Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
First published 1912
2/3 plays (2013 Book Challenge)
Pygmalion is a short, witty, and incredibly fun to read play about the decay of the spoken English language, and one phonetics expert’s, by the name of Higgins, ambitious bet to pass off a flower girl from the gutter as a duchess of highest circles by teaching her to speak immaculate English.
As the introduction (by Nicholas Grene) thoughtfully informs us, Pygmalion borrows the title from Ovid’s classical myth about a sculptor’s scorn of women which leads him to fall in love with his female statue — and embodiment of perfection. As Grene points out, “Higgins shares Pygmalion’s misogyny…but there the resemblance ends.” Higgins does not fall in love with his own masterful creation.
Shaw’s preface contains a wonderful paragraph criticizing the disregard of the English to speak their language properly. It is so satirical and true, here are some excerpts:
“The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. … [I]t is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. Most European languages are now accessible in black and white to foreigners: English and French are not even accessible to Englishmen and Frenchmen. The reformer we need most today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.”
All that considering Shaw was Irish. 🙂
The play is not plot driven, but rather dialogue driven (as any play should be I suppose), and Shaw admitted that it is highly didactic, as “great art can never be anything else.” While that remains controversial, the play’s message is pretty clear.
When Higgins meets his flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, he exclaims: “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere — no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible: and don’t sit there like a bilious pigeon.” BILIOUS PIGEON. 😀 Oh how I would love to see him say these very words to practically the whole student body at my school…
So, Higgins makes a bet to transform Eliza.
Eliza’s progress is not shown in the play, not much of it at least, her transformation is very Cinderella-esque: the Reader gets to see her right out of the gutter and an act later — at the ball as a princess. I didn’t find this very effectual for the play’s message: we don’t see Eliza’s hard work, only Higgins’s ‘before and after’ results.
Higgins’s misogyny is a punch in the face. He is an annoying character (made charismatic through his annoyance) and Eliza is perpetually treated like a “live doll”, not a human being with feelings.
In Act Four, at the very beginning, Eliza finally speaks up for herself, arguing that she won the bet yet she still doesn’t matter. Higgins characteristically responds with “You won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! I won it.” Eliza turns violent afterwards. Needless to say, I loved that scene.
Eliza does become a lady, and she says some beautiful things:
“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady out of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”
“[T]he difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”
Pygmalion is skillfully written and a plasure to read, all characters and settings were vivid in my mind and I enjoyed the play. But no, I did not picture Eliza Doolittle as Audrey Hepburn… 🙂
I’m sorry this wasn’t much of a review, more like an analysis. (As usual.)