Pygmalion as a Problem Play | Pygmalion as a Drama of Ideas

Pygmalion as a Problem Play | Pygmalion as a Drama of Ideas

Pygmalion as a Problem Play


A problem play is a play in which a number of problems are presented and analysed thoroughly but no solutions to those problems are provided by the dramatist. Such a play serves as a great irritant to thought. It is thought provoking. The readers are provoked to think over the problem presented in the play and work out their own solutions to those problems. Pygmalion is a problem play in this sense. A number of problems have been presented and discussed; the discussion is thought-provoking: the readers are expected to think for themselves, and work out their own solutions.

Problems Created by Education

The most important problem presented in the play is the problem of education. Eliza Doolittle’s education in phonetics is a difficult problem, but Higgins successfully overcomes the difficulties so much so that within six months Eliza can easily pass off as a foreign princess at an ambassador’s garden party. But her education creates problems for Eliza. Her education has made her a lady, and so she cannot go back to her former environment and sell flowers as she used to do. She has been cut off from her earlier environment. She has become a lady and has lost her earlier identity. This problem, this dilemma, this predicament, was foreseen by Mrs. Pearce in the very Act of the play, and it is foreseen by Mrs. Higgins in Act III of the play.

Eliza is confronted with the problem of loss of identity, and alienation, and she must search for belongingness in the new social environment to which she has been raised by her education. She poignantly puts her own problems in the following words:

“What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?”

A World Problem

As A.C. Ward puts it,

“The problem in Pygmalion, therefore, is like the world-problem of education. To educate is to give (or at least to offer) new life to those who receive the education, and that new life produces discontent with existing circumstances and creates the desire for a different kind of world.”

This world-problem is presented in Pygmalion through the medium of a lesser theme which is a national one confined to the English who, wrote Shaw, have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.’…….. Bernard Shaw was disgusted by the harsh and slovenly speech of many people in England. He blamed this on to English spelling, and he left most of his large fortune to pay the expenses of starting a new English alphabet based on phonetic principles which would provide a separate symbol or sign for each spoken sound, thus enlarging the alphabet considerably. Shaw believed that this exact representation of sounds, in writing and in print, would bring about correct pronunciation by everyone, and break down class-distinctions.

The Solution to Eliza’s Problem

But the class distinctions are not so broken in the present play, and so Eliza’s predicament remains. As Higgins takes no further interest in her, she has to work out her own solution. Indications in the play are given that the problem would be solved by marrying Freddy. But he is a weakling and has been brought to no occupation. Eliza herself would have to support him, if she marries him. Their marriage and after life has not been depicted in the play itself.

The natural solution to Eliza’s problem would have been a marriage with Professor Higgins or Colonel Pickering. But they are both ‘confirmed old bachelors’ Higgins is a victim of Oedipus complex or mother-fixation, and takes no human interest in Eliza. This would have been a proper solution to the problem of Eliza. But this does not happen, and so basically, her problem, as those of countless others who face a similar predicament remains unsolved. The dramatist has provided no solution, but he has certainly focused on the problem, and made his readers sit up and think.

The Problems of Alfred Doolittle

Another problem presented in the play is the predicament of Alfred Doolittle. He was poor, he was considered “an undeserving poor”, and so nothing was done for him by society. Still he was happy in his poverty. He would from time to time get money by “touching” others, i.e. by blackmailing them, and then he would have a good time with his mistress. He was quite happy and contended with his life as a poor dustman.

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His Loss of Identity

But then suddenly, as a result of a joke of Professor Higgins, he acquired large wealth and became one of the newly rich. He was raised to the status of the middle class. He could no longer be a happy dustman. It became imperative for him to conform to the middle class morality and social code. He had lost his former identity. He was alienated from his former class and the kind of life he led as a poor dustman, and he must now acquire a new identity and a new sense of belonging to a higher class.

His Quest for Belongingness

Alfred Doolittle poignantly expresses his problem thus,

“Who asked him to make a gentleman of me? I was happy. I was free. I touched pretty nigh everybody for money when I wanted it, same as I touched you, Enry Iggins, Now I am worried; tied neck and heels, and everybody ‘touches’ me for money…I’ll have to learn to speak middle class language from you, instead of speaking proper English. That’s where you’ll come in: and I dareasy thats what you done it for.”

Intimidation by Middle Class Morality

Further, Alfred Doolittle must now marry his mistress with whom he was happy so far, but after marriage he would lose his happiness, for she would no longer be so docile and obedient as she was in her unwedded state. But middle class morality intimidates him into marrying her. He cannot refuse to accept the wealth that has come to him, for it is only this wealth which can protect him from the workhouse. It alone will be his support and stay in his old age and so he cannot refuse to accept it. He must, therefore, acquire the middle class moral code and must try to belong to it, though in the process, he would lose all his happiness.


Such is the predicament of Alfred Doolittle. The dramatist has highlighted his problem and of many others like him, but no solution has been provided. The readers must think for themselves and find out their own respective solution.

5 thoughts on “Pygmalion as a Problem Play | Pygmalion as a Drama of Ideas”

  1. Hello Somnath ji,
    your blog is a big help to me. I am working in the administration of a School and College, I teach classes 10th and 11th part time, I’m a full time mother to a four year old and am currently pursuing MA in English through distance learning.

  2. I am a Literature student. Your blogs and writings proved a great help to me in order to understand the topics better. Actually, I feel the lack of words to express my gratitude towards you for the help I have received.
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  3. It’s a great help for me when I happened to search Pygmalion a problem play, though I find the introduction part contradicting the definition of problem play given by M H Abrams I’m his celebrated Glossary of Literary Terms.


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