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An introduction to Pygmalion, a Romance in Five Acts

Greg Buzwell explores the inspirations for George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and assesses the play's reception from its first English performance in 1914 to its adaptation for screen fifty years later.

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s sublime comedy of cross-class mobility, was first performed in a German translation at the Hofburg Theatre, Vienna, on 16 October 1913. A production in English followed soon afterwards at His Majesty’s Theatre, London, opening on 11 April 1914 and running for 118 performances. The play has been popular with audiences ever since for the inventiveness of its comedy and the force of what it has to say about class, education, social mobility and feminism. Class, in particular, lies at the heart of Shaw’s play. To what extent can people reposition themselves in society by changing the way they talk and act? Can a Cockney flower girl pass herself off as a duchess with the help of elocution lessons, or will the force of her personality and upbringing always find a way to break through? Pygmalion explores these issues and gloriously celebrates individual character and personality, while exposing and satirising the artificial constructs of the British class system.

Photograph of Michelle Dockery as Eliza Doolittle, 2007

Photograph of Michelle Dockery as Eliza Doolittle, 2007

Michelle Dockery plays Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle in the 2007 Old Vic production.

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What Socialism Is by George Bernard Shaw

What Socialism Is by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion – a play that deals with class, education and women’s rights – is underpinned by Shaw’s socialist politics. He regularly wrote speeches and pamphlets, like this one, for socialist political think tank, the Fabian Society.

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Origins and plot

The plot of Pygmalion concerns a bet made by Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, that in six months he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass as a duchess. As Higgins puts it to his friend, Colonel Pickering, ‘I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe’, a statement that is revealing both of Higgins’s unshakable self-confidence and of his dismissive attitudes towards the lower classes (Act 2). Shaw’s inspiration for the arrogant but brilliant Higgins came from the great British phonetician Henry Sweet and from music teacher George John Vandeleur Lee, a figure from Shaw’s youth who had held a powerful influence over his mother, Bessie. To achieve his objective Higgins proposes to teach Eliza to speak with an impeccable upper-class accent and to master the art of polite small talk. What he doesn’t account for is the indomitable will, charm and vibrant personality of his pupil. Higgins leads his student towards a new life only to realise that having allowed her a glimpse of a finer world she becomes disaffected with her old life, and the lack of opportunities it offered.

Performing copy of Pygmalion, with George Bernard Shaw's rehearsal notes

Performing copy of Pygmalion, with George Bernard Shaw's rehearsal notes

Henry Higgins’ arrogance and insensitivity towards others is on full display in this scene from Act 2.

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Photographs of productions of Pygmalion in Poland, Russia and France

Photographs of productions of Pygmalion in Poland, Russia and France

Professor Henry Higgins, played by Konstantin Zubov in the 1932 Moscow Maly Theatre production of Pygmalion.

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Usage terms Tyraspolski: This material is in the Public Domain. Maly Theatre Moscow: This material is in the Public Domain. G L Manuel Frères: This material is in the Public Domain.

Shaw envisaged the character of Eliza as ‘an East End dona [woman] in an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers’.[1] He found inspiration in the actress Beatrice Stella Campbell (better known under her stage name of ‘Mrs Patrick Campbell’). In 1895 Shaw had seen Mrs Campbell in a play called Fedora by the French dramatist Victorien Sardou. Shaw, in his review, was distinctly unimpressed by Mrs Campbell’s performance. More tellingly, however, he also found fault with her diction:

In order to secure refinement of tone, she articulates with the tip of her tongue against her front teeth as much as possible [like] the snobbish Irishman who uses it as a cheap recipe for speaking genteel English.[2]

Shaw, having arrived in London in 1876 as a 20-year-old Irishman self-conscious of his Dublin accent, knew precisely what he was talking about. Shaw had long been fascinated by phonetics, and the necessity of speaking in a certain way to be accepted within genteel, elevated and cultured circles.

Two years after seeing Mrs Campbell in Fedora Shaw saw her again, playing Ophelia in Hamlet. This time, Shaw was impressed and noted with approval that Mrs Campbell portrayed the character as being genuinely and terrifyingly mad. When he saw the play a second time, three months later, things had changed. Mrs Campbell had become bored of the role. Something about the way Mrs Campbell now sang and decked herself with flowers during the mad scene reminded Shaw of the woman who sold flowers at Charing Cross station. Soon after this performance Shaw and Mrs Campbell were introduced. A passionate although never consummated affair followed and, almost 20 years after first seeing her, Shaw wrote Pygmalion with Mrs Campbell in mind for the role of Eliza.

