G. B. Shaw and the theatre of Ideas: Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Historical scene

The 19th century (second half)

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1851: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert open the Great exhibition in London. It marks the triumph of industrial Britain and shows the enormous technical development after Waterloo (1815).
Side by side with this prosperity many social problems emerge concerning factories, housing, sanitary system and education.
Both the Conservative and the Liberal Parties pass a number of Reforms to improve the conditions of the working classes.

Foreign policy.
England consolidates her empire and expands her colonies.
1854- 6: England is involved in the Crimean War; it fights on the side of the Ottoman Empire against Russia
1857-85: England takes part in a series of wars in India and in the East
1882-1902: Britain fights in South Africa against the Boers.

Literary Background
The situation of the theatre at the end of the 19th century

During the Victorian Age it did not exist a proper English drama and most of the plays performed were still belonging to the previous periods.
Actually, there were some innovations, but they concerned the stage as a physical structure, more than the dramas and their contents. The theatres became richer in scenarios and furniture to give more realism to the performances, but as a consequence they were also more expensive, limited the repertoires and changed the meaning of some classical pieces.
The audience was mainly composed of people of low education that asked the theatre entertainment and suspense. For this reason the most successful performances were farces and melodramas.
Besides, the Victorian stage was based on a star system, as there were very famous actors in that period, but it meant high salaries and higher costs for each play.
A new hint came from France with the comedies and melodramas of Eugéne Scribe (1791-1861) and Victorien Sardou (1831-1908).
The former believed firmly that the most important function of the theatre was to entertain people, as the public wanted to escape problems.
Sardou built complex situations with characters superficially drawn and the happy ending for the ones who deserved it. He concentrated on ingenious constructions and effective scenes and wrote some plays for the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The greatest contribution came from more distant countries. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and August Strindberg (1849-1912), respectively from Russia and Sweden, inquired into the psychology of men and provided deeper studies of women. But the most influential writer for the English stage was Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) who changed the usual way of making a drama starting the action from the climax and proceeding with flashbacks or flash in the future and speaking about social problems and attacking the hypocrisy of the middle classes using a realistic language and rejecting the common-place morality.
Both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw ‘s production were influenced by these innovations.

George Bernard Shaw

Life and Works

1856: G. B. Shaw was born in Dublin. Very soon he acquires a knowledge of music that later will qualify him as a music critic.
1876: He goes to London with his mother and his sister
1879: Shaw starts to write novels and joins the Zetetetical Society, a discussion club.
1884: The writer creates the Fabian Society that wants to spread socialist ideas with lectures and tracts, trusting in a political education and not in a revolution.
The writer starts his career as an art critic and then as a music critic under the pseudonym of “Corno di Bassetto”. Then he writes for The Saturday Review as a dramatic critic and his initials G. B. S. become famous.
1891: He publishes a study on Ibsen’s ideas The Quintessence of Ibsenism.
1892: Shaw makes his debut as a playwright with Widowers’ Houses, about the problem of slum landlordism.
1898: The playwright publishes two collections of comedies: The Pleasant Plays and The unpleasant Plays.
The first group comprehends: Arms and the Man, against war and heroism; Candida, on women’s freedom, The Man of Destiny, on the myth of Napoleon; You never can tell, on family life and parental authority. In the second group there are, besides Widowers’ Houses: Mrs. Warren’s Profession, on prostitution; The Philander, on forced matches.
In this same year he gets married.
1901: Shaw writes Plays for Puritans (Caesar and Cleopatra; The Devil’s Disciple and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion) followed by 47 other comedies, all of them about different social problems. In this period G. B. Shaw becomes famous and feared because he expresses the evil of the Victorian society.
Among his most famous plays ar:  Major Barbara, where poverty is paradoxically denounced as a crime; Pygmalion; Saint Joan, an historical drama about the maid of Orlèans, Back to Methuselah, a Metabiological Pantateuch, in which the writer shows his ideas about the evolution of Man and Man and Superman, a reversed story of Don Juan.
1925: Shaw gets the Nobel Prize for Literature.
1950: he dies, leaving behind him about a quarter of a million letters and postcards.

Pygmalion (1913)

Autobiographical Sources
 In a letter to the actress Ellen Terry (1891) Shaw speaks about the intention to write a play for the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the role of a flower girl.
After fifteen years, the author writes Pygmalion under the request of George Alexander, the actor manager of the St James’s Theatre. The play was represented in London in 1914 and published in 1916.
This play is about language, a topic dear to G. B. Shaw that spoke and English phonetics on the radio and that made experiments to write English language as it is spoken.

