Pygmalion and Shaw's Other Great Works

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Like all of Shaw's great dramatic creations, Pygmalion is a richly complex play. It combines a central story of the transformation of a young woman with elements of myth, fairy tale, and romance, while also combining an interesting plot with an exploration of social identity, the power of science, relations between men and women, and other issues. Change is central to the plot and theme of the play, which of course revolves around Higgins's transformation of Liza from a flower-girl who speaks a coarse Cockney dialect (a manner of speech which he says will "keep her in the gutter to the end of her days") into a lady who passes as a duchess in genteel society. The importance of transformation in Pygmalion at first appears to rest upon the power Higgins expresses by achieving his goal. "But you have no idea," he says, drawing attention to his talent, "how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her."

But where does the real transformation occur in Liza? Much more important than her new powers of speech, ultimately, is the independence she gains after the conclusion of Higgins's "experiment." Charles A. Berst noted in his study Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama that Shaw omitted from Pygmalion the scene of the ball at the Ambassador's mansion where Liza shows herself as the triumph of Higgins's art. The reason Shaw does so is "because the emphasis here is not on the fairy-tale climax of the triumphant 'test' ... but on the social and personal ramifications of the real world to which Eliza must adjust after the test." In short, Liza realizes Higgins's lack of concern at her unsure future, and she turns on her "creator," leaving him.

Higgins's successful transformation of Liza contradicts the class rigidity of Victorian and Edwardian society, demonstrating Shaw's belief in the highly subjective construction of social identities. A proponent of a school of thought known as Fabianism, Shaw believed firmly in the power of individuals to transform, to improve themselves. Drawing on a power Shaw called the Life Force, human beings could both evolve to the full extent of their capabilities and collectively turn to the task of transforming society. Eric Bentley wrote in Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950 that "Fabianism begins and ends as an appeal—emotionally based—for social justice." In the Fabian perspective, social systems are changeable and need to change. Shaw introduced his Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism by encouraging the reader to "clear your mind of the fancy with which we all begin as children, that the institutions under which we live, including our legal ways of distributing income and allowing people to own things, are natural, like the weather. They are not.... They are in fact transient makeshifts; and many of them would not be obeyed, even by well-meaning people, if there were not a policeman within call and a prison within reach. They are being changed constantly by Parliament because we are never satisfied with them."

As a Fabian, Shaw believed in human improvement and evolution as the key to social transformation. What Liza learns by breaking free of Higgins's influence is an independence of thought Shaw believed was a crucial component of personal evolution. Berst emphasized the importance of this process by which "a soul awakens to true self-realization." Having shown that there are no hard and fast rules of social identity, Shaw does not allow his leading character to remain limited within a society in which she can only marry for money. Liza identifies such an arrangement as a kind of prostitution, an explicit example of how, as Bentley summarized, in a culture built around "buying and selling the vast mass of the population has nothing to sell but itself." Instead, Shaw has Liza break free—into an uncertain future to be sure but one in which she will work, struggle, and, hopefully, prosper as an independent woman.

Shaw did not believe in the sense of innate inequality which dominated British society around the turn of the century, in the supposedly natural divisions between classes based on built-in qualities of character. Instead, he believed in the power of "nurture" over "nature," and the "conditioning effects of social circumstance," as discussed by Lynda Mugglestone in the Review of English Studies. Though Liza appears rough on the edges to the standards of Edwardian society, she has self-respect, pride, ambition, and a sense of humor—all qualities which help her mature to the independence she achieves by the play's end. That Liza has such great success mastering the speech of a duchess suggests that all people are fundamentally of equal worth, that the social differences between them are merely the result of different levels of opportunity (financial and otherwise). In Shaw's view, meanwhile, a Socialist society would mean "equal rights and opportunities for all," a definition he gave in a Fabian pamphlet published in 1890.