What’s in a name? Inspiration and title

Shaw’s Pygmalion, like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), employs a one-word title to indicate its grounding in classical myth. Without the title one could read the play as being simply the curious tale of a professor of phonetics and his attempts to teach a flower girl how to speak like a duchess. The allusion to Greek myth gives the plot extra layers of depth and meaning. Best-known from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphosis, Pygmalion was a sculptor who, disdainful of women, carves himself an idealised female figure from ivory only to fall in love with his creation. His wish that the sculpture be brought to life is granted by the goddess Venus and Pygmalion subsequently marries her, the living sculpture – named Galatea – being only too happy to play the role of grateful bride to her creator. In Pygmalion, Shaw effectively reworks this classical myth and gives it a feminist perspective. Higgins mimics the part of Pygmalion but he has no desire to marry Eliza, the flower girl whom he shapes to talk like a duchess. Eliza, meanwhile, has no wish to meekly accept the fate of Pygmalion’s creation. Throughout the play, Eliza remains her own woman. While Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest can only use the language he has been taught to launch a tirade at his teacher – ‘You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse’ – Eliza uses her teaching to better effect, taking confidence from her ability to learn and strength from her success to stand up to him.[3] As Professor Higgins’s mother observes of her son and Colonel Pickering, ‘You certainly are a pretty pair of babies playing with your live doll’ (Act 3), the twist being that the ‘live doll’ is very much an intelligent, independent woman and more than a match for the manipulative men attempting to mould her to their will.

Photographs of productions of Pygmalion in Poland, Russia and France

Photographs of productions of Pygmalion in Poland, Russia and France

Eliza Doolittle dressed as a refined lady, played by Daria Zerkalova in the 1932 Moscow Maly Theatre production of Pygmalion.

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Usage terms Tyraspolski: This material is in the Public Domain. Maly Theatre Moscow: This material is in the Public Domain. G L Manuel Frères: This material is in the Public Domain.

The other inspiration for Pygmalion is Tobias Smollett’s novel Peregrine Pickle, published in 1751. In the book Peregrine meets a 16-year-old beggar-girl and buys her from her mother for a small sum. Peregrine takes her home, tidies her up, buys her new clothes and, over some weeks, cures her of her colourful and unfortunate habit of swearing. All goes well, and the former beggar-girl is able to pass with ease among the higher echelons of society until one evening she detects a lady cheating at cards. Outraged, she utters a volley of sarcastic and vulgar reproofs. As she leaves the room, she applies ‘her hand to that part which was the last of her that disappeared, inviting the company to kiss it by one of its coarsest denominations’ (Chapter 87). Shaw did, after some prompting, finally admit to having read Peregrine Pickle in his youth, although he stated he had not cared for the book. All the same, the incident of the beggar-girl must have stayed in his mind. Shaw always maintained a refreshingly free and easy approach to borrowing ideas from elsewhere, arguing that, after all, Shakespeare had borrowed the plots for virtually every play he ever wrote.

‘Not bloody likely’

One of the most startling moments in the play – and certainly the one that caused the most press comment at the time – occurs in Act 3. Eliza has been introduced to Henry Higgins’s mother and the Eynsford-Hills, a middle-class family of social climbers who are actually living in genteel poverty. Eliza makes polished small talk to begin with, but the cracks begin to show. She talks about her aunt, suggesting that her death had been suspicious and that someone had ‘done her in’. She then talks about her father’s copious consumption of gin before finally, when Freddy Eynsford-Hill asks her whether she intends to walk home, she exclaims ‘Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi’. Eliza’s use of the word ‘bloody’ had been passed by G S Street of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (which was responsible for theatre censorship) on the grounds that ‘the incident is merely funny’. Shaw was in the audience for the first night and in a letter to his wife Charlotte, dated 12 April 1914, he lamented:

But in the third act the effort to keep quiet was less successful; and when ‘Not bloody likely’ came the performance was nearly wrecked. They laughed themselves into such utter abandonment and disorder that it was really doubtful for some time whether they could recover themselves and let the play go on.

Stanley Bell, the stage manager, timed the uproarious laughter that followed the utterance of the word ‘bloody’ as lasting 76 seconds, making it possibly the longest laugh in English stage history.

Photographs of productions of Pygmalion in Poland, Russia and France

Photographs of productions of Pygmalion in Poland, Russia and France

The refined gathering in Act 3 of Pygmalion, from the 1914 Polish production.

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Usage terms Tyraspolski: This material is in the Public Domain. Maly Theatre Moscow: This material is in the Public Domain. G L Manuel Frères: This material is in the Public Domain.

