Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw




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Source: Stanley J. Solomon, "The Ending of Pygmalion- A Structural View" in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol 16, no. 1, March, 1964, pp 59-63.


Critical Essay #3


In this essay, Matlaw examines Pygmalion's ending and the ways that subsequent adaptations have strayedfrom Shaw's original vision. The critic ultimately affirms the play's original conclusion,


Alan Jay Lerner, probably the most successful adapter of Shaw's Pygmalion, commented: "Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and_Shaw and Heaven forgive me!_I am not certain he is right." Many critics would agree with this sentiment. A recent analysis of the play goes so far as to dismiss the Epilogue as a bit of Shavian frivolity and to cite the "happy ending" Shaw himself wrote for Pascal's film as the proper denouement of a play which is persuasively categorized by one critic as a play which follows "the classic pattern of satirical comedy" [Milton Crane mPMLA, vol.66, 1956].


Such an ending has been popular also with audiences and actors ever since the play first appeared in 1913. Shaw chided both Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Beerbohm Tree for their romantic interpretations in the first productions: "I say, Tree, must you be so treacly?" he asked during the rehearsals. Tree's stage business before the curtain fell left no doubts in the minds of audiences that Higgins's marriage to Eliza was imminent. Justifying it, Tree wrote Shaw: * 'My ending makes money; You ought to be grateful." Shaw replied: "Your ending is damnable: You ought to be shot." And he continued fulminating against romantic portrayals of an ending which caters to what, in the Epilogue written for Pygmalion later, he called "imaginations. .. so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-medowns of the ragshop m which Romance keeps its stock of 'happy endings' to misfit all stories."


Nonetheless, the recurrent arousing of inappropriate audience expectations and the apparent inability of the play to arouse the appropriate expectations (or those which Shaw considered appropriate) raise a question about Pygmalion's success on the playwnght's terms. Perhaps even more important, they call for a re-examination of these terms; for I think that the ending is significant and dramatically inevitable, and that it is the ending Shaw himself rewrote for the film (thereby confusing the matter further)_rather than his Epilogue_which is frivolous....


While one of the most penetrating and suggestive of the analyses of Shaw's work accepts the original ending of Pygmalion, it seems to do so for the wrong reasons. I cannot agree with the assertion in that analysis that "the 'education of Eliza* in Acts I to III is a caricature of the true process." No educative process is in fact represented in the play (although Shaw inserted "a sample" for film production at a later date_a hint which was deftly developed in My Fair Lady). But more important, the conclusion that "Eliza turns the tables on Higgins, for she, finally, is the vital one, and he is the prisoner of 'system,' particularly of his profession," seems to me to miss the point (Eriz Bertley in his Bernard Shaw, [New York], 1957).


Rather the reverse is true. The magnificent comic subplot underlines the point, for Doolittle was once, like Higgins, outside of class or "system" ' and had vitality. Both Doolittle and Eliza are brought to join the middle class. What is sharply contrasted, however, is the consequence of the transformation: for Doolittle it is a descent while for Eliza it is an ascent_the transformation makes the previously articulate (vital) father comically impotent while it gives the previously inarticulate ( "crooning like a bilious pigeon") daughter human life. In sum, Higgins, the life-giver, will continue his study of phonetics while Eliza will settle for the life her father describes so picturesquely in the last act when all the cards are put on the table. Higgins, that is, will continue to teach proper, civilized articulation, a superman attempting to transform subhumans into humans; while Eliza will lead an admirable if circumscribed middle-class existence, having been given humanity_life_by Higgins.


Her ability to undergo successfully such a transformation evidences her superior qualities and often makes her appear as the hero of the play. She is only a Shavian hero manque, however, and she is not the wife for Higgins. She can not even understand him, their values and interests being so different. Higgins genuinely admires Eliza, although he is first shocked and then amused by her values: in a most effective and inevitable denouement, the curtain falls as "he roars with laughter" _at the thought of her marrying Freddy. Admirable as she now is_especially when compared with what she was when he met her_she is not, and never can be, his equal. She is now part and parcel of the system of "middle class morality" which the early Doolittle and Higgins find ludicrous. Higgins and Eliza, then, still do not speak the same language, although this is true now only in the figurative sense. This does not, however, preclude the existence of an affinity between them, perhaps one comparable to the one existing between Caesar and Cleopatra. Nevertheless, marrying Eliza would be preposterous for Higgins, a superman with the vitality of a soul and a "Miltonic mind" (as he himself labels it) who lives on an entirely different plane, a plane where sex and marriage, indeed, are unknown.


