Pygmalion: Its Universal Popularity
Shaw’s Pygmalion is one of the most popular of his plays. It has been a box-office hit, wherever it has been staged all over the English speaking world, and on both sides of the Atlantic. A film based on the play called My Fair Lady has proved to be an immense success, and has always drawn packed houses. Its popularity has been perennial and universal.
The scene of the play is laid in London. It opens in Covent Gardena wholesale fruit-and-vegetable market at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. From there it shifts for a moment to Drury Lane and Lisson Grove, a London slum. Act Il takes us to Wimpole Street and Act III is laid in Chelsea Embankment, a fashionable London locality. We are also taken to a foreign Embassy in London. Cavendish Square, Hanover Square, and Wimbledon Common are some other London localities to which we are introduced.
The Major Characters: Henry Higgins
The canvas of the play is not a crowded one. The number of characters is strictly limited. However, these characters are among the immortals of literature and they linger long in the memory once we have made their acquaintance. First, there is Henry Higgins, Prof. of Phonetics. He is devoted to his subject and is an expert in his knowledge of various dialects spoken in the city of London. He can tell the locality in which a person resides simply by hearing the dialect spoken by him or her. While he is a celebrated scholar, he is rough and uncultured in his ways, swears dreadfully, is untidy and slovenly in his manners, and is authoritative and domineering.
Then there is Colonel Pickering who is conceived as a foil to Higgins too is a student of Phonetics, has already written a book Spoken Sanskrit and has come all the way from India to meet Prof. Higgins. He resides with him and pay his soft, considerate and gentle manners, he throws into sharp relief the tough and bullying ways of Professor Higgins.
Eliza, the Flower-girl
Next, there is Eliza Doolittle, the flower-girl, the only character in the play that changes and grows under the stress of circumstances. She speaks a London dialect and is entirely uneducated and uncultured. Professor Higgins undertakes her education and transforms her into a lady who can pass not merely as a duchess but as a princess at an ambassador’s garden party. She also undergoes another transformation. By the end of the play, she becomes spirited and independent and can easily hold her own against the bullying and domineering Professor Higgins. Her education and dual transformation are the central motif of the play, and the chief source of interest in it.
Alfred Doolittle, the father of Eliza, is also an important character Higgins refers to him as “the most original moralist at present in England known to him. He is certainly a triumph of comic characterization. He is, indeed, an unforgettable comic character.
Then there is Mrs Higgins, the mother of Professor Higgins, gentle and considerate, and in this respect she is sharply contrasted with her son Professor Higgins. Professor Higgins regards her as an ideal woman and his attachment to his mother is very much like the “mother-fixation” of Freud. That is why Higgins is unable to love and marry any woman and becomes a “confirmed old bachelor”
The Minor Figures
These five are the major characters in the play. Then there are secondary characters like Mrs Pearce, the Housekeeper of Higgins, Mrs Eynsford Hill, her daughter Miss Clara Hill, and her son Freddy Hill. Freddy Hill is a character of some importance, for Eliza loves him and ultimately marries him. He has not been trained to do any work and earn his living, and so Eliza sets up a flower-shop, works and supports both herself and Freddy. Then there are such minor figures as Nepommuck, an old pupil of Higgins. He knows thirty languages and works as an interpreter. There are also the ambassador and ambassadoress who host the garden party, where we meet Nepommuck and where Eliza is taken to be a Hungarian Princess.
The Attractive Title: Its Source
The title of the play is attractive and eye-catching. Pygmalion was a legendary King of Cyprus who fell in love with an ivory statue of a maiden, Galatea, which he himself had made. He was a devotee of Aphrodite, the goddess of youth and beauty, who breathed life into the statue and Pygmalion then married her. In the play, Higgins is Pygmalion and Eliza is the Galatea of the Greek legend. Higgins is the creator of Eliza, the princess, just as Pygmalion was the creator of Galatea. But Higgins does not marry Eliza.
The Ironic Sub-title
The sub-title of the play, “A Romance” is, therefore, ironical, for Higgins is anti-romantic and a confirmed old bachelor. He is interested in Eliza only as the object of his experiment and his interest in her ceases, as soon as his experiment is over, and he has ‘created’ a new Eliza out of the uncultured, uneducated and shabby flower-girl that Eliza is at the opening of the play. But like the legendary Pygmalion he does not fall in love with his own creation However, we get a touch of romance in the love and marriage of Eliza and Freddy. This part of the story of Eliza is developed in detail in a kind of prose Epilogue which Shaw has added to the play.
