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Date of publication:
First published 1916. First produced in London and New York 1914.
Born in Dublin in 1856 to a precariously middle-class Protestant family, G.
Bernard Shaw received a minimal secondary-school education and worked, miserably, as a clerk until 1876, when he set out for London. Once in London, Shaw began to educate himself in earnest, spending hours and hours in the main reading room of the British Museum reading art, literature, music, and political theory. He learned to overcome stage fright by lecturing on soapboxes at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and began to write, trying his hand at novels (he wrote five) and making a living as a professional journalist, writing about art, music, and theatre.
During the next twenty years, Shaw became a prominent advocate of numerous political causes, including socialism, vegetarianism, spelling reform, and alphabet reform. He co-founded the Fabian Society, a political organisation dedicated to transforming Britain into a socialist state, not by revolution but by systematic progressive legislation, using persuasion and mass education. In 1891 Shaw tried his hand at playwriting. For the next twelve years, he wrote close to a dozen plays, though he generally failed to persuade the managers of the London Theatres to produce them. Only a few were produced commercially or abroad; and a few others were performed by private experimental theatre societies. Then, in 1904, a younger contemporary, Harley Granville Barker, initiated a progressive theatre management at the Court Theatre, and began producing Shaw's plays, new and old, under Shaw's direction. With his new commercial success as a playwrighter and after marrying an Irish heiress in, Shaw was now financially independent, and could dedicate his energies to writing, lecturing, and political activism. During his long life, he wrote over forty plays, countless lectures, articles, pamphlets, letters to newspapers, and thousands of other letters. Every problem in society, it seemed, could be solved by clear-thinking and a torrent of words.
The outbreak of war in 1914 momentarily changed all that. For Shaw, the war represented the bankruptcy of the capitalist system, the last desperate gasps of the nineteenth-century empires, and a tragic waste of young lives. He expressed his opinions in a series of newspaper articles under the titleCommon Sense About the War. He was shocked to discover that no one agreed with him: he was treated as an outcast in his adopted country, and there was even talk of his being tried for treason. The failure of his readers to see, and his own failure to make them see, affected Shaw deeply, leaving him, in his early sixties, with profound doubts about his vocation. His dramatic output nearly stopped, and he wrote only one major play during the war years:Heartbreak House. Only after the war, withSaint Joanand the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, did his reputation recover. From then until his death in 1950, he continued to write, and his plays continued to be produced and revived around the world.
His many plays fall into several categories: his `Plays Unpleasant´; `Plays Pleasant´; his comedies; chronicle-plays; `metabiological Pentateuch´ (Back to Methuselah, a series of plays) and `political extravaganzas´.
In a sudden heavy storm one summer night, pedestrians run for shelter under the portico of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, where a lady and her daughter in evening dress and a man writing in a notebook have already gathered. The two ladies have evidently been to the Royal Opera House and are annoyed with Freddy, the lady’s son, who has been unable to find a cab. As he tries again to find one, he bumps into a flower girl, and sends her basket flying. The girl complains in `kerbstone` English and Freddy’s mother pays for the damaged flowers. The Flower Girl tries to follow this up with a sale to a gentleman standing by. Another bystander warns the girl to be careful what she’s doing, because `there’s a bloke here behind taking down every blessed word you’re saying`. She becomes a bit hysterical but the Note Taker comforts her and astounds them all by correctly locating the place where they come from as soon as they speak. Thereupon people walk off, all except the Note Taker, the Gentleman and the Flower Girl. The Gentleman shows great interest in the Note Taker’s performance. Afterwards it turns out that the Gentleman is Colonel Pickering, an expert on Indian dialects, who has come from India specially to meet the Note Taker, Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics. They greet another with enthusiasm and arrange to meet the next day. As he goes Higgins throws some money into the Flower Girl’s basket.
Next morning Pickering visits Higgins. When he’s just seen the whole laboratory, the housekeeper announces the arrival of a young woman, and the Flower Girl is brought in. At first Higgins wants to send her off, but then she tells him, that she wants to take some elocution lessons so that she can `be a lady in a flower shop`. She will pay for her lessons out of the money Higgins gave her the night before. Her offer (1 shilling per lesson) impresses Higgins as an enormous sum in terms of her income. Then Pickering bets with Higgins, that he wouldn't be able to get her so far in three months, that he could pass the girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. Pickering offers to cover the costs of the experiment. Higgins accepts the challenge.
At first, Eliza doesn't want to stay at Higgins's but she is later won over by promises of chocolates, gold, and diamonds.
While Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper, washes the girl, Alfred Doolitle, Eliza's father arrives asking after his daughter. It appears that he doesn't want her back, he simply wants to touch Higgins for 5 Pounds. As he’s hurrying out, he fails to recognise her until she speaks to him, because she’s so clean and dressed in a Japanese outfit.