As Mugglestone wrote, Eliza's education in the ways that the English upper classes act and speak provides an opportunity for the playwright to explore "the very foundations of social equality and inequality.'' What we discover in Pygmalion is that phonetics and "correct'' pronunciation are systems of markers superficial in themselves but endowed with tremendous social significance. Higgins himself observes that pronunciation is "the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul." Playwright and character differ, however, in that instead of criticizing the existence of this gulf, Higgins accepts it as natural and uses his skills to help those who can afford his services (or are taken in as experiments, like Liza) to bridge it.

Act III of Pygmalion highlights the importance of Liza's double transformation, by showing her suspended between the play's beginning and its conclusion. At Mrs. Higgins's "At Home" reception, Liza is fundamentally the same person she was in Act I, although she differs in what we learn to appreciate as "superficialities of social disguise" (according to Mugglestone): details of speech and cleanliness. "In modern society, however, as Shaw illustrates, it is precisely these superficial details which tend to be endowed with most significance.'' Certainly the Eynsford Hills view such details as significant, as Liza's entrance produces for them what Shaw's stage directions call "an impression of ... remarkable distinction and beauty." Ironically, however, Liza's true transformation is yet to occur. She experiences a much more fundamental change in her consciousness when she realizes that Higgins has more or less abandoned her at the conclusion of his experiment.

At first, Liza experiences a sense of anxiety over not belonging anywhere: she can hardly return to flower peddling, yet she lacks the financial means to make her new, outward identity a social reality. "What am I fit for?" she demands of Higgins. "What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What's to become of me?" Berst wrote that "while Pickering is generous, Eliza is shoved into the wings by Higgins. The dream has been fulfilled, midnight has tolled for Cinderella, and morning reality is at hand." Liza must break away from Higgins when he shows himself incapable of recognizing her needs. This response of Higgins is well within his character as it has been portrayed in the play. Indeed, from his first exposure to Liza, Higgins denied Liza any social or even individual worth. Calling Liza a "squashed cabbage leaf," Higgins states that "a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live." While treated primarily with humor, Higgins is a kind of anti-hero in Shaw's dramatic universe, because he accepts as natural the divisions among the classes. Assuming that Liza has no inherent worth, Higgins believes only he can bestow worth upon her, by helping her pass in society as a lady.

A romantic union between Liza and Higgins is impossible primarily because unlike her, he is incapable of transformation. He remains the confirmed bachelor that he has always been, an unsuitable Prince Charming denying either a fairy-tale ending to Pygmalion or a satisfactory marriage to its "Cinderella." Nowhere is Higgins shown more strongly to be incapable of change than in his response to Liza's challenge to him. Liza has thrown his slippers at him out of frustration with his lack of concern for her. "I'm nothing to you," she observes, "not so much as them slippers." Higgins instantly corrects her with "those slippers," a mechanical response which shows him clinging to the externals of his trade, incapable of recognizing the importance of the change which has come over Liza.

The response of audiences and actors alike was strongly in favor of a romantic liaison between Higgins and Liza, but such a future for the characters would depend upon a transformation in Higgins which he is incapable of making. Indeed, Berst ventured, a "close examination of Higgins's character and comments cannot support a romantic conclusion. He is by nature celibate and self-centered, slightly perverse in both respects." Shaw altered the play's ending to make his point more explicit, and when the play was first published in 1916, he added an afterword which recounted what Liza did after leaving Higgins. This was intended to show to audiences that there was to be "no sentimental nonsense" about the possibility of Higgins and Liza being lovers.

Source: Christopher Busiel, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

The Ending of Pygmalion: A Structural View

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Pygmalion is one of Shaw's most popular plays as well as one of his most straightforward ones. The form has none of the complexity that we find in Heartbreak House or Saint Joan, nor are the ideas in Pygmalion nearly as profound as the ideas in any of Shaw's other major works. Yet the ending of Pygmalion provokes an interesting controversy among critics. Higgins and Eliza do not marry at the end of the written text, while the play as it is usually produced often does reconcile the two main characters. Obviously many directors and many readers feel that the apparent unromantic ending is an arbitrary bit of sarcasm appended to the play merely for spiteful humor.

