Although it is often conflated in the popular imagination with the much-loved musical it inspired, George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion is somewhat different from the romantic comedy My Fair Lady. Let’s take a closer look at Shaw’s play and some of its prominent themes. Before we offer an analysis of Pygmalion, though, let’s briefly recap the story of the play.
The ‘plot’ of Shaw’s play is easy enough to summarise. Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, has an almost Sherlockian ability to deduce the hometown or region of anyone based on their accent. He overhears a flower girl named Eliza Doolittle and mocks the common way she talks. The next day, Eliza shows up and asks Higgins to give her elocution lessons so she can learn to talk ‘proper’. Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, shows up and tries to get some money off Higgins: he shows himself to be boorish and prone to violence – he tries to strike his daughter when she sticks her tongue out at him – and Higgins, realising the upbringing his young protégé has had, acknowledges that he has taken on a mammoth task in trying to make Eliza into a respectable-sounding lady.
Higgins nevertheless accepts the challenge, with his friend Colonel Pickering betting him that he can’t pass Eliza off as a lady at the ambassador’s party in six months’ time. Higgins is emboldened by this challenge, and a few months later he tests his progress on Eliza by taking her to his mother’s drawing-room party, where Eliza’s diction impresses the partygoers. However, her use of vulgar language – including the swearword ‘bloody’ – is greeted less enthusiastically.
But the young Freddy Eynsford-Hill is smitten by her, and pursues her. At the ambassador’s ball, Eliza charms everyone with her diction and her language, and Higgins wins his bet. However, he loses interest in her afterwards, much to her annoyance. Indeed, he even crows that her transformation is only superficial and possible because of his work on her; when her father appears, announcing his marriage, and Eliza immediately reverts to her Cockney speech, he is triumphant. Eliza accepts Freddy’s attention instead, agreeing to marry him.
Note: the most famous line from the play was also the most daring. When Eliza is leaving Mrs Higgins’s party and Freddy asks her if she plans to walk across the park, Eliza replies, ‘Walk? Not bloody likely!’ Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for whom Shaw wrote the part of Eliza Doolittle, was risking her whole career in saying such a strong swearword, for the times, on the public stage.
Most theatre critics regard the musical adaptation of Shaw’s play, the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady, as a sentimental travesty of Pygmalion, and with good reason – not least because the friendship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s play is founded on Higgins’s professional pride (read: arrogance) rather than any romantic interest he has in her. His lifelong bachelorhood is a result of his love for his mother, as Shaw himself made clear, and his interest in Eliza is purely professional.
Indeed, as the great critic Michael Billington notes in The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present, Pygmalion is actually an ‘ironic inversion’ of the standard romantic plot. It gives us a boy (well, man) who meets a girl and then uses her to try to win a bet, before casting her aside as soon as he’s done so: hardly the way we expect a romantic comedy to end. Shaw felt the need to qualify his ending by adding a long epilogue to the play when it was printed.
Taking the superficial structure of the romantic comedy and inverting it for his own ends, Shaw explores the English class system with all of its petty attitudes and posturings. The fact that a Cockney flower girl can, with a few months’ tuition, be trained up so she will convince even the most blue-blooded within society that she is one of them doesn’t say much for the inherent superiority of the upper classes. It’s all a sham, a show: class is not just a social construct, but an artificial one.
The title of Shaw’s play alludes to the classical myth of Pygmalion, a Cretan king who fell in love with his own sculpture. She was transformed into a woman, Galatea, by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. But here again, as Billington observes, Shaw inverts this love story: in Pygmalion a woman is turned into a statue, a ‘mechanical doll who resembles a duchess’. As Shaw makes clear in the epilogue to the play, Eliza makes a carefully considered decision not to marry Professor Higgins, not least because she realises she could never supplant his mother in his affections.
Shaw’s socialist thinking is central to his exploration of the English class system in Pygmalion. In his depiction of the ease with which Eliza is transformed into a lady in fashionable upper-class society, he exposes the hollowness at the heart of that society. And yet just as Eliza is easily made into a passable lady, so the spell can instantly wear off and she can be transformed back into her former self, such as when Mr Doolittle appears in the final act. It is, apparently, harder to lose or forget our humble roots than it might first appear.
But another of Shaw’s interests – indeed, his life’s project – is at the core of Pygmalion: the English language as it is spoken. In his preface to the play, Shaw famously argued, ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’ He also states in the preface: ‘If the play makes the public aware that there are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among its most important people in England at present, it will serve its turn.’
Image: by Peter Beens, via Wikimedia Commons.