Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw (1912)


“What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.”

Although having been vaguely familiar with this story, I’d never actually sat down and read the actual play or researched its background, so decided to do that this week. I’m quite new to reading plays and it’s rather a different experience than reading a novel, but it’s enjoyable all the same. This one, based on Greek myth, is a familiar story structure based on taking someone (sort of Noble Savage/Frankenstein idea) and then transforming them into a higher class of creature (a la Cinderella tale). And as a sign of the times and the national culture, this play’s characters are extremely class-ridden. (There’s also a trace of the ongoing Science versus Art debate as well.)

In this case, the characters of Dr. Higgins and Colonel Pickering, two self-taught scholars in linguistics, pull flower seller Eliza Doolittle off the streets and teach her how to act like a Duchess. There are, of course, unforeseen events that occur and the play is actually much more serious than the adaptation “My Fair Lady” would have you believe along with a PoMo ending of sorts. There’s definitely an element of Higgins/Pickering (both men) being Superior Gods of a type, and Eliza (the female character) being molded/taught and in the position of a child or less being.

(Some say that Pinocchio is an adaptation of this Greek myth as well, and the narrative was well known before this play was published and now afterwards. Magnum PI and Star Trek: Voyager, for instance, both have versions, and then there are numerous Hollywood versions including Pretty Woman and with an interesting twist backwards, the Stepford Wives.)

prettywoman_pygmalionAccording to Greek myth (and Ovid, although I haven’t read Ovid), Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he carved. (The statue’s name was Galatea, FYI, and quite frequently the two names are paired together. (Doesn’t come up too often in my social circles though.) The story finishes with a happy ending in most versions (as there was a popular demand for that at the time), but Shaw plainly didn’t want that to happen (even though it did in some of the more commercial stage productions – which he hated.) In 1916, four years after the play had first been staged, Shaw was cross enough to add an afternote to the play in which he explains why he thought the ending had to be the way he wrote it. (It’s not a predictable ending, for the most part. The narrative is also quite feminist for the times, which is supported by Shaw’s background and philosophy.)

“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

Shaw was an Irish playwright and worked to establish the London School of Economics (although it’s not clear to me what the connection would be between these two areas.) His mum was a professional singer, one of his sisters was a professional singer, so there was stage in his bones and childhood experiences. He was an ardent socialist (clear in this play) and, curiously enough, is the only person who has ever been awarded both the Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1935) for his work on Pygmalion. Having no want for public honor, Shaw wanted to refuse the Nobel but accepted it at his wife’s bequest. The financial prize was personally rejected and he asked that it be used to finance translation of a Swedish playwright’s work.

Interesting note: Shaw joined the British Interplanetary Society, a group focused on space travel and exploration, when he was 91. I love that he was always learning something new throughout his life.

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