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[238] Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl…” [120]

Henry Higgins is an accomplished phonetician who can place anyone within two miles of London by the accent alone. On a rainy night in London, near Covent Garden, he scrupulously records the conversation between Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a middle-class twit who is looking for a cab after a night in theater. Eliza’s appalling accent piques Higgins’ professional interest in her. The professor even boasts to one Colonel Pickering, another phonetician who happens to wait out the rain, that with three months’ training in the proper use of English, Eliza Doolittle could pass as a duchess.

Professor Higgins. 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 article speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare . . . dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. [Act 1]

Eliza seeks Higgins’ help in order to improve her life; but Higgins takes pride in improving her social status. Higgins himself, albeit his prominent status as a scholar, has the spirit of a shy man who hides his spirituality and tenderness under a mask of coarseness and gruff demeanor. Not only is he careless about himself and other people, including their feelings, he treats people as mere experiment subjects. Even his mother complains about his offensive manner.

Higgins. Pickering: shall we ask this baggage to sit down or shall we throw her out of the window? [Act 2]

Higgins. Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language: I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba. [Act 1]

Higgins has transformed Eliza to his own image of class. This illustrates that people of high society appear to their lower counterparts as cold, selfish, and unfeeling simply because of their inaccessibility to the common emotions and their freedom from ordinary affection and jealousy. Although Eliza is remade in the eyes and standards of the supercilious Higgins, they have only bridged their gap in class with language, an instrument with which Higgins (and the social class to which he belongs) judges people, but their mutual refusal to yield to one another on a more intimate level roots in the preconceived difference. After all, Higgins has treated her no more than dirt under his feet.

Liza. [with sudden sincerity] I dont care how you treat me. I dont mind your swearing at me. I shouldnt mind a black eye: Ive had one before this. But [standing up and facing him] I wont be passed over.

This might be the most invigorating and inspiring scene of the play, even more than than Eliza’s triumphant performance as a duchess at the reception. She has been transformed into a human being who is savvy and capable of claiming dignity. This play is a lovely satire that directs to high society’s snobbery and willful ignorance.

175 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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15 Responses

  1. A most excellent review. I’ve seen My Fair Lady, but must confess I’ve not read this play. I’d like to do so now.

  2. I have seen My Fair Lady mulitple times (it is my husband’s favorite musical), but I have not read Shaw’s original work. I am afraid that the image of Audrey Hepburn would be forever engraved in my imagination as I read the play.

  3. I loved My Fair Lady when I was small, apart from being very annoyed that she [spoilers for MFL] went back to Henry Higgins at the end. When I read Pygmalion in fifth grade, I was excited to find that’s not how Shaw ended it for her. Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Pygmalion is darker than My Fair Lady, to be sure, and the difference is well-illustrated by the scene you have here. In the film, Higgins can almost be seen as light-hearted and Eliza as defensive, but I think play shows better the darkness behind what Higgins is saying. I think it is only after that point that he realizes that he really does believe what he said, and she had every right to be offended.

  5. A very perceptive review. I always have to keep my romanticist tendencies in check where this play is concerned. I saw the movie and musical before reading the play which is certainly less hopeful where these two are concerned. Freddy is a dead end. One rather hopes that Higgins might realize his loss and grow a little, that somehow they might work it out, come together and be happy. Shaw didn’t seem to think they could. But one wonders what could lie ahead for Eliza, given the social structure at the time.

  6. I’ve never read this but it happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Your reviews are so eloquently written Matt. I truly enjoy reading them and appreciate the time you invest in writing them.

  7. A Bookshelf Monstrosity:
    I first read it when I was a junior in high school, then it was years later that I saw the movie. It just occurred to me that I didn’t remember how the play ended, so I picked it back up again.

  8. Molly:
    In my head Audrey Hepburn is synonymous to My Fair Lady. There exists a breakdown between the film and the play, because I don’t think they end the same way. that was why I read the play again. :)

  9. Jenny:
    That’s exactly what I thought—that Pygmailion didn’t end the same way My Fair Lady did! I went back to read it after over 10 years but still enjoyed it, especially the sharp tongues of Higgins and Eliza Doolittle!

  10. Priscilla:
    You’re absolutely right on the spot. The play is much darker and there is a sense of melancholy in the way how Higgins and Eliza Doolittle just get on each other’s nerve. In terms of choreography they dance around one another but never make the connection to be in sunc with one another. The film is meant to entertain and is set up for a happy ending between the two.

  11. Greg S:
    Eliza Doolittle toward the end of the play commented about the uncertainty of her future, now that Higgins has transformed her by correcting her tongue. She can no longer go back to sell flowers on the street. The play left much room for imagination as to what might be in store for her.

  12. Staci:
    The play reads slightly different than the movie plot. I recommend it, it’s funny and satirical.

  13. Thanks, this was really a great read. So when is your next article coming? I can’t wait :)

  14. [...] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook: “This play is a lovely satire that directs to high society’s snobbery and willful ignorance.” [...]

  15. I have always been irritated by Eliza going back to Higgins at the end of My Fair Lady, and I very much enjoyed Shaw’s essay at the end of my edition of Pygmalion explaining why exactly she needed to end up with Freddy.

    I really enjoyed your take on the play – I’ve linked to you on my (admittedly old) review here.

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