What causes audiences to wish for it (as Eliza herself, for that matter, was wishing for it) is the Cinderella guise of the plot_which buttresses audiences' perennial desires, as Shaw rightly said in the Epilogue, for the marriage of the hero and the maiden_and the sentimental part of the myth which the title incidentally also calls to mind. The Cinderella guise, however, is accidental and irrelevant; it is purposely negated by the omission of scenes depicting the process of the transformation and by the omission of the grand ball scene, the highpoint of any Cinderella story. The title specifically and intentionally focuses attention away from the heroine and on Higgins, and on Higgins "s life-giving qualities in particular.


It is very appropriate, therefore, that the most recent popular production is called My Fair Lady, focusing attention, as the musical itself does, on the Cinderella theme. At the same time, with all the brilliance of this version, even with the dialogue culled from the original play, this one is a very different play throughout. All the noncomic lines... are omitted, for in My Fair Lady Higgins is the conventional romantic hero and not what he surely is in Pygmalion: the Shavian hero, standing alone, a superman embodying a life force divorced from human social and sensual drives, but representative of the vitality and creative evolution in which, in Shaw's philosophy, lies the ultimate hope of mankind.


Source: Myron Matlaw, "The Denouement of Pygmalion,'' in Modern Drama, Vol 1, no. 1, May, 1958, pp. 29, 33-34.


Media Adaptations


Pygmalion was adapted as a film produced by Gabriel Pascal, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, starring Howard and Wendy Hiller; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938, The film received Academy Awards for Shaw's screenplay and for the adaptation by Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, and W, P. Lipscomb.


Pygmalion was also filmed for American television, directed by George Schaefer for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, starring Julie Harris and James Donald, adapted by Robert Hartung; Compass, 1963.


The play has also been produced in audio recordings. In 1972 Peter Wood directed a recording starring Michael Redgrave, Donald Pleasence, and Lynn Redgrave (Caedmon TRS 354). In 1974, the play was recorded in association with the British Council, starring Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg (Argo SAY 28).


Pygmalion was also adapted into the musical My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. An original cast recording was released in 1959, starring Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Stanley Holloway (CK 2015 Columbia).


My Fair Lady was made into a film in 1964, produced by Jack L. Warner and directed by George Cukor, starring Audrey Hepburn as Liza with Rex Harrison reprising his stage role of Higgins. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and received eight. It is considered a film classic in the musical genre.


Topics for Further Study


Research the history of phonetics and speech as a subject of study; does Shaw's depiction of the scientific interests of his character Higgins seem to have been well-grounded in historical precedent?


Compare and contrast the ways in which both Liza and her father are thrust into the middle class (she through learning to speak "properly," he through obtaining money), and why each is not comfortable in it. Through these characters, what does Shaw seem to be saying about class distinctions?


Contrast Colonel Pickering and Henry Higgins in terms of manners and behavior. What are the implications of their very different treatments of Liza?


Research the social position of women in early twentieth-century Britain (economic opportunities, cultural conventions, legal rights), and use this information to explain further why Liza is so concerned about her future following the conclusion of Higgins's "experiment."


Compare & Contrast


1910s: Women in Britain do not have the right to vote, and their opportunities for education and employment remain limited.


Today: Since 1928, all women over the age of 21 have had the right to vote in Britain. The direct participation of women in government continues to be more limited than that of men, although the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 set an important precedent. Women were admitted to full admission at Oxford in 1920 and to Cambridge University in 1948. Women make up a much larger portion of the work force than they did at the turn of the century, and although their compensation and employment opportunities continue to lag behind those of men, the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and other measures have addressed this issue. It is no longer the case that a women's natural role is widely assumed to be limited to domestic work.


1910s: With industrialization and legislative reform beginning a process of diversification, Britain's society is still rigidly hierarchical, with a tradition of a landed aristocracy and a pyramid of descending ranks and degrees. In 1911, the power of the royally-appointed House of Lords in Parliament to veto the legislation of the democratically-elected House of Commons is reduced to a power to delay legislation.


Today: The political power of royalty and the nobility has been greatly reduced through a process of legislative reform. While tides of nobility remain, Britain's society remains stratified primarily by wealth rather than rank. While the middle class grew considerably throughout the century and there was significant growth in economic indicators such as owner-occupation of homes, sharp divisions between rich and poor persist in Britain. With the growth of the technical institutes, the "polytechnics," the expansion of the university system after World War II greatly increased opportunities for higher education in the country.


