Monday, 13 August 2012

Review: 'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw


'Pygmalion' is one of my favourite plays and many people know it better as the musical 'My Fair Lady' with the amazing Audrey Hepburn. I still can't get over the fact that my grandmother knew her and saw her perform in her own livingroom! Yes, I am jealous of my grandmother!

Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a commentary on women's independence.

The plot of this play is amazing in its simplicity. A professor teaches a flower girl how to speak properly, thinking that this is the way to enter into society. That she is eventually the one with the better manners barely comes as a surprise. All of the characters are lovable, although Higgins always treads on the line between lovable and offensive. The play is a great piece of criticism on trying to fit in too much and thereby changing your own persona, something that is still very current. Neither Eliza Doolittle, nor her father, are happy with their new position and expectations in and of society.

Shaw, through Higgins, is actually something of a feminist if you look at his lines closely. Towards the end of the play, Higgins tells Eliza:
'You call me a brute because you couldn't buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles. You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man's slippers is a disgusting sight: did i ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face. No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?'
Shaw is basically advocating for women to be independent and not slave over men. Higgins wants Eliza to be  her own woman and to be his equal. He has no inclination to fall in love with her and the play therefore does not have the, perhaps expected, romantical ending. Unfortunately but predictably, Hollywood changed the ending of 'My Fair Lady' from the play. I only found out later that Shaw had been inspired by Ibsen, who wrote the ur-feminist play 'The Doll's House' which I also quite liked but wasn't as light in tone as this one.

This play was of course inspired by the tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, a story of a sculptor who falls in love with his own sculpture and asks the gods to bring her to life. Shaw was probably inspired by the 1871 play 'Pygmalion and Galatea' by W.S. Gilbert in which Galatea eventually returns to being a statue because she was happier that way. We see the same desire in Eliza near the end when she wishes she could return to the less complicated life of a flower girl, a thing that is impossible for her now that she has seen how life could be. There is also a link to 'Frankenstein', or at least I believe there is. Just like Frankenstein, Higgins creates and then leaves his creation wanting. He teaches Eliza no manners and  doesn't show her any kind of love, much like Frankenstein's attitude towards the Creature.

I am always fascinated to see how plays are adapted onto a stage and still haven't had the luck to see this one live. What I do know is that Shaw had written a couple of scenes he said could be removed if they proved to difficult to stage. I wonder whether playwrights sometimes feel very limited in their writing because they have to think about what is possible on stage and what isn't. On the other hand, many plays are surreal and play exceptionally well with light and music, something a book, which has all the room for endless descriptions, has not.

So, what do you think? It's only a short play, so does it sound like something you'd like?


  1. I liked your review, Julie. Thanks. Are you able to share the story of your grandmother watching Audrey Hepburn's home performance? Very interesting -love stories like this. (I'm so intrigued and probably nosy! Or naturally inquisitive as I like to call it)
    All the best

    1. Audrey Hepburn was Dutch and lived very near to where my grand-mother lived. And then one day they were invited over to Audrey's house and Audrey performed for them while they were having tea in their living room. My grandma said she was amazing! I am really jealous!!! :)

  2. I read it in high school, and I really don't remember it that well, but I think I rather enjoyed it. Great review!