In the end of the scene Eliza gets her new clothes and Higgins and Pickering realise, that they have `taken on a stiff job`.
Some months later, the two professors of phonetics take Eliza to the birthday- party of Higgins's mother. Eliza’s distinction and beauty produce such an impact on the party that they rise as she enters. At first her conversation with Freddy, a friend of the family, is correct, though far from free and easy but soon she gets off her prepared topics and relapses into her former slang. At Higgins's suggestion, the people accept this as a new form of small talk. The climax comes when she has said goodbye very courteously to all, and Freddy at the door asks if she is `walking across the park´ (intending to offer to accompany her). She startles the company, as Mrs Higgins’s friends have never been startled before, with `Walk! Not bloody likely. I’m going in a taxi.´ This creates a sensation. Mrs Eynsford Hill is shocked, but Clara, her daughter thinking that her mother is old-fashioned, brings a `bloody´ into her own conversation before she goes, to prove how up to date she is. After the party, Mrs Higgins tells her son that Eliza’s speech is not presentable and that he and Pickering are `a pretty pair of babies, playing with their live doll´. They try to defence, but with practical common sense Mrs Higgins points out the problem of what would Eliza’s life be after the experiment.
At the end of the final day in Eliza's training - a garden party, a dinner party and the opera - Eliza comes back to the laboratory in brilliant attire but wearing an almost tragic expression. Pickering tells Higgins that he has won his bet. When they say, `Thank God it's over´, Eliza breaks out into tears and says, `You thank God it's all over, and that now you can throw me back again. What I'm to do ?´ Higgins says that she may get married, or that she could work in her florist‘s shop, where she always wanted to work. Eliza wants to know what in the wardrobe belongs to her, because she doesn’t want to be accused of stealing when she leaves. In a fit of anger, Higgins tells her that she may take everything. This is just what Eliza wanted and she smiles for the first time at her triumph. Then she goes up to her room, changes into her walking clothes and leaves the house. Outside, she meets Freddy, who declares his love and they embrace. A policeman arrives and moves them along. They take a taxi to Wimbledon Common.
Mrs Higgins, who has put Eliza up is informed by her parlour-maid that Henry and the Colonel are down below, telephoning the police. She gives instructions that Miss Doolittle upstairs must be told that they are in the house and that she must not come down till she is sent for.
The reason for Henry‘s telephone call to the police is that Eliza has gone away. His mother shows little sympathy with him and reminds him calmly that the girl has a perfect right to leave if she wants. The maid then announces Mr Doolittle - `gentleman´, who is brilliantly dressed. Higgins is surprised to find that his visit has nothing to do with Eliza’s disappearance. Doolittle has come to complain about being left £ 3,000 a year in the will of a rich American philanthropist; this is the result of a casual remark of Higgins in a letter, saying that Alfred Doolittle is the most original moralist alive. In Mrs Higgins view it solves the problem of Eliza’s future - he can provide for her.
Then Eliza enters the room. After a first greeting she takes no notice of Higgins, but thanks Colonel Pickering for teaching her to be a lady through his natural graces. Just then she catches sight of her father in his fashionable outfit and screams out in her old way. Doolittle startles everyone by telling her that the reason why he is dressed up is in order to marry Eliza’s stepmother at St George’s, Hanover Square. They are all invited to the wedding and all but Higgins accept.
After this Eliza and Higgins are left together for a time. He tries to get her to stay with him, offering various inducements but she says that she needs a little kindness or at least independence. She doesn’t want to be `dirt under your feet´.
It tells the rest of the story. Eliza marries Freddy and after some hesitation they open a florist’s shop. It does not pay at first, because they know nothing of business. But they work hard and in time it expands into a prosperous florist’s shop.
Eliza keeps in touch with Wimpole Street in spite of the shop and her own family. She is fond of her husband and loves the Colonel as a father but she persists in nagging Higgins.
She seems rather like a heroine in a melodrama, but the right term for her is `central figure of the play´. The flower girl describes herself as `a poor girl´ and keeps insisting that she is `a respectable girl´, meaning `honest´ and is seeing herself as this conventional type of character.
Before her metamorphosis she is a very naive girl who does not know much of the whole wide world, although she has always yearned after higher things. Having met her material wishes, she is the biggest snob of all and the first thing she wants to do in her new life is to go and show off. But at the time she notices that she has been used as a means of scientific interest all the time she passed at Higgin's, she gets sad and spiteful against her "teacher". She doesn't know, what to do with her life because at this time she neither belongs to the low nor to the higher social class. Luckily her feelings change again when she meets and marries Freddy.