It is my contention that the only valid approach to the problem of Pygmalion's ending is to analyze the structure of the dramatic movement. In examining the play, I will consider the central situation and the dramatic problem it raises in preparation for the ending, which is the solution to that problem. All other critical approaches applied to the ending have tended to introduce extraneous information and lead to inconclusive suppositions about which of the possible endings is to be preferred. For instance, in evaluating the ending, one would probably be wise to pass over two extremely interesting but contradictory pieces of evidence which, at first, seem to bear directly on the matter. On the one hand we have the postscript which Shaw added to the published version of Pygmalion. In it he explains vehemently and reasonably why Eliza will not marry Higgins. On the other hand there is the movie version ending which Shaw rewrote so that it becomes clear to the audience that Eliza will marry Higgins. We can speculate about Shaw's real intention, but lacking conclusive external evidence we should justify or condemn the ending of the stage play only in relation to the text itself.

The controversy over the ending deserves some scrutiny, however, because the criticism represents a good many different approaches to Shaw's work. One approach is the "instinctive'' method, a method which is outside the realm of literary criticism but is certainly of value in judging a play, since Shaw or any good dramatist realizes that during a performance the spectators will intuitively "feel" that an action is right or wrong without bothering to analyze their feelings. After considering the structure of Pygmalion, Milton Crane, in an often-quoted article, concludes that Shaw was either wrong or not serious in his ending. But Professor Crane gives no objective reason for his point of view, nor does he tie it in with his analysis of structure. A similar view is expressed by St. John Ervine concerning the denouement:

[The ending] convinces nobody who reads it.... The facts of the play cry out against its author. The end of the fourth act as well as the end of the fifth act deny ... [the postscript], and assure all sensible people that she married Henry Higgins and bore him many vigorous and intelligent children (Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work, and Friends, [New York], 1956).

The trouble with such opinions is that a great many people may instinctively feel that the play ends correctly. We cannot depend too much on a director's view of the text, for if the play in production has been interpreted romantically, the ending of the stage version seems inappropriate; on the other hand, if the play is produced "anti-romantically," the ending of this version is necessary.

Two directly opposing interpretations of the ending can be based on an analysis of character and situation. In one view, Eliza, a representative of Shavian vitality, is in the vitalistic sense superior to Higgins who is "the prisoner of 'system,' particularly of his profession'' (Eric Bentley in his Bernard Shaw, [Norfolk], 1957). Higgins and Eliza are unsuited for one another since their temperaments are totally dissimilar. Another interpretation places emphasis on the growth of Eliza's character to the point where she is able, at the end of the play, to rid herself of her fear of the rich (her middle-class morality); thus, no longer the intimidated flower girl, Eliza has no need to bargain for Higgins' affection. On the other hand, Eliza may be considered as less than a match for Higgins, for her desires are the commonplace ones of marriage and security. Higgins, then, is the representative of Shavian vitality, the true superman, and as such he is superior to Eliza. In each interpretation, the Shavian denouement is justified by the critics' belief that a marriage between the two characters would be a misalliance; or, as Eric Bentley has said, "Eliza's leaving Higgins is the outcome of the realities of the situation'' (Modern Drama, September, 1958).

