In this comedy of morals, Shaw tilts at two particularly English windmills, the class structure and an inadequate alphabet. Using the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with his marble masterpiece, Shaw introduces phonetician Henry Higgins to the Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle. Eliza, kept firmly in her place by her appearance and particularly by her lower-class accent, would love to become genteel and sell flowers in a “proper shop.”
When Higgins demonstrates his skill at placing any English person by his or her neighborhood accent, he amazes the bystanders sheltered from the rain under the columns of St. Paul’s. Higgins berates Eliza, a product of Lisson Grove slum, for her gutter English--a disgrace to the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Later, the girl bravely appears at Professor Higgins’ Wimpole Street home to ask for lessons in speech, and Higgins wagers that he can transform her into a young woman able to pass as a duchess.
The professor threatens and bullies his pupil, nearly driving her mad with his perfectionism. Soon Eliza’s accent is correct, but her topics of conversation are wildly unsuitable for the average ruling-class drawing room. Higgins must rapidly explain her utterances as “the new small talk.” With a series of comic social coups, Eliza becomes a darling of the fashionable world.
Shaw consistently undercuts any idea of romance that might cling to this tale of transformation. While Higgins, Eliza, the talkative dustman Mr. Doolittle, and the callow Freddy Eynsford-Hill are well-realized characters, it is their social dimensions that interest Shaw. If class and accent rather than individual merit determine one’s place in society, then society is vulnerable to the satirist’s pen. And if the reader expects Higgins in his role as Eliza’s Pygmalion to fall in love with his creation, Hollywood’s MY FAIR LADY is the place to look.
Berst, Charles A. “Pygmalion”: Shaw’s Spin on Myth and Cinderella. New York: Twayne, 1995. An excellent source for students that examines the literary and historical contexts of the play and provides an intelligent and thorough interpretation tracing Eliza’s transformation into a woman and lady. Focuses on Shaw’s use of the Pygmalion myth and the Cinderella fairy tale.
Bloom, Harold, ed. George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A judicious selection of eight critical essays that represent major interpretations of the play. In his introduction, Bloom argues that Pygmalion is Shaw’s masterpiece. Excellent for students.
Hornby, Richard. “Beyond the Verbal in Pygmalion.” In Shaw’s Plays in Performance, edited by Daniel Leary. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983. Examines Shaw’s stagecraft and the performance qualities inherent in the play as a script. Goes beyond “the purely verbal or literary” qualities of the play to show how the visual and aural elements convey meaning.
Huggett, Richard. The Truth About “Pygmalion.” New York: Random House, 1969. A fascinating narrative account of the original 1914 London production, in which “three of the most monstrous egoists the theatre ever produced” participated: actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who played Eliza; actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who played Higgins; and Shaw himself.
Silver, Arnold. Bernard Shaw: The Darker Side. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1982. A major part of this challenging and unconventional book on Shaw is a very thorough and complex psychological interpretation of Pygmalion that shows Shaw working out intense personal conflicts. Fascinating materials for more advanced students.