He was introduced into the play for the fun of the thing and is not in character as a dustman. He's the spokesman for that section of the lower classes he refers to as "the undeserving poor". Money, he finds, does not compensate him for the loss of the freedom he enjoyed as a poor man. The thought that happiness cannot exist without freedom and independence comes to Eliza as well.
Doolittle is much more clear-sighted and articulate in talking about the values and beliefs of such people than any actual members of this sub-class are likely to be.
Shaw has made the character attractive (basing on his frankness and lack of shame) and amusing, although a realistically presented drunkard who beat up his daughter and cared nothing for her, and who preferred blackmailing gentlemen to earning money by working, would very probably be repugnant to us; or, if he is treated sympathetically, it can be a pathetic or even tragic character.
He is the clown of the play, who is full of tricks which are amusing to watch. He behaves like a spoilt baby. His bursts of temper, his generally noisy behaviour, his egoistic sense of his own importance, his careless untidiness, his rudeness are all childish features. He doesn’t seem to know himself well. Mr Higgins lives only for his work. He did not take on the bet out of pity for a poor girl to try and improve her, but to show what he could do. The fact that he is exceptionally clever at his job is to accept, but this is no excuse for his arrogance and the way he exploits women, or his readiness with lies and other forms of deceitful behaviour.
As with Doolittle, it is the comic treatment that sometimes makes it possible for us to like a character with so many vices. Eliza’s and Mrs Higgins’s interest in him and affection for him also help us to see Higgins as a likeable person. At times, we may suspect that the bachelor is benevolent, generous and trustworthy; at other times, we may suspect him of being entirely selfish.
He gives the impression of being a real gentleman, though he is not drawn in any detail. He has served his country overseas; he is always respectful in his dealings with others, and his politeness is not just a style. Throughout the play, he addresses Eliza as Miss Doolittle and he is absolutely trustworthy. He is also older than Higgins, and the correctness of his manners makes him seem rather old-fashioned and conservative. During Eliza’s lessons, we see Pickering in the role of a mediator between pupil and teacher. The bachelorhood of the pair makes it possible for Shaw to suggest that intellect flourishes most when women are kept at distance and when the emotional claims of love and the responsibilities of marriage can be avoided. The comradeship of Pickering and Higgins contrasts with the turbulent relationship between Higgins and Eliza; but on the whole, Pickering’s presence in the play serves to make the character of Higgins clearer.
She is the ideal mother. She is wise, tolerant, and cares for others, yet introvert and contented in her quiet, orderly life. Her room expresses her sense of beauty and is a sign for her culture. Altogether she is a figure of stability and comfort and her presence in the play acts as a guarantee that nothing will go seriously wrong.
She is Higgins’s housekeeper and belongs to the respectable lower class that, through close contact as servants to their social superiors have achieved middle-class standards of behaviour and morality. Her concern with cleanliness and tidiness is partly a mark of her profession, and partly characteristic of a mother looking after a small boy, which seems to be her principal role in Higgins’s bachelor household. This character turns out in her relationship to the others in the household.
Mrs Eynsford Hill:
She is a less vivid portrait of an older lady than we have in Mrs Higgins. She is more conventional than Mrs Higgins, and only comes to life as a human being in those moments when she speaks as the anxious mother, concerned about Eliza’s seeming to know Freddy, in Act I, and apologising to Mrs Higgins for Clara, and speaking her approval of Freddy, in Act III.
Clara Eynsford Hill:
She is the most individualised member of her family. She is clumsy in society, stronger-willed than her mother and her brother, who she tends to nag and scold. By contrast with Clara, Eliza’s natural grace and sensitiveness shine more brightly, but Clara isn’t without spirit.
Freddy Eynsford Hill:
He is a foolish and futile young-man-about-town. He may be good-hearted, but he is good for nothing apart from his love for Eliza. His failure to get a taxi, in Act I, is a pointer towards his uselessness. Clara’s crossness may make us feel a little sorry for him, but Freddy proves that men can be weaker than women, less competent, less independent. Eliza recognises that, if she marries Freddy, she will have to support him.
Such is certainly the ostensible theme ofPygmalion. But though there is much talk about accents and the districts where they are spoken, they play soon shows its real concern with more human themes - Shaw was much too much a businessman to base a whole play on a subject of such limited interest as phonetics!
Class has always been a part of British life - even though today the barriers are less high and the distinctions less marked. And it‘s a natural follow-on from phonetics: though nowadays an upper-class accent can sometimes be something of a handicap. In Shaw’s writings, however the old standards still dominate.
Shaw used all his writings as a more or less overt platform for his Fabian brand of Socialism. He usesPygmalionand the class distinction to point up the miseries of the lowest members of the working class.
This theme runs through the play, and is directed - openly or by implication - at Eliza. Particularly Mrs Pearce and Mrs Higgins show their compassion towards Eliza.