The criterion of realism is of questionable value here. Shaw is a realist—if we must classify him at all—but dramatic realism does not always call for a "realistic" (that is, "true-to-life") ending. After all, Shaw often does marry off his heroine and hero (e.g., Arms and the Man, Man and Superman, The Millionairess, Buoyant Billions), and when he does so, it is not because he is particularly concerned with "true-to-life" probabilities, but because he is doing the correct dramatic thing. Furthermore, even if the criterion of realism were valid, we would face a difficult task in trying to prove that a marriage between Higgins and Eliza is hopelessly unrealistic. The two have existed in the same environment for a long time, they have grown used to one another—even reliant on one another, and they are no longer very far apart in social position. The fact is, as Shaw himself points out and as Professor Bentley notes, such a marriage would be a bad one. But what is more realistic than a bad marriage! It happens so often in real life that one can hardly accuse an author of being a romanticist if he includes it in his play. It is not quite right dramatically, but for critics to attribute Shaw's ending to "the realities of the situation" is to evince a rather unnecessarily limited view of what reality is.

An examination of the structure of Pygmalion can leave little doubt that Shaw's ending is the only logical one. The most direct way to approach the structure is to discern what the dramatic problem of the plot is. Some possibilities that might come immediately to mind concern the superficiality of class distinctions, the inability of Higgins to dominate Eliza's spirit, and the satire on middle-class morality. All of the preceding are aspects of the play, but further thought on the matter of what happens in Pygmalion will eventually lead us to some statement about Higgins' making Eliza into a "lady." Indeed, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is just what the play is about since the action, obviously, is mainly taken up with the development of Eliza from Act I through Act V. Furthermore, the play is concerned not only with the fact of her development but with the peculiar circumstances surrounding it, that is, the manner in which she is transformed.

It is important to decide whether Eliza or Higgins is the main character, for the main plot will be constructed around the actions of this central character. If we try to put the subject of the play's action into the form of a dramatic question, we would ask, "Will Eliza become a lady?" The action is done either by or to Eliza, but in either case we may be certain that the passive main character does not occur in Shaw's work. We need not assume that he is the most interesting character in the play or that he is the one who occupies the author's greatest attention. It appears that Shaw was more interested in Eliza than in Higgins because he explains in detail what happens to her after the play is over. Nevertheless, Higgins must be the main character because he manipulates the action. In a comedy it is not necessary for the main character to undergo a change or show character development. Higgins remains the same from first to last; to use Shaw's term, he is "incorrigible." Eliza changes, but Higgins makes her change; she is his product. Thus, a more accurate way of stating the dramatic question would be: Will Higgins succeed in recreating the common flower girl into a truly different person, inwardly as well as outwardly?

Once we see the dramatic problem of the play in this light, we can begin to trace the steps leading to the logical conclusion of Pygmalion. The first act is dramatically essential to the play not merely because it introduces the characters or serves as a prologue, but because it begins the action: Higgins makes such an impression on the flower girl that she is filled with a desire for her physical improvement, her external recreation. In Act II, the question is raised as to whether Higgins will succeed in his experiment.

As is usual in a play with a traditional five-act structure, the climax occurs in Act III and virtually resolves the question. Although the question is not definitely answered, certainly some strong indication is given the audience as to the direction which the following action will take. A shift in the direction of the action after the climax would surely confuse the spectators and might result in bringing the play to the level of romance. But Pygmalion is not romance, in spite of the subtitle, and thus Shaw makes his denouement consistent with his climax.

After the second act, the audience might expect the reception scene to contain the climax as it does in the movie and in My Fair Lady, but Shaw does not dramatize this scene. It is necessary to have a scene precede the ambassador's reception so as to show the developing process of Eliza's education, and Shaw is skillful enough to make the scene of Mrs. Higgins' at-home serve both as an expository scene of characterization and as climax. However, a few critics are determined to make the omitted garden party into the climax. Professor Bentley says:

If again we call Act I the prologue, the play falls into two parts of two Acts apiece. Both parts are Pygmalion myths. In the first a duchess is made out of a flower girl. In the second a woman is made out of a duchess. Since these two parts are the main, inner action, the omission of the climax of the outer action—the ambassador's reception—will seem particularly discrete, economical, and dramatic.