Lord Chamberlain's report on Pygmalion

Lord Chamberlain's licence report for Pygmalion

‘the incident is merely funny’: G S Street comments on the appearance of the word ‘bloody’ in his licence report for Pygmalion.

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Complaints were made, of course. The Prime Minister even received a letter of outrage from the Women’s Purity League. Shaw’s own concern wasn’t that people might take offence from the word, but that the fuss surrounding it might detract from the important issues addressed in his play. In a letter to Charlotte dated 19 April 1914 Shaw wrote: ‘… I have sent you dreary bundles of press cuttings from which you will see that all political and social questions have been swept from the public mind by Eliza’s expletive. Triviality can go no further’. In music halls that spring ‘Not Pygmalion likely!’ became a popular catchphrase. In the much-loved musical adaptation My Fair Lady (1964), the shock value of Shaw’s use of ‘bloody’ is updated. Carried away by the heat of the moment at Ascot, Eliza (played by Audrey Hepburn) shouts ‘Move your bloomin’ arse!’ as her horse races past. For better or worse, the appeal of a well-dressed lady using the language of the gutter never loses its comic, or shock, value.

A romantic ending?

Audiences expected Pygmalion, especially given its subtitle ‘A Romance in Five Acts’, to conclude with a marriage. In a way it does, although the marriage in question is that of Eliza’s father Alfred to his common-law wife – rather than that of Professor Higgins to Eliza. Shaw was always adamant that a marriage between Eliza and Higgins would not only compromise Eliza’s independence but also be a plain travesty. There was no chance of marital bliss, he argued, between someone as lively as Eliza and a mother-fixated professor with a tedious devotion to phonetics.

In the original play Higgins is not sexually attracted to Eliza. He associates sex with the vulgar classes from which he has lifted her:

You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, don’t you? Very well: be off with you to the sort of people you like. Marry some sentimental hog or other with lots of money, and a thick pair of lips to kiss you with and a thick pair of boots to kick you with. (Act 5)

Later, in a sequel to the 1916 printed script, Shaw further clarified that Higgins and Eliza did not marry. Instead, he offered readers the idea that Eliza married Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Audiences, however, along with many actors and film-makers, have long wished for a more conventionally romantic ending. In the first London stage performance Sir Henry Beerbohm Tree, playing Higgins, would throw a bunch of flowers to Eliza as the curtain came down, hinting at a marriage to come. Film adaptations were even more blatant. The first English film adaptation, made in 1938, starring Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hillier as Eliza, was directed by the Hungarian Gabriel Pascal, and Shaw himself won an Academy Award for Writing (Adapted Screenplay). Shaw’s ending in which Eliza marries the feckless Freddy Eynsford-Hill was cast aside, however, in favour of one where Eliza and Higgins have a romantic future together.

Manuscript film scenario for Pygmalion, drafted by George Bernard Shaw

Manuscript film scenario for Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw’s handwritten ‘scenario’ for a film adaptation of Pygmalion.

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Today most people know Pygmalion through the 1964 film adaptation of the 1958 musical. During his life Shaw had been vehemently opposed to any musical adaptations of the play, arguing that the language was musical enough in itself and that the addition of songs would only hide his serious intentions. When an RAF serviceman wrote to Shaw requesting approval to set the play to music, Shaw replied, ‘I absolutely forbid any such outrage’. [4] He was 92 at the time, and clearly showing no sign of mellowing with age. Shaw’s death in 1950 loosened the ties and a musical version of Pygmalion, starring Rex Harrison as Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza, appeared on Broadway in 1956, transferring to London two years later. The film adaptation starred Rex Harrison once again, with Audrey Hepburn playing Eliza. At the film’s conclusion, following a blazing row and with Eliza asserting her independence, Higgins returns to his house. All alone, he plays a gramophone recording of Eliza’s speech. When, looking up, he notices Eliza has returned, he appears relieved, saying ‘Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?’

Audiences had their happy ending, together with the suggestion that Eliza and Higgins would continue their attempts to educate one another well into marriage. Shaw himself, however, would surely not have approved.

 

Footnotes:

[1] George Bernard Shaw, letter to Ellen Terry, 8 September 1897.

[2] George Bernard Shaw, review of Fedora, Saturday Review, 1 June 1895.

[3] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2.

[4] George Bernard Shaw, letter to E A Prentice, 3 February 1948.

  • Greg Buzwell
  • Greg Buzwell is Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library. He has co-curated three major exhibitions for the Library – Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination; Shakespeare in Ten Acts and Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty. His research focuses primarily on the Gothic literature of the Victorian fin de siècle. He has also edited and introduced collections of supernatural tales by authors including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edgar Allan Poe and Walter de la Mare.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.