Literary sources.
1) The obvious reference is the legend of Pygmalion told by Ovid. Pygmalion was King of Cyprus and he was a sculptor in Amathus. The women here did not worship Aphrodite, Goddess of love and, as revenge, she gave them a bad reputation. Pygmalion disliked the women and loved the statues he created; in particular one made of ivory, Galatea. Aphrodite gave life to this statue and Pygmalion married it.  In G. B. Shaw’s play, Pygmalion is a sort of scientist that tries to give a new life to a flower girl. There are many common points between the legend and the play:
– both Pygmalion and Higgins are educated;
– both of them do not love women and create a one by themselves;
– both of them succeed in creating what they want.
The end is different: Pygmalion marries Galatea whereas Higgins does not marry Eliza; probably because Shaw preferred to attain to the realism.

2) The other source is the tale of Cinderella told by Perrault:
– both Cinderella and Eliza have not a family, only an inhexistent father
– the central moment is a ball
– a person changes them
– they are both admired
– they are both servants and confidant.
– they are not recognised by the people after their change
– There is a marriage at the end
Of course Shaw used no supernatural elements and Higgins’s slippers replace Cinderella’s shoes and the coach is a taxi.

3) The Taming of the Screw by Shakespeare (1623) where a man tries to tame his beloved.

4) Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley. A scientist creates a man and is punished

5) the stories of Don Juan told by Lord g. Byron , Mozart and Moliere: Don Juan is a seducer that does not love his victims. The statue of the father of one of his lovers will get revenge on him.

Act 1. The scene opens with some people waiting for a taxi in front of a Theatre in Covent Garden. It is raining and a flower girl is sheltering in the portico. She is afraid because a man is taking note of the words she says: he is speaking to another man about his ability to understand people’s origins and social class by their pronunciation. He affirms he can teach hat poor girl to speak perfect English

Act 2.
The girl accepts the bet and goes to the Professor’s house to take her first lesson. The teacher is Mr. Higgins and he is together with the man of the previous night, Colonel Pickering. The name of the girl is Eliza Doolittle. They bet on the possibility of making a lady out of a poor girl. To start with they make Eliza have a bath. Meanwhile the girl’s father arrives. He is Alfred Doolittle and his main concern is to get money in order to permit the girl to live with them.

Act 3. Few months have passed and Higgins is preparing a test: Eliza has to go to Higgins mother and meet some people. The visitors at Mrs Higgins are Mrs. Eynsford Hill, her daughter Clara and her son Freddy, the same people who were waiting for the taxi in front of the theatre in Ac 1. Freddy falls immediately in love with Eliza and Clara is attracted by her way of speaking. Eliza reveals her origins: there is an incredible clash between the way she speaks and her arguments.
Six months later, anyway, Higgins leads her to a Ball at the Embassy: everybody admires her and an old student of Mr. Higgins, Mr. Neoppommuck, takes her for a Hungarian Princess.

Act 4.
They are now at home. And Higgins and Pickering speak about their success without considering Eliza’s feelings. She shows anger and resentment, but the professor does not understand her. Eliza decides to go away and in the street meets Freddy who confesses his love for her. They go away together. After Eliza’s leaving, Higgins understands how important the girl was for him and goes to his mother’s. Eliza is there. At that point Alfred Doolittle re-appears: he is now rich thanks to a legacy by a deceased millionaire.
Eliza is now in front of a choice: her father can provide for her; she can marry Freddy or can go back to Mr. Higgins (even if he does not speak of marriage). Eliza goes to her father’s wedding leaving her teacher waiting for her confidently.

In the sequel
Shaw explains the end of the play, why Eliza does not marry Higgins, even if she is fond of him, marries Freddy in stead and becomes the owner of a flower shop.

London is the city where the action takes place. The comedy starts in Covent Garden, a fashionable meeting areas of theatres and pubs.
The stage directions give many details about the houses of the protagonist to stress in particular the difference between the lower and the upper classes and the different personalities of the Characters.
Eliza’s room is in Drury Lane, one of the poorest districts of London; her things are out of order and her bed is made of rags.
Eliza’s room in Mr. Higgin’s house is rich and elegant. The Professor’s house is full of scientific instruments; his mother’s apartment has many artistic objects that reveal culture and order,
In this way the setting is a way to reveal the people’ personality and their functions inside the story.
Social setting: The Victorian society is well portrayed in the Embassy Ball where the kindness of the people of the upper classes veils curiosity, snobbery and pride. Beside them, and flattering their way of living, there are the parvenus; people who have got on top of society by acting like aristocrats. One of them is Nepommuck: he knows 14 languages, but his vision of the world is very limited.