But we need not be deceived by the subtlety and calmness of Shaw's climax. The dramatic question is answered at the home of Mrs. Higgins when Eliza encounters society and passes as acceptable to the Hills, and even to the much cleverer Mrs. Higgins. We now feel certain that, with more practice, Eliza will succeed in her official debut at the ambassador's party, although she probably would not be able to do so at the time of the climax. Nevertheless, what is important is the knowledge which one now has that Higgins is on the verge of succeeding with his experiment. Eliza's success will be Higgins' success. The question, "Will Higgins be able to recreate the flower girl?" is answered affirmatively.

But Higgins' success is not complete in Act III. In Act I, he had expressed a wish to Pickering to demonstrate what kind of a Pygmalion he could be in regard to Eliza if he had the chance. He wanted to see if he could create a new human being, not merely a duchess, out of a flower girl. The climax, then, only indicates his accomplishment but does not actually show it. It remains for Act V to reveal to us the full extent of Higgins' achievement. Then we see that Higgins has succeeded so well—he has turned the frightened, easily-dominated Eliza into an independent woman—that he loses the prize possession itself; irony of such a success is evident. Thus, Pygmalion has created a masterpiece, a real person—and to Shaw a real person is one who is not dominated in spirit by the elements of his environment. Pygmalion loses his Galatea, for he has recreated her with the great humanizing qualities of character: independence of spirit and vitality of mind.

It is now possible to see why Shaw's ending is the only satisfying one, and why certain adapters such as Alan Lerner in My Fair Lady contradict the meaning of the play. Suppose Eliza's last line were changed from one of disdain (in answer to Higgins' confident order to her as his servant) to an acquiescent reply that indicates she will return to Higgins. If this were the case, then Higgins would not have really succeeded. He would have taken Eliza, the flower girl, the servant of society, and changed her physically but not spiritually. In the end, she will still be a servant girl at heart. Shaw's ending is not an arbitrary imposition of the author's temperament. Without the essential paradox involved in Higgins' accomplishment of recreation, the play becomes sentimental and one-dimensional.

The traditional structure serves Shaw well here. Professor Bentley is right in dividing the inner development of Eliza into two parts. But he does not go far enough, for the inner development is also dramatized; both inner development and plot structure are connected inseparably—that is, theme and action are virtually the same thing. Pygmalion is one of Shaw's best-constructed plays, and this is an important reason for its repeated success in production.

Source: Stanley J. Solomon, "The Ending of Pygmalion: A Structural View" in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 16, no. 1, March, 1964, pp. 59-63.

The Denouement of Pygmalion

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Alan Jay Lerner, probably the most successful adapter of Shaw's Pygmalion, commented: "Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and—Shaw and Heaven forgive me!—I am not certain he is right." Many critics would agree with this sentiment. A recent analysis of the play goes so far as to dismiss the Epilogue as a bit of Shavian frivolity and to cite the "happy ending" Shaw himself wrote for Pascal's film as the proper denouement of a play which is persuasively categorized by one critic as a play which follows "the classic pattern of satirical comedy" [Milton Crane in PMLA, vol. 66, 1956].

Such an ending has been popular also with audiences and actors ever since the play first appeared in 1913. Shaw chided both Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Beerbohm Tree for their romantic interpretations in the first productions: "I say, Tree, must you be so treacly?" he asked during the rehearsals. Tree's stage business before the curtain fell left no doubts in the minds of audiences that Higgins's marriage to Eliza was imminent. Justifying it, Tree wrote Shaw: "My ending makes money; You ought to be grateful." Shaw replied: "Your ending is damnable: You ought to be shot." And he continued fulminating against romantic portrayals of an ending which caters to what, in the Epilogue written for Pygmalion later, he called "imaginations. .. so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of 'happy endings' to misfit all stories."

