W. S. Gilbert's 1871 play Pygmalion and Galatea, an Original Mythological Comedy was one of the major inspirations for George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion. In Gilbert's play, a sculptor, whose wife is the model for his statues, develops seemingly harmless relationships with his creations until one, Galatea, assumes human form and becomes infatuated with Pygmalion, the sculptor. Galatea will, in the play's denouement, return to her original statue form out of concern for the difficulties she has caused for her creator and his actual wife, who, understandably, resents Galatea's presence and influence in her household.
Shaw's play Pygmalion is about a refined, upper-class Englishman named Henry Higgins who takes it upon himself, as part of a wager, to tutor a seriously poor flower girl like Eliza Doolittle so that he can pass her off as a legitimate member of upper-class England. During the course of the play, the relationship evolves, with the committed bachelor, Henry, forced to reassess the value of women in his life, a value he has historically denied:
"I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. Women upset everything. When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you're driving at another."
Higgins's comments come in the context of a discussion between him and Colonel Pickering, his kinder and considerably more genteel friend. In today's vernacular, Higgins would be considered misogynistic, given his disdain for women, and Eliza, once pulled into Higgins's world, challenges his views on relationships. While the relationship between these two figures develops, however, Eliza is exposed to more encouraging symbols of masculinity in the persons of Colonel Pickering and Freddy Eynesford-Hill, the put-upon son of a once-prominent but now destitute woman. Both Pickering and Freddy are the antithesis of Higgins in terms of demeanor and social skills where women are concerned. They are better models than Higgins for what an upper-class man can offer Eliza. Higgins is boorish and judgmental, and his views on women contrast sharply with those of these other two male characters. That is the meaning of Shaw's comments in the preface to Pygmalion:
"But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable."
Pygmalion, the sculptor, is Galatea's creator; he exists on an upper plain to which she can only aspire. For Eliza Doolittle, Higgins is the embodiment of upper-class snobbishness. The Colonel and Freddy present more amendable options.