Pygmalion Study Guide
Introduction to Pygmalion
Pygmalion is a play by George Bernard Shaw that debuted in 1913 at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna, Austria. It draws on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with a statue of his that comes to life. In Shaw’s play, linguist Henry Higgins plays the role of Pygmalion, metaphorically bringing a lower-class woman named Eliza to life by teaching her manners and giving her the ability to transcend her poverty. The Pygmalion myth was a popular subject for Victorian-era playwrights, and numerous other adaptations of the myth were already in existence. However, Shaw’s version has had a lasting impact in literary and dramatic spheres, and it has since been adapted into multiple film versions and a popular musical titled My Fair Lady.
Pygmalion follows protagonist Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower seller with a heavy Cockney accent. Her accent attracts the attention of Henry Higgins,who makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can pass Eliza off as a duchess simply by improving her elocution. Higgins wins the bet, but he upsets Eliza by refusing to acknowledge her role in the victory. Many critics have lauded Pygmalion as a subtly feminist text due to its reinterpretation of the original Pygmalion myth. Whereas in the original myth, the statue passively marries Pygmalion after being brought to life, Eliza rejects her metaphorical creator by leaving Higgins in favor of the kindhearted Freddy, asserting her independence.
A Brief Biography of George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was a prolific Irish playwright. His voluminous output over a lifespan of nearly one hundred years has few parallels. While most of his plays dealt with social and political issues, they are best remembered for their intellectual repartee, or “Shavian wit.” Early social dramas like Widower’s Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession drew parallels to Ibsen’s early realist works. But by the turn of the century, Shaw’s distinctively smart, funny voice had emerged—a unique intersection of styles typified by writers like Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov. As a testament to Shaw’s legacy, works like Major Barbara, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman have become canonical, and the Shaw Festival in Canada is one of the largest theater festivals in North America.