Posted by Hannah Miller
Welcome to the second installment of Word of the Week on the Barksdale Buzz. Every seven days or so, I’ll discuss a theatre legend whose birthday was celebrated during the previous week, choose a word somehow connected to the selected artist, and define it.
This week’s theatre artist is REX HARRISON, and the word is BILIOUS.
Rex Harrison is a beloved English actor of the stage and screen, best known for creating the role of Henry Higgins in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady has been produced in Richmond by both Swift Creek Mill Theatre and TheatreVirginia. Before it changed its name from the Virginia Museum Theatre to TheatreVirginia, VMT also produced Pygmalion, the classic play by George Bernard Shaw on which My Fair Lady is based.
Rex Harrison was born in Liverpool, England as Reginald Carey Harrison on March 5, 1908. On Wednesday of this week, the world celebrated his centennial. As a child, Harrison changed his first name to Rex (Latin for “King”). After he made his stage debut in Liverpool at the age of 16 and his film debut at the age of 22, his career as an actor took off. He became a star after his 2-year run of French Without Tears in London, and continued acting until just a few weeks before his death in 1990.
In response to his multiple marriages (6 wives), the press dubbed him “Sexy Rexy,” a nickname with which he was none too happy.
In 1956, Harrison starred on stage in My Fair Lady in New York and London, garnering fame on both continents. His co-star was Julie Andrews.
In 1964, Harrison won the Oscar for best leading actor in a film when he reprised the role of Higgins in the screen adaptation of My Fair Lady, co-starring Audrey Hepburn. In 1967, he earned a new generation of fans playing the title role in Doctor Dolittle. Despite his reservations about performing in a children's movie, Harrison agreed to star in the film because of the involvement of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Harrison stuck with the movie even after Lerner pulled out due to frustration.
In addition to his popularity with audiences internationally, Harrison was well respected among professionals. The Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer explained, “I've been in this business a long time, and Rex Harrison is the only actor doing comedy that I can learn from.” Impressed by his talent, Noel Coward (an acclaimed playwright and comedic actor) named him “the best light comedian in the world—after me.”
In My Fair Lady, Harrison’s character (Henry Higgins) is an expert in phonetics. While visiting the open-air market in London’s Covent Garden (the first scene of the musical), Higgins encounters an uneducated flower girl named Eliza Doolittle. In the following lines, he arrogantly tells her how much he dislikes her way of speaking.
Eliza: I have a right to be here if I like, same as you!
Higgins: A woman who utters such disgusting, depressing noises has no right to be anywhere, no right to live! Remember, you’re a human with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech. Your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. Don’t sit there crooning like a BILIOUS pigeon.
Shortly after this encounter, Higgins bets a fellow gentleman that he can transform Eliza from a “guttersnipe” into an elegant lady by teaching her proper diction. The rest of the musical tells the story of how he does just that, with questionable results.
BILIOUS - (ˈbil-yəs) adjective - of, relating to, or containing bile; or
peevish, irritable, cranky, extremely unpleasant or distasteful
BILIOUS comes from the Latin word bilis, which means anger or displeasure. Practitioners of ancient and medieval medicine believed that health was governed by the four vital fluids or humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Gasses rising up through the body from a supposed excess of yellow bile (the yellowish, greenish digestive fluid secreted by the liver) were believed to make a patient irritable. Consequently, BILIOUS now has two definitions: the first having to do with the fluid from the liver and the second having to do with a cranky dispostion. Today, of course, we know that bile has nothing to do with crabbiness.
Higgins’ analogy of Eliza “crooning like a bilious pigeon” conjures up the amusing and pathetic image of her chirping like a peevish pigeon, incapable of speaking English.
If I'm not mistaken, I believe I heard our word BILIOUS spoken onstage in Little Women, now playing at the Mill, to describe “Aunt March.”
In 1990, Harrison returned to Broadway in The Circle by Somerset Maugham, author of Barksdale's 2006 hit, The Constant Wife. In May Harrison fell ill and was replaced, temporarily it was believed, by his understudy. Three weeks later he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 82, closing the show.
To read previous Word of the Week columns, click on “Word of the Week” in the labels below. Thanks for reading!