Pygmalion As A Problem Play

Write a note on Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion as a problem play.

Pygmalion is a problem play in that it revolves around the problem of poverty in Edwardian Britain. It says a lot about the persistence of poverty and the huge gulf in wealth and opportunity between rich and poor that Eliza Dolittle can only have a decent shot at life due to her being used as a guinea-pig in an experiment by a wealthy, upper-class male.

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A problem play is one that addresses a social problem but that, more deeply, has a strain of darkness or ambiguity that renders the happy ending (most problem plays are comedies) problematic.

Pygmalion deals with the problem of social class in England and, more specifically, with the problem of the intersection of women and class. Henry Higgins "rescues" Eliza Doolittle from the streets of London, where she has been eking out a bare survival as a flower seller and remolds her into a middle-class woman in response to a bet. Through her stunning success with the upper classes once her clothing, manners, and accent are changed, Shaw challenges the idea that class is hereditary or in the genes, as many argued in his time period to justify the oppressive conditions of the working classes.

Yet rising in social class is problematic. As Mrs. Higgins pointedly asks her son and Colonel Pickering once Eliza has been turned into lady, what is going to happen to her now? As a lady, she is unfitted to have a career and has no option but to marry. Who is she going to marry? She challenges her son, who thinks that Eliza is no worse off than she would be if he threw her back to the poverty of the streets, that she is: she will no longer be able to fit into her working-class world. This dilemma is solved happily with Eliza opening a flower shop, but the dark issues around women remain: Doolittle unrepentantly treats Eliza as a doormat, even after she fights back, and options for women remain limited.

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There are essentially two social problems addressed by Shaw in Pygmalion. The first is the perennial problem of the enormous gap between rich and poor, not just in terms of wealth and opportunity, but also in relation to culture. Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle may inhabit the same city and the same country, but they might as well be living on different planets, such is the huge cultural and intellectual gulf that separates them.

Even so, Higgins's experiment of turning Eliza from a humble Cockney flower-seller to a lady of quality appears to suggest that this gulf can nonetheless be overcome. The suggestion is that if the lower-classes were properly educated, then they too could talk and behave just like their alleged social betters.

Of course, such education would not necessarily take the precise form that Higgins gives it, but it would involve the upper-classes devoting themselves, through the payment of higher taxes, towards providing for a comprehensive system of state education designed to give the Eliza Dolittles of this world the chance to improve their lot in society.

The second problem dealt with in the play is that of female exploitation. There can be no doubt that the relationship between Higgins and Eliza is fundamentally exploitative, with Higgins looking upon Eliza as nothing more than an object, a guinea-pig in his latest experiment.

What we see here is a microcosm of how women in Edwardian society as a whole are treated, even those ladies of quality whose posh voices Eliza is trained to emulate. Indeed, even when Eliza has finally learned how to talk like a duchess, she still finds herself under the control of a man, an indication perhaps that a radical form of female emancipation is required in society.

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As stated above, a "problem play" is a drama revolving around the theme of one specific social problem or a group of related social problems. Pygmalion, like many of Shaw's plays, addresses the problem of the changing roles of middle class women. Aristocratic or upper class women would be supported by their families or husbands. There were many jobs available for lower class women, ranging from domestic service to factory positions. When Eliza is catapulted into the middle classes via accent reform, she can no longer return to her old life as a flower girl, but she lacks the financial grounds for entry into the upper classes and sees sponging off Pickering and Higgins as morally problematic. Instead, what Shaw suggests is that for women to live lives of moral integrity, they must have freedom to develop careers in the same way as men do. Eliza's choice to open a high-end flower shop is a typically Shavian solution. In many ways, Pygmalion, as well as being a highly entertaining drama, functions as a logical argument concerning how the "new woman" can live a life that engages her mental faculties and potential as a human being. 

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A problem play, a genre begun in the 19th century but also applied backward to Shakespeare's tragicomedies, is a play in which the characters' dialogue addresses a pressing social issue of the day that is the theme of the play. The first to write a problem was Andre Dumas. He was followed by Henrik Ibsen and later by George Bernard Shaw. Among the pressing social themes that Shaw addresses in Pygmalion is the idea of an individual's place in society as dictated by externals of speech and manners. The other social problems Shaw tackles are sex, gender roles, wealth, poverty, language, meaning of language, appearances and beauty, reality, transformation, human dignity and human responsibility. This will be enough to guide to find details representative of these thematic problem points.

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