Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw

Background

Pygmalion was written by George Bernard Shaw who is considered to be the second greatest English dramatist after William Shakespeare. Writing plays was, however, only one of Shaw’s many interests. He was also a music and drama critic, a socialist, a polemicist and a champion of women’s rights. One of Shaw‘s chief contributions as a modern dramatist was to revive drama as serious literature. Many of Shaw’s plays were didactic; that is he wished to teach his audience something during the course of the play. In Pygmalion, it was English pronunciation and spelling that concerned him chiefly.

Plot

Eliza Doolittle is a poor flower girl eking out a life in London. One rainy evening she overhears Mr Higgins and Colonel Pickering discussing language teaching. Higgins brags that he can pick up a girl off the streets and turn her into a lady by teaching her how to speak well. Eliza is interested in what she hears as she wants to improve the way she speaks. Next day, while Pickering and Higgins are at work in the language lab, Eliza arrives demanding lessons to change the way she speaks so that she can get a job as an assistant in a florist’s shop. Higgins takes this as a challenge and bets that he can within six months pass Eliza off as a duchess. Pickering is doubtful but agrees gamely. Meanwhile, Eliza’s father arrives and threatens to blackmail Higgins. Higgins silences him by giving him money.

Teaching Eliza grammar and bearing is not easy. Higgins tries her out by taking her to his mother’s party. Eliza is not perfect yet, but good enough to make Freddy Eynsford Hill fall head over heels in love with Eliza. Higgins’ mother watches with concern as she feels that Eliza could get hurt by Higgins’ uncaring ways. Well before six months are over, Higgins wins the bet by passing Eliza off as a duchess at the ambassador’s party. But once the challenge is over, he loses interest in the project. Back from the party, Higgins and Pickering discuss the venture paying scant attention to Eliza. She is annoyed at being ignored and throws Higgins’ slippers at him when he tells her to fetch them. They argue endlessly and Eliza decides to leave. Finding Eliza missing from his home, Higgins goes to his mother in panic. He is by now so used to having her manage his daily life, he cannot imagine how he can get by without her. So distraught is he, he thinks of going to the police.

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Then it transpires that Eliza has been in his mother’s house all the while. The arrival of her father who is a newly minted millionaire takes Eliza back to her Covent Garden days as a flower girl. But she recovers soon enough and argues bitterly with Higgins. Eliza threatens to go to Higgins’ competitor. This drives Higgins mad and he nearly strangles her. But soon they make peace and Higgins invites her home again. But Eliza wants nothing of it and says good bye for the final time. But Higgins thinks it is only a matter of time before she comes back.

Summary

One rainy evening Professor Higgins and Col Pickering meet while waiting for the rain to stop. They are both language experts and Prof Higgins brags that he can change the way a person talks and turn a common girl into a lady. A flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, overhears the conversation. Next day when Pickering and Higgins are at work in the lab, Eliza arrives there demanding lessons that could make her an assistant at a florist’s shop. Higgins offers Pickering a bet that he can, in six months, after giving her lessons, present Eliza as a duchess in society. Pickering accepts the bet and offers to bear the cost of the lessons. It is not easy to teach Eliza grammar and deportment and the first test comes at Higgins mother’s party. Eliza is far from perfect but Freddy Eynsford Hill falls madly in love with her. Higgins’ mother feels concerned that Eliza could get hurt because of Higgins’ uncaring ways. Eliza is soon introduced into the society as a duchess. Once the bet has been won, both Higgins and Pickering lose interest in Eliza. They speak of her as though she is the object of a study and not a person. In his careless ways, Higgins asks Eliza to fetch his slippers. Eliza is so annoyed she flings the slippers at Higgins. In the morning, Higgins finds that Eliza is missing. She seems to have left at night. He goes to his mother in panic. Higgins has become so dependent on Eliza that he can scarce manage without her. Higgins wants to go to the police to trace Eliza. It turns out then that Eliza has been in his mother’s house all along. The arrival there of Eliza’s father who has, by a stroke of fortune, become a millionaire unnerves her and she slips back to cockney. Higgins is overjoyed at this. But Eliza recovers and threatens to sell his trade secrets to his competitor. They trade charges and Higgins almost strangles Eliza. But good sense prevails and they part as friends. Eliza says she will never return to the Higgins household but Higgins thinks otherwise.

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Characters

Eliza Doolittle

Right at the outset, Shaw tells us that Eliza Doolittle is not at all a romantic figure. Then, what is she? She is a plucky resourceful girl who is looking to improve her life. She has to care for herself as she has a drunken no-good fellow for a father. At the beginning everything that Eliza says or does raises laughs and she is more a comic figure than a heroine. But by the time she attends the ambassador’s party as a duchess, her transformation from a helpless flower girl to a person who demands that she be treated as an individual, is complete. Eliza is worldly enough to threaten Higgins with crossing over to his enemy, taking his trade secrets with her. Higgins is so angry with this that he nearly strangles her. No one laughs at Eliza any more but the audience is filled with admiration for her. Higgins can only suggest marriage as an occupation for Eliza but she will have none of it.

Henry Higgins

Higgins is the author of Higgins’ Universal Alphabet using which, he claims, he can change the way people speak English. He is a braggart and has poor social graces. He is a mama’s boy who hates young women as he has no patience with their ways. He loves shocking people and going against the accepted norms of social behaviour. The world tolerates him only because he is good at heart. The worst that can be said of him is that he is a bully. He can treat women like trash and he manipulates Eliza, offering her a better life and chocolates when it pleases him. But he does not consider her feelings when he wins the bet. Eliza has been passed off as a duchess but there is not a word of appreciation for her effort. She does not exist as far he is concerned. Having got used to being waited on hands and feet, he orders Eliza around. When Eliza displays an independent spirit, Higgins is so angry, he is ready to hurt her. He nearly strangles her. It is only when she threatens that she will join his rival that he realizes
that he cannot take her for granted like he has been doing so far.

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Colonel Pickering

Colonel Pickering is a foil for Higgins as he is considerate and he has that old world charm that is missing in Higgins. Pickering is an expert in spoken Sanskrit. It he who pays for Eliza’s classes as he accepts Higgins’ bet. She appreciates Pickering’s considerate treatment of her. That’s why she says that whatever she has learned of being lady-like has been from Pickering and not Higgins.

Mrs Higgins

Mrs Higgins is Henry Higgins mother. She was a progressive lady when young and though no longer very progressive, she has a sensible head on her shoulders. She sees Henry Higgins is going to have trouble with the experiment he is conducting involving Eliza. She knows that he is uncaring and has few social graces. He is selfish and will dump Eliza once the experiment is over.

Themes

The play gets its name from the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. Pygmalion was a young man who was disgusted by the immoral behaviour of the women of his society. He swore to be a celibate and keep off women. But he put his art to good use, creating a wonderfully beautiful statue of a woman. Only he fell in love with it. So he prays to Venus to find him a lover that resembles his statue. Venus sympathizes with him and breathes life into the statue. She is Galatea. In the play Pygmalion, Higgins fashions a new Eliza Doolittle who is lady like and refined. But real life is different from myth. Higgins is not in love with Eliza and she is already human.

Another point the play raises is “are all artists male qualified to create women who match their personal desires?” Higgins creates an Eliza that is perfect according to his views – she is lady like and speaks perfectly. Pygmalion, the play is also about society and class. The society in Pygmalion is divided by wealth, education and language. The differences are so complex, the people cannot be divided into sections – the rich and the poor. At the end of the play Alfred Doolittle is rich but he cannot aspire to the upper levels of society.