The Play: Problems and Ideas
Like other plays of Shaw, the present play also is a problem play and a play of ideas. A number of ideas have been thrown out and discussed, but no answer has been provided. The more important of such ideas are:
(1) What should a person do, if he or she is educated and raised above his or her earlier social status? He or she cannot go back to his or her earlier environment and carry on his or her earlier work. Then what should such a person do to earn his or her living? A number of alternatives have been suggested, but no definite solution has been provided to the problem.
(2) The poor are sharply divided into the deserving poor and the undeserving ones. What should be the criterion for judging whether one is deserving or undeserving?
(3) Suppose one such person suddenly grows rich and is elevated to middle-class status, can he be happy in his newfound status, or does he lose his happiness for ever?
(4) Is “middle class morality” merely a bundle of hypocrisy, or its values are worthwhile and based on the hard reality of life?
“A Serious Comedy”: An Irritant to Thought
These are the major problems discussed threadbare, but a number of other ‘ideas’ and ‘problems have been hinted at during the course of the action. Shaw’s comedy is a “serious” comedy, a new kind of comedy, which makes the audience rear with laughter, but at the same time makes them think. As Shaw himself asserts in the Prologue to the play that his greatest achievement is that he has made a frankly didactic play into a hilarious comedy.
A Play Based on Paradox: Wit and Humour
The popularity of Pygmalion has been universal and perennial. It is one of Shaw’s more successful plays. Shaw was a master of paradox and the play shows this aspect of his art at its best. A number of accepted values and ideals have been turned upside down. Paradoxical statements are scattered all over the play Wit is a matter of the clever use of language and in this play Shaw’s wit assumes the form of paradox. There is also humour of character the highest kind of humour, as well as farcical humour or the humour of situation which makes the readers and audiences roar with laughter.
According to A.C. Ward Shaw’s, “most impressive achievement in Pygmalion was that he made an interesting, amusing, and popular play out of what is largely a lecture on phonetics…” Professor Higgins is a good teacher and he is also a social rebel: he hates the shallow politeness of smart society and will not practise its small hypocrisies. He, therefore, interests us as a rebel, even though his rebellion makes him rude and heartless. Eliza Doolittle is a character we cannot quickly forget, because Shaw makes us see that inside the rough flower-girl, whom we meet at the beginning of the play, is the fine and sensitive woman, who emerges later as a result of Higgins’ teaching and Colonel Pickering’s kindness and courtesy.
Alfred Doolittle and Conventional Morality
Whenever the play is performed, Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, is a favourite with the audiences. Through him, Shaw laughs at the conventional morality of the English, making Doolittle turn it upside down and inside out and finding real humour in his plight when he becomes an uncomfortable, conventional rich man after having been a poor but happy dustman.
The ending of the play has been the object of much criticism. The audience expected that Higgins would marry Eliza for the play has been called a ‘romance’ and in the Greek legend also Pygmalion does marry Galatea who was his own creation as Eliza, the princess, is the creation of Higgins. But Higgins-Pygmalion does not marry Eliza-Galatea, and this comes as a disappointment to the readers and audiences. That was why the producers and actors modified Shaw’s ending to the extent of throwing a hint towards the close of the play that Higgins had become romantically interested in Eliza and that he might after all marry her. This bare hint that Higgins and Eliza would get married was enough to satisfy the audiences. Shaw himself stuck to his original ending and, in fact, felt deeply annoyed with the actor, Beerbohm Tree, who insisted upon throwing a hint at the close of the play that a marriage between Eliza and her erstwhile teacher would surely take place. Shaw subsequently wrote an Epilogue to the play to explain why he had ended the play without showing Higgins as wishing to marry Eliza.
The Prose Epilogue
The account given in the Epilogue regarding Eliza’s marriage to Freddy Eynsford Hill after the play ends, “is one of Bernard Shaw’s least successful pieces of writing” (A.C. Ward). He was anxious not to give Pygmalion the kind of happy ending that audiences would expect, and he, therefore, refused to have Eliza marry Higgins. But it often happens in plays and novels that the characters come to life on their own account and behave differently from what the author intended.
Although Higgins and Eliza might not have lived happily ever after, as the heroes and heroines of fairy tales usually do, they would certainly have been better matched than Eliza and the feeble Freddy could be. In his determination to make his romance unromantic, Shaw twisted Pygmalion from what would have been, by the principles of drama, its natural end. Hence arises the disappointment of the readers and audiences. However, it may be added that the end is quite in keeping with the anti-romantic attitude of Shaw.
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