The garden is entering its season of fullest splendor, so let’s consider the violets. Bunches of them sit, in a wide basket, on the stage at the opening of LCT’s My Fair Lady, waiting for Eliza Doolittle to purvey them. These stems have not sprung from the soil. Alison Mantilla, the production’s props supervisor, told me that the violets “are made of a silk-blend fabric. Even though New York City has one of the greatest artificial-flower districts in Chelsea, violets are oddly not popular. I had to buy them online. I purchased them in bushes and then we made them into little nosegays.”
That the violets are inorganic is not a matter of emitting too much fragrance into the Vivian Beaumont -- of having to compete with patrons’ perfume. Why? Because modern violets have lost their scent. Just as rose breeders selected buds on the basis of color and size, forfeiting fragrance, so have violet specialists preferred bloom and stem and color over aroma.
Did the show’s prop people opt for the synthetic so as not to activate allergies? No. While the African violet can emit noxious pollen the more common cut variety, the viola odorata, is very mild. Their poetic potency, on the other hand, is intense. Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, and Spenser have sung their praises.
Eliza likely sold parma violets – also quite odorless now -- outside Covent Garden: by 1910 violet corsages had become a fad with the opera crowd. This was true not only in London but in New York. To provide the blossom, towns up and down the Hudson built glasshouses to shelter parmas. Every day, they were plucked by the bushel, tied in bunches, and dispatched to New York City to be sold on street corners. For London, parmas were cultivated north of the city.
So why finally are the My Fair Lady blooms synthetic? Largely as a matter of expense. Using real flowers, said props supervisor Mantilla, is not “cost-effective.” Violets are no longer as cheap as they were in 1912 London, where a bunch cost tuppence. Buying violets may not pick one’s pocket as aggressively as do Juliet roses or slipper orchids, but they still would be budget busters. And the color of those used in My Fair Lady is so fetching that it makes no matter whether they were picked that day or not. And let’s not forget that real stems wouldn’t retain color or texture. Mantilla explained: “In My Fair Lady, we have hundreds of flowers, and Eliza’s violets get thrown and stomped on every night.” Mantilla added: Real flowers “wouldn’t stand a chance!”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com