Reviewing George Bernard Shaws Play Pygmalion
George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion is a comical story focused on the inherent complexity of human relationships in a social society. The play is derived from the classical myth of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," in which Pygmalion, who is disgusted by women in his era, creates a beautiful sculpture of an unrealistically perfect woman, Galatea. In the myth, he begs the gods of beauty and love to give life to his statue, and his wish is granted.
Shaw humorously twists the myth to challenge the ominous assumptions that the male artist has the power of creating women in the image of his desires while making Ovid's ideas more relevant, contemporary, and humanized to issues of social order.Of course, Shaw's woman protagonist, Eliza Doolittle is not a statue, but an unfortunate, illiterate flower girl with a cockney accent that is preventing her from achieving a better position in her impoverished life. Because of these hindrances, Eliza is essentially non-existent in Britain's unavoidable social hierarchy. However, two old gentlemen are intrigued by the idea of transforming Eliza.
After observing this "squashed cabbage leaf", Professor Henry Higgins, a scientist of phonetics challenges Colonel Pickering, a linguist of Indian dialects, that with his knowledge of language, he will be able to change lowly Eliza Doolittle into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess and convince high society London of her status (104). For a few months, Higgins trains Eliza to tone down her sassy, candid manner and instead speak properly and act with more refinement.Following her preparation, Eliza faces two trials of her development. The first test is at Higgins' mother's home where Eliza is introduced to Eynsford Hills, a mother, daughter, and son.
The son is evidently convinced of her high society change when he finds himself attracted to her. Then, Eliza's second trial takes place months later at an ambassador's party and is a success for Higgins. While Higgins wins his selfish bet, he grows bored with Eliza and she, in turn, does not know what to do with her newly appropriate self which results in a heated argument between the pair. As Eliza escapes to protection at Mrs.
Higgins' home, Mrs. Higgins scolds the men for playing with Eliza's life. Finally, Eliza confronts the two men thanking Pickering for always treating her like a lady and threatening Higgins that she will go against him to work with his rival phonetician. Shaw concludes the tale with Eliza leaving as Higgins shouts out a few errands for her to run, assuming her return, but conveniently never makes it clear whether she will or not.Throughout the play, Shaw focuses on the interesting, but defective class system in Britain that is defined by appearance and elegance of speech that same to constitute social standing.
The language and morals of the characters display the backwards contrasts between the upper, middle, and lower classes. Despite Eliza's dilapidated lifestyle, she is still able to retain her honor and good character, and she even frequently repeats, "I'm a good girl, I am" (31, 34, 39, 97). This shows that she is not willing to sell her own body and sacrifice her integrity solely to slightly improve her life.
Meanwhile, Henry Higgins, who is supposed to represent the upper-class with his boasted ability to replicate any sound imaginable and to place a man within any part of London demonstrates his expertise in his field, uses vulgar words, however, like "bloody," "devil," and "damned," and treats everyone like dirt. The obvious differences in characterization confirm the problems with the class system as the high moral characters who have proven self-respect and aspire to be better people are in the lower class while crude, offensive characters who were born into their rigid accents and riches are found in the high class.In act five of the play, Eliza makes an intelligent observation that her change came through how Pickerings treated her, rather than what Higgins imposed on her, when she comments that "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated" (106).
Her realization clearly portrays that she has transformed beyond her looks and her accent, to be able to make such a knowledgeable statement. Through Eliza's revelation brought forth by her upward mobility, Shaw reveals the meaningless pretentious nonsense of Britain's obsession with class structure as his underprivileged cockney character makes the most powerful statement of social behavior. This instance is a criticism of social barriers and class distinctions that are held in the Victorian era and it upholds the principle of equal opportunities of wealth and education for everyone, regardless of class and gender.Furthermore, amidst Eliza's societal transformation, Shaw also touches on the issue of feminism and gender antagonism.
Shaw basically suggests that even when Eliza elevates her status through her appearance and her attitude, she still has no place in society. Although she successfully pulled off her role as a high society woman, and while Higgins assumes that she can simply "go her own way with all the advantages I have given her", she is not satisfied with the idea of selling herself into marriage (79). This resolution leaves Eliza terribly confused, and wishing that he left her where he found her because she was more comfortable peddling flowers on a street corner in the rain.
This confusion leads up to the turning point of the play as Eliza decides to turn on her "creator" in Higgins to become her own person independent of his previously overwhelming influence. Shaw's conclusion of not divulging to the audience what Eliza chooses to do reflects on the social problems that women were experiencing at the time as they were not only fighting for a place in the structure of English society, but for equality against men.Shaw was clever to administer all of Eliza and Higgins interactions in a way that Higgins was intrinsically rude and offensive while Eliza was only trying to improve her life, because it makes the audience feel badly for Eliza and make her more of a protagonist with Higgins as her antagonist. This idea further plays on the audience's emotions because it is relatable to many different issues in that people are always facing challenges in life that they have to overcome in order to succeed.
It is also relatable because in real life, people are born into situations that they have to work their way out of and although in today's society, social status is not the same as it was in Victorian Britain, but that does not mean that people do not still demean others based essentially on their social standing. Everyone has been judged at one time or another and therefore Eliza's experience draws on the sympathy of his audience, enough be putting itself into Eliza's shoes and contemplating how you would feel in her position.Additionally, Shaw's decision not to marry Eliza and Higgins was made to make the ending of the story more realistic, and was an honest and agreeable conclusion. If Eliza and Higgins were to be married, their relationship would not have been a happy or mutual relationship, because Higgins has admitted that "women upset everything" and basically says that women and men are simply incompatible beings (39).
If Eliza married Higgins, her new education would have been wasted, thus defeating the purpose of having Higgins educate Eliza, as he would only be expecting her to run errands and make appearances rather than do something with her life. And the two getting married would also have left the audience unsure whether Eliza had truly developed independence, but because the ending is ambiguous, no one can be sure of Eliza's true destiny. Shaw chooses to close the play just before any wedding were to occur, to make the audience think about what should happen, rather than what he tells them will happen.First published in 1913.Republished in 2008 by Forgotten Books.ISBN-10: 1595475001$21.00
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