Emil Roy (essay date spring 1970)

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SOURCE: Roy, Emil. “Pygmalion Revisited.” Ball State University Forum 11, no. 2 (spring 1970): 38-46.

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[In the following essay, Roy analyzes the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.]

The structure of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion1 is perfectly conventional, juxtaposing the personal comedy of Eliza Doolittle's evolution into true independence with the social comedy of her father's sudden rise into middle-class affluence. However, Shaw's denial of a match between Eliza and her mentor Henry Higgins created legendary difficulties which have surrounded the ending for over half a century. The author's inability to create an artist-philosopher who is both constructive and dramatically compelling, thus reconciling his own repressed alienation with social ameliorism, seems to have elicited a corresponding sense of uneasiness in his audiences and their agents in the theatrical establishment. By such devices as Beerbohm Tree's gestural wooing of Eliza and the casting of Leslie Howard as Higgins in the Gabriel Pascal movie version, the possibility of marriage between Higgins and Eliza was at least hinted at. The crusty old bachelor would thereby “dwindle” into a husband as Eliza “expanded” into a wife, confirming a bourgeois audience's faith in marriage as the foundation of morality and society.

However, in Pygmalion as Robert Brustein suggests, Shaw is not only creating a tougher and subtler version of the romantic comedies he had been writing since the nineties. He is dramatizing his own inner conflicts: the Platonist versus the Aristotelian, the revolutionary idealist versus the pragmatic realist, the Socialist versus the Vitalist, the Romantic versus the Classicist.2 These contradictions, bothersome to an ideologist, are made to order for the drama. Therefore, the problem of the ending is symptomatic of a deep ambivalence pervading the entire play.

In the first act prologue where Eliza and Higgins first encounter each other, Shaw invokes a microcosm of random London society. The clash of disparate accents and types is not only designed “to show class antagonisms and personal idiosyncrasies at their sharpest,” as Louis Crompton points out.3 The group also establishes a sense of the social norms to which more gifted individuals may either become subject or rise above. Higgins' presence in the crowd is ostensibly motivated by scientific purposes: gathering phonetic evidence in a “living laboratory.” Although Eliza is literally incorrect in assuming he is a “copper's nark” or policeman's informer, her intuition into his motivation is a shrewd one, fixing the pattern their future association will follow. He has no official function at all, but he refuses to identify himself to the restive crowd and persists in unmasking their pretensions rather provocatively. The malicious enjoyment he gains from ridiculing their discomfiture reveals a certain hauteur and contempt of ordinary mortals he does little to conceal. His upper-class credentials are established by his manner, his shoes, and his sporting whistle. But they are apparently displayed in order for him to act as he pleases without the risk of retaliation from others.

By sustaining the mysterious menace of his demeanor for as long as possible, Higgins exercises over others a power and influence (however trivial) to which he has no actual right. Possibly, he remains anonymous because any credible response would be greeted by indifference or rejection, reflecting social attitudes toward the intellectual which Shaw was quite sensitized toward: “… us losing our time listening to your silliness!. … You come from Anwell [a large insane asylum]. Go back there.” (pp. 204-05) On the psychological level, Higgins may simply lack a satisfying identity or “self” apart from that others grant him, especially if he is regarded with...

(The entire section contains 8122 words.)

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