1910s: Despite the promotion of a standard "Queen's English," beginning in the Victorian era, the British Isles_even London itself_is marked by a wide diversity of spoken English. The diversity of British population (including its varieties of English) was further shaped by large-scale immigration, by Irish beginning in the 1830s, Germans in the 1840s, Scandinavians in the 1870s, and Eastern Europeans in the 1880s.


Today: The diversity of English culture_especially in London and the major cities_has been further increased, along with the diversity of English dialects, by twentieth-century immigration from Britain's colonies and former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, and the Far East.


1910s: Europe is devastated by the 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded in "the Great War" (World War I), including unprecedented levels of civilian casualties. Britain was not alone in experiencing the most intense physical, economic, and psychological assault in its history.


Today: The specter of civilian death leads to a realization that modern warfare potentially endangers the future of the enure nation. This feeling has been accentuated since the end of World War n by the threat of nuclear destruction. Much more so than at the beginning of the century, citizens have come to perceive war and the necessity of avoiding it as their business, and they often try to impact their government's policies to this end. Shaw's position against war, still somewhat radical in his day, has become much more common.


What Do I Read Next?


Major Barbara, another of Shaw's plays, first produced in 1905, and considered his first major work. It explores the ideological conflict between "Major" Barbara Undershaft, who strives to lift up the poor through her untiring effort with the Salvation Army, and her father, Sir Andrew Undershaft, a fabulously wealthy arms manufacturer. Both achievers represent Shaw's theory of the Life Force, or human advancement through "creative evolution." The play explores the question of whose actions better serve society, Barbara's or those of her father, who provides a comfortable existence for his employees but can only do so through his profiting by the destruction of human life. Similar to Pygmalion (and many of Shaw's other plays), the action revolves around a strong, independent female character and explores issues of class, social identity, and human worth.


The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. A significant example of Shaw's political writing, one which examines many themes central to Pygmalion. The text demonstrates Shaw's firm, lifelong belief that only members of a socialist society_with collective ownership of wealth and equal opportunity for all_could look forward to the future with hope. Writing ten years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Shaw viewed that experiment as a failure (recognizing the developing trend towards totalitarianism in the Soviet state). In general, Shaw looked with hope not to revolution but to a democratic transition to socialism, a truly collective evolution towards an equitable society. That "the intelligent woman" was his audience for the work was a deliberate choice; Shaw was particularly concerned with the exploitation of women, both through their unpaid but crucial domestic labor and their limited and underpaid positions in the work force. "Our whole commercial system," he wrote, "is rooted ... in cheap female labour." Shaw perceived the special need during his era to increase educational and employment opportunities for women. This text is of a significant length but has an encyclopedic structure.


Plays and Players: Essays on the Theatre, edited by A. C. Ward (Oxford University Press, 1952); and Shaw on the Theatre, edited by E. J. West (Hill and Wang, 1958). These volumes compile a number of Shaw's extensive writings on the theatre (commenting on both the plays and productions of his own career, as well as on other playwrights such as Shakespeare and Ibsen.)


Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: Their Correspondence, edited by Alan Dent (Knopf, 1962). The compiled correspondence between Shaw and the actress who created the part of Liza in the English premiere. Shaw also wrote Caesar and Cleopatra for her and the actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson, though she never performed in it. Pygmalion is discussed extensively,


The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil (Viking Penguin, 1986; revised, 1992). A companion book to a public-television series (available on video at most libraries) about the history of English: its historical development out of Germanic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon roots; its transition from an early, to a middle and then a modern form; and its unprecedented spread throughout the world through British colonialism and emigration (approximately 1 billion people worldwide speak it as a first or second language). Students interested in Shaw's exploration of issues of speech and dialect in Pygmalion will be especially interested in this book, which further examines the seemingly innumerable varieties of spoken English throughout the world. This text examines how standards of "the Queen's English" developed in the Victorian era, and how social identities were constructed based on variations from this standard. The Cockney of Liza Doolittle, among numerous varieties in the British Isles, is given close attention. The Story of Englisvh provides the basis of valuable discussion on topics such as: what constitutes "Standard' * English? What is a dialect? An accent? In what ways is dialect still a mark of social position?

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