Her metamorphosis is probably the most important theme in the play. Higgins teaches Eliza to speak `like a lady´, and to dress and behave like one. What he hadn’t foreseen was that her character would also develop until finally she became her own woman. Higgins is delighted at the new spirit she exhibits. Eliza’s development refers to the `real Pygmalion´, who was an ancient sculptor who fell in love with his own statue of Galathea who was awakened to life by Aphrodite and whom he then married. That’s also the reason, why the play is calledPygmalion.
Ladies and gentlemen
Eliza has to be made into a lady. Higgin’s success destroys the assumption that ladies can only be born, and that they are always the products of nature working through natural selection and the inheritance of character.
Male versus female
The conflict between Eliza and Higgins that occupies most of Act IV is set off by his indifference that provokes, first her anger and then a desire to make him show he cares for her. The two are quarrelling through the whole play. It seems like a never ending fight between man and woman.
It has been said thatPygmalionis Shaw’s most characteristic play. This is true of its style too. There is indeed little sense of grace, form and choice in Shaw’s style. Like many modern authors he is not concerned with techniques of style, and he does not yearn after fine writing. His style has an intellectual quality of the first order, but it lacks beauty: it is clear but cold. One could do with more warmth of feeling, more heart and less head.
1., Act V
Eliza thanks Colonel Pickering for treating her that good
LIZA ...do you know what began my real education?
LIZA [stopping her work for a moment] Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me. [She resumes her stitching]. And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors—
PICKERING. Oh, that was nothing.
LIZA. Yes: things that shewed you thought and felt about me as if I were something better than a scullerymaid; though of course I know you would have been just the same to a scullery-maid if she had been let in the drawing-room.
2., Act II
Alfred Doolittle comes to Mr Higgins and wants his daughter back. But it turns out that he just wants to pick him for five pounds.
PICKERING. Have you no morals, man?
DOOLITTLE [unabashed] Cant afford them, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me. Not that I mean any harm, you know. But if Liza is going to have a bit out of this, why not me too? HIGGINS [troubled] I don’t know what to do, Pickering. There can be no question that as a matter of morals it's a positive crime to give this chap a farthing. And yet I feel a sort of rough justice in his claim. DOOLITTLE, That’s it, Governor. That’s all I say. A father's heart, as it were.
PICKERING. Well, I know the feeling; but really it seems hardly right— DOOLITTLE. Don’t say that, Governor. Don’t look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You’re undeserving; so you cant have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth. Will you take advantage of a man's nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he’s brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she’s growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you. HIGGINS [rising, and going over to Pickering] Pickering: if we were to take this man in hand for three months, he could choose between a seat in the Cabinet and a popular pulpit in Wales.
3., Act IV
At the end of the final day in Eliza’s training - a garden party, a dinner party and the opera - they come back to Higgins‘. Eliza’s wearing a tragic expression.
Eliza tries to control herself and feel indifferent as she rises and walks across to the hearth to switch off the lights. By the time she gets there she is on the point of screaming. She sits down in Higgins's chair and holds on hard to the arms. Finally she gives way and flings herself furiously on the floor raging.
HIGGINS [in despairing wrath outside] What the devil have I done with my slippers? [He appears at the door].
LIZA [snatching up the slippers, and hurling them at him one after the other with all her force] There are your slippers. And there. Take your slippers; and may you never have a day's luck with them! HIGGINS [astounded] What on earth—! [He comes to her]. What’s the matter? Get up. [He pulls her up]. Anything wrong?
LIZA [breathless] Nothing wrong—with y o u. I've won your bet for you, haven’t I? That’s enough for you.Idon’t matter, I suppose.
HIGGINS Y o u won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect!Iwon it. What did you throw those slippers at me for? LIZA. Because I wanted to smash your face. I'd like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn’t you leave me where you picked me out of—in the gutter? You thank God it's all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you? [She crisps her fingers frantically].
HIGGINS [looking at her in cool wonder] The creature is nervous, after all.
4., Act III
After the party, Mrs Higgins tells her son and Colonel Pickering that Eliza’s speech is not presentable.
MRS HIGGINS. You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.
HIGGINS. Playing! The hardest job I ever tackled: make no mistake about that, mother. But you have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.
PICKERING [drawing his chair closer to Mrs Higgins and bending over to her eagerly] Yes: it’s enormously interesting. I assure you, Mrs Higgins, we take Eliza very seriously. Every week-every day almost- there is some new change. [Closer again] We keep records of every stage-dozens of gramophone disks and photographs HIGGINS [assailing her to the other ear] Yes, by George: it’s the most absorbing experiment I ever tackled. She regularly fills our lives up: doesn’t she, Pick?
PICKERING. We’re always talking Eliza.
HIGGINS. Teaching Eliza.
PICKERING. Dressing Eliza. MRS HIGGINS. What!