Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*London. In the early twentieth century, London was the center of world commerce and the leading city of the democratic societies. However, for all its importance to world democracies, London was home to the British Empire and organized into a rigid class system, which permitted no crossing of boundaries. One of the chief means of enforcing such a system was categorizing people according to their language patterns. Pygmalion is about how a guttersnipe, Eliza Doolittle, overcomes the English class system by exchanging her Cockney accent for an upper-class English one with the help of linguistics expert Henry Higgins. During the course of the lessons, they fall in love with each other, but Higgins is never able to escape his own class sufficiently to reciprocate Eliza’s love.
*St. Paul’s Cathedral
*St. Paul’s Cathedral. Magnificent late seventeenth century church located located in Covent Garden, London’s entertainment and market district. St. Paul’s portico, at the entrance to the building, is a place where the different classes are permitted to mingle. There, Eliza encounters Higgins and decides to accept the challenge of changing her speech patterns.
27A Wimpole Street
27A Wimpole Street. Address of Henry Higgins’s Covent Garden home and speech laboratory, located in an upscale area. It comes to represent the place of learning where Eliza is reborn as a...
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World War I
Nineteen-fourteen, the year of Pygmalion's London premiere, marked tremendous changes in British society. On July 28, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, setting off an international conflict due to a complicated set of alliances which had developed in Europe. Within two weeks, this conflict had erupted into a world war (known in Britain at the time as the "Great War"). By the end of World War I (as it came to be known later), 8.5 million people had been killed and 21 million wounded, including significant civilian casualties. The war constituted the most intense physical, economic and psychological assault on European society in its history; Britain was not alone in experiencing devastating effects on its national morale and other aspects of society.
It is ironic, Eldon C. Hill wrote in George Bernard Shaw, that Pygmalion, "written partly to demonstrate that language (phonetics particularly) could contribute to understanding among men, should be closed because of the outbreak of World War I." The war brought out Shaw's compassion, as well as his disgust with the European societies that would tolerate the destruction of so many lives. When the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell informed Shaw of the death of her son in battle, he replied that he could not be sympathetic, but only furious: "Killed just because people are blasted fools," Hill quoted the playwright...
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Plotting with a Purpose
In Pygmalion's plot, Higgins, a phonetics expert, makes a friendly bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can transform the speech and manners of Liza, a common flower girl, and present her as a lady to fashionable society. He succeeds, but Liza gains independence in the process, and leaves her former tutor because he is incapable of responding to her needs.
Pygmalion has a tightly-constructed plot, rising conflict, and other qualities of the "well-made play," a popular form at the time. Shaw, however, revolutionized the English stage by disposing of other conventions of the well-made play; he discarded its theatrical dependence on prolonging and then resolving conflict in a sometimes contrived manner for a theater of ideas grounded in realism. Shaw was greatly influenced by Henrik Ibsen, who he claimed as a forerunner to his theatre of discussion or ideas. Ibsen's A Doll House, Shaw felt, was an example of how to end a play indeterminately, leading the audience to reflect upon character and theme, rather than simply entertaining them with a neatly-resolved conclusion.
Intellect vs. Entertainment
Shaw broke both with the predominant intellectual principle of his day, that of "art for art's sake," as well as with the popular notion that the purpose of the theatre was strictly to entertain. Refusing to write a single sentence for the sake of either art or...
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Compare and 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 woman'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 titles of...
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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."
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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.
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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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Berst, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama, University of Illinois Press (Urbana), 1973, pp. 197-218.
Bentley, Eric, Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, amended edition, New Directions, 1957.
Though Bentley's book (originally published in 1947) is not adulatory, Shaw considered it "the best book written about himself as a dramatist.'' Bentley states that his double intention in the book is "to disentangle a credible man and artist from the mass of myth that surrounds him, and to discover the complex component parts of his 'simplicity.'" Pygmalion is discussed in detail, pages 119-126, and elsewhere in the book.
Crane, Milton. "Pygmalion: Bernard Shaw's Dramatic Theory and Practice" in Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 66, no 6, December, 1951, pp. 879-85.
Crane begins with the question of whether Shaw was old-fashioned in his approach to drama or innovative. Wrapped up in this issue is the figure of Ibsen, who Shaw declared was revolutionary for giving his plays indeterminate endings and concluding with "discussion," rather than the clear unraveling of a dramatic situation in the "well-made play"—the popular form of the day. Crane demonstrates that Ibsen did not present a new innovation so much as modify earlier forms and claims that something similar holds true for Shaw as well. Although Shaw denied his audience a romantic...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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:...
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