
This lyrical misstep might bother a linguist, but what might bother audiences even more are Higgins’ arrogance and sense of entitlement — Eisner called this attitude “self-justifications and careless cruelty.”
My Fair Lady’s source material, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, dates back to 1912, but Eisner believes that the play’s content still rings extremely relevant today.
“What amazes me is how well Shaw, who was ahead of his time, nailed male privilege,” Eisner said.
Eisner noted, however, that the central issue of the play is not that of the #MeToo movement. That is, the play is less concerned with consent for sex than the #MeToo movement is. There are no instances of sexual harassment or physical abuse that occur in the play.
Instead, he expressed the importance of informed consent, which is defined by the American Psychological Association as “the process by which researchers working with human participants describe their research project and obtain the subjects’ consent to participate in the research based on the subjects’ understanding of the project’s methods and goals.”
Indeed, Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl with a thick Cockney accent, comes to Higgins for voice coaching, but he makes the lessons he gives her a research study despite having only vaguely explained the terms and conditions.
“It’s ethically borderline,” Eisner said.
Eliza even says that she wouldn’t have gotten involved with Higgins if she had known what she was getting into. Ultimately, according to Eisner, she loses some of the autonomy she wielded selling flowers and scraping by on the streets; now that she has transformed into a lady, she repeatedly questions what is going to become of her.
Eisner explained, however, that though Act I is about Eliza’s external transformation, Act II is about Higgins’ internal transformation.
“Higgins’s transformation is much less complete but also more morally and psychologically interesting,” he wrote.
Eisner has sought to render a multidimensional portrayal of Higgins.
“The most important thing, I think, is for me to strike the balance between making him an arrogant and entitled cad that the audience can hate for his jerkiness toward Eliza and, at the same time, an entertaining rogue with eventual chinks in his armor, whom the audience can sympathize with and be glad for at the end,” he wrote.
Indeed, Eliza offers Higgins a second chance at the end of My Fair Lady, hinting at a potential romantic future to which Shaw would have been vehemently opposed. He insisted that Pygmalion was not a love story with a “happy ending” and wrote a postscript in which Eliza marries someone else.
Higgins, although somewhat despicable, is also lovable in Eisner’s eyes; he’s a bad boy whose insults you can enjoy. Unlike #MeToo villains like Harvey Weinstein, Higgins does not intend to deceive, according to Eisner; he is straightforward and doesn’t care about what anybody else thinks. Eisner likened him to popular antiheroes in film and television.
“I also basically think of him as the advisor [to Eliza],” he said.
Eisner went on to compare the song “Just You Wait,” in which Eliza imagines a number of situations in which he needs her help — including one in which Higgins is executed by the King at her request — to “a graduate student revenge fantasy.”
I for one cannot wait to see ‘enry ‘iggins and the rest of the cast perform at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Towson.
My Fair Lady runs Nov. 9 through Nov. 11 and Nov. 16 through 18.