Nonetheless, the recurrent arousing of inappropriate audience expectations and the apparent inability of the play to arouse the appropriate expectations (or those which Shaw considered appropriate) raise a question about Pygmalion's success on the playwright's terms. Perhaps even more important, they call for a reexamination of these terms; for I think that the ending is significant and dramatically inevitable, and that it is the ending Shaw himself rewrote for the film (thereby confusing the matter further)—rather than his Epilogue—which is frivolous....

While one of the most penetrating and suggestive of the analyses of Shaw's work accepts the original ending of Pygmalion, it seems to do so for the wrong reasons. I cannot agree with the assertion in that analysis that "the 'education of Eliza' in Acts I to III is a caricature of the true process." No educative process is in fact represented in the play (although Shaw inserted "a sample" for film production at a later date—a hint which was deftly developed in My Fair Lady). But more important, the conclusion that "Eliza turns the tables on Higgins, for she, finally, is the vital one, and he is the prisoner of 'system,' particularly of his profession," seems to me to miss the point (Eric Bentley in his Bernard Shaw, [New York], 1957).

Rather the reverse is true. The magnificent comic subplot underlines the point, for Doolittle was once, like Higgins, outside of class or "system" and had vitality. Both Doolittle and Eliza are brought to join the middle class. What is sharply contrasted, however, is the consequence of the transformation: for Doolittle it is a descent while for Eliza it is an ascent—the transformation makes the previously articulate (vital) father comically impotent while it gives the previously inarticulate ("crooning like a bilious pigeon") daughter human life. In sum, Higgins, the life-giver, will continue his study of phonetics while Eliza will settle for the life her father describes so picturesquely in the last act when all the cards are put on the table. Higgins, that is, will continue to teach proper, civilized articulation, a superman attempting to transform subhumans into humans, while Eliza will lead an admirable if circumscribed middle-class existence, having been given humanity—life—by Higgins.

Her ability to undergo successfully such a transformation evidences her superior qualities and often makes her appear as the hero of the play. She is only a Shavian hero manque, however, and she is not the wife for Higgins. She can not even understand him, their values and interests being so different. Higgins genuinely admires Eliza, although he is first shocked and then amused by her values: in a most effective and inevitable denouement, the curtain falls as "he roars with laughter''—at the thought of her marrying Freddy. Admirable as she now is—especially when compared with what she was when he met her—she is not, and never can be, his equal. She is now part and parcel of the system of "middle class morality" which the early Doolittle and Higgins find ludicrous. Higgins and Eliza, then, still do not speak the same language, although this is true now only in the figurative sense. This does not, however, preclude the existence of an affinity between them, perhaps one comparable to the one existing between Caesar and Cleopatra. Nevertheless, marrying Eliza would be preposterous for Higgins, a superman with the vitality of a soul and a "Miltonic mind'' (as he himself labels it) who lives on an entirely different plane, a plane where sex and marriage, indeed, are unknown.

What causes audiences to wish for it (as Eliza herself, for that matter, was wishing for it) is the Cinderella guise of the plot—which buttresses audiences' perennial desires, as Shaw rightly said in the Epilogue, for the marriage of the hero and the maiden—and the sentimental part of the myth which the title incidentally also calls to mind. The Cinderella guise, however, is accidental and irrelevant; it is purposely negated by the omission of scenes depicting the process of the transformation and by the omission of the grand ball scene, the highpoint of any Cinderella story. The title specifically and intentionally focuses attention away from the heroine and on Higgins, and on Higgins's life-giving qualities in particular.

It is very appropriate, therefore, that the most recent popular production is called My Fair Lady, focusing attention, as the musical itself does, on the Cinderella theme. At the same time, with all the brilliance of this version, even with the dialogue culled from the original play, this one is a very different play throughout. All the noncomic lines... are omitted, for in My Fair Lady Higgins is the conventional romantic hero and not what he surely is in Pygmalion: the Shavian hero, standing alone, a superman embodying a life force divorced from human social and sensual drives, but representative of the vitality and creative evolution in which, in