Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) is a play which was published in 1912. In Greek Mythology, Pygmalion is the name of a gifted sculptor who falls in love with one of his masterpieces, which he names Galatea. The interesting thing about this myth, is that for some reason, Pygmalion despised women, and vowed that he would never marry. He placed all his time and effort into his craft.
Now back to his sculpture Galatea that he falls in love with, he has outdone himself this time. Galatea is the most beautiful sculpture he has ever created. I guess in his mind, Galatea possesses the qualities that he never saw in real women. Pygmalion is so enamoured with his creation that he wants her to become his wife. The sculptor prays to the Goddess Aphrodite, imploring her to transform his masterpiece into a real woman, and guess what? she grants him his wish. Galatea and Pygmalion marry with Aphrodite’s blessing. Nothing like a good love story!
Later, the word Pygmalion evolved to mean, “A man who “shapes” an uncultivated woman into an educated creature.” In Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins is Pygmalion and Cockney Eliza Doolittle is Galatea.
Many authors of literary classics wrote as a response to the social injustices they observed in society. According to Wikipedia, “Nearly all his [Shaw] writings address prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy which makes their stark themes more palatable. Shaw examined education, marriage, religion, government, health care, and class privilege…. He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), for his contributions to literature and for his work on the film Pygmalion (adaptation of his play of the same name), respectively.”
The play starts out with the key characters seeking shelter from the rain under the portico of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. The mother and daughter are waiting for her son Freddy to return with a taxi. Freddy is not portrayed in a very good light, he is seen as very spineless. A flower girl appears and is trying to sell flowers to the people under the shelter. She is very uncultured and speaks cockney. A gentleman comes out of the rain under the shelter and the flower girl tries to sell him flowers. All during this time, you have who is called a note taker, who is writing down what he is hearing.
The flower girl becomes very upset because she thinks he is a copper. There is much debate about whether or not he is a copper because of the appearance of his shoes. The note taker accurately guesses where people are from based on their speech patterns. The rain stops falling and people vacate the shelter except for the flower girl, the note taker and the gentleman.
We learn that the note taker is none other than Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins, and the gentleman is Colonel Pickering. It so happens that both men are interested in each other’s work and had plans to meet other which was unknown to each. Higgins claims that with the work he has done in his study of phonetics and the science of speech, he can make anyone more refined. The men exchange addresses, but Pickering suggests that they get together for supper.
While they are leaving, the flower girl is still trying to sell her ware. Higgins is very condescending and rebukes her. However the church clock strikes at that moment, and he is feeling like a Pharisees, so he throws a handful of coins into her flower basket.
The next morning, the flower girl takes a cab to visit Higgins because she wants to become more refined, and she is using the money he dumped into her flower basket the previous day to pay for her lessons. Pickering is present when the flower girl appears. We soon learn that her name is Eliza Doolittle. Higgins is very unconventional and has no tolerance for high society and doesn’t follow their rules. He can also be viewed as being very curt, and some might say a bully.
After much back and forthing between Higgins and the sassy Eliza, he decides to take her on as a project. The outcome is that in a few months time, the flower girl will become so refined in her speech, manner and dress that she is able to fool the other guests at a garden tea party into thinking that she is a woman of class.
Higgins asks his housekeeper Mrs Pearce to bathe Eliza and get her some new clothes. While that is going on, Eliza’s father Albert Doolittle shows up and demands money for his daughter, but he does so under the guise of asking for the return of his daughter. Higgins pays Doolittle five pounds.
As the play unfolds, you see Eliza blossoming and becoming more refined. One day Higgins and Pickering decide to take Eliza to visit Mrs Higgins to get her impressions of Eliza, but they want to pave the way first. Higgins’ mother is a very refined, stately, and well-to-do woman in her sixties. Mrs Higgins views their experiment as idiocy. During the visit, the mother and daughter who were under the portico while it was raining, also visit Mrs Higgins. We later learn that they are Mrs Eynsford Hill, Clara Hill. Higgins signals Eliza to come into the parlour, and with a gesture, which the others do not see, lets her know which of the two older ladies is his mother.
Mother and daughter do not recognize Eliza as the flower girl they previously met because she has changed so much.
With much effort and hard work and the determination on the part of Eliza, the experiment is a huge success, and Eliza pulls it off at the garden tea party. She passes for a woman of refinement and means. The problem is that Pickering and Higgins didn’t think beyond that outcome. They didn’t think about what would become of Eliza after the experiment. They took her for granted and probably thought that she would continue to live with them, after all she is their creation. They never quite defined what Eliza’s role is in their lives.
The last third of the story is simply amazing with dialogue between Eliza and Higgins. She is exceedingly upset with him and hurls his slippers at him, but he doesn’t get it. He calls her a presumptuous insect, and she calls him a selfish brute. At one point in their conversation Eliza says, “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?”
Higgins’ response, “Oh, that’s what worrying you, is it? I shouldn’t bother about it if I were you. I should imagine you won’t have much difficulty in settling yourself, somewhere or other, though I hadn’t realized that you were going away. You might marry you know. You see, Eliza, all men are not confirmed bachelors like me and the Colonel….” And the description of the nonverbal communication that’s going on is priceless.
The next morning, Pickering and Higgins go to his mother’s home because they cannot find Eliza. Mrs Higgins tells them that they are like children. Eliza is there and she eventually speaks to them. There is a lot more conversation between them and much is centered around what Eliza will do next. It’s worthy to note that as it is with the Pygmalion myth, Higgins also does not like women, and the reader doesn’t know why. He too is proud of his creation.
Higgins says, “I’ll adopt you as my daughter and settle money on you if you like. Or would you rather marry Pickering?”
Eliza responds, “I wouldn’t marry you if you asked me; and you’re closer my age than what he is.”
What does the foolish Higgins do at that point, he corrects her grammar and she tells him she will talk as she likes. Eliza lets Higgins know that Freddy has been writing to her and that the he is in love with her. Higgins views Freddy as a fool. In this story, Galatea does not wed her Pygmalion. “Eliza, in telling Higgins she would not marry him if he asked her, was not coquetting: she was announcing a well-thought out decision.”
Eliza marries Freddy and they struggle to make ends meet. Pickering solves the problem by helping Eliza to establish her own flower shop. Freddy isn’t very good at business and Pickering has to explain to him what a cheque book and bank account mean. The two still struggle financially. But, Eliza always makes the most of the opportunities given her. Eliza and Freddy attend night school, learning bookkeeping, shorthand, typing and taking polytechnic classes. They also take classes at the London School of Economics, but they are not learning about the flower business. After a while, business starts to improve and they are able to take care of themselves.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw highlights the complexity of human relationships, and the interaction between classes. One of the biggest lessons is from Eliza and it is if you keep on elevating and making yourself better in life, it’s virtually impossible to return to the way you were. My Fair Lady [Blu-ray] is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
I recommend Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw because it’s an excellent play and the reader cannot help but enjoy it while learning many lessons. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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My Fair Lady -Horse race scene