Eliza Doolittle. She is a poor flower girl that speaks very bad English. Shaw uses Eliza to put in evidence the evils of the Victorian society: the bad condition of poor people, the gap between the upper and the working classes, the women’s conditions.
The writer’s irony is evident since the beginning: Eliza appears a character out of a melodrama with her initial self-pity, but changes her tone as soon as she gets some money to afford a taxi.
Eliza is determinate: she accepts Higgin’s proposal and works hard to improve her way of speaking and behaving. She becomes a lady, an independent woman that does not accept completely the rules imposed by upper-middle classes and their false morality (she does not marry her teacher), unlike Higgins who is a prisoner of the system.

Professor Higgins
. He embodies Pygmalion and expresses Shaw’s ideas about middle classes: people are not born gentlemen or ladies, everybody can develop their way of being. Higgins is very skilful in his profession, but in life he shows his bad, childish temper. His vital energy is only evident in the use of words and in his fast movements. Anyway the audience likes him and accepts his vanity, his way of exploiting the other people. He seems to play a role that society has imposed on him
A psychological criticism could point out his hidden Oedipus complex: he does not get married because he admires his mother a lot. He is one of the many bachelors that populate literature during the Victorian period: without marriage the social order remains untouched.

Alfred Doolittle.
Eliza’s father is lifted out of the slums to the rich class society, but he does not change really his way of living. He is rude, irresponsible, neglectful of her daughter, and even ready to sell her. Only at the end, when he gets money and a social position he attracts people’s sympathy: the new role in society enslaves him and the responsibilities imposed on him are only the evidences of the hypocrisy of middle class.
Like a mask, always at ease, Alfred is a living paradox who feels happy when poor and miserable when gets rich. Here lies Shaw’s irony: the respect Doolittle acquires is due to his money, but does not make of him a gentleman. 

Colonel Pickering.   Mrs Higgins’s best friend, he is an expert of Indian dialects. He is Mr Higgins’s counterpart, a sort of Dr. Watson for Sherlock Holmes who studies langiages, and shows more humanity and  sympathy than his friend and alter ego.

Mrs Higgins.
A good, tolerant, sweet woman that shows her energy and gives a sort of balance to the disordered life of her son.

Mrs Pearce. She is the stereotyped housekeeper of Professor Higgins: wise, respectful to his master and sympathetic to Eliza. Mrs Pearce is the link between the lower and the upper classes as she has adopted the way of living and thinking of her master.

Mrs Eynsford Hill, her daughter Clare and her son Freddy. These characters function is to show the mentality of middle class people and their way of living. Mrs Hill is sincere only in her anxiety about Clara and Freddy.
Clara embodies the new woman of the period, the suffragette, still linked to the privileges of her class, but attracted by Eliza’s way of speaking. She shows independence and self- confidence at the end of the play.
Freddy is a sweet, young man, unable to face reality, redeemed by Eliza’s love who puts in evidence his good qualities.


The comedy was immediately a success. In 1913 Shaw had already performed it in Vienna. In London he had problems with the actors: the actress G. B. Shaw wanted for the role of Eliza, Mrs Patrick Campbell, was famous for her fiery personality and the actor that performed Higgins, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) suggested an happy, romantic ending to the play.
To avoid any change in his play, G. B. Shaw wrote an epilogue to make clear that Higgins and Eliza did not marry.
In 1938 a film appeared in America inspired by the play with the title of Pygmalion.
Then, in 1956 the play became a musical under the title of My Fair Lady with a romantic ending. The comedy was then turned into a movie in America with the actors Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison and the direction of George Cukor (1964).


Cockney: it is a dialect spoken in the East End of London. The name derives from Cock and Nay that means egg. A cock-egg is nonsense, so the word became a nickname for young countrymen who go to live in towns.
The East End: it is an area in London along the banks of the Thames, near the docks.
Ibsen Henrik Johan (1828-1906): Norwegian dramatist and poet, creator of the modern realistic prose drama. His penetrating psychological insight, his symbolism, his social commitment and his defence of women were a great contribution to modern drama. His most important works are Brand (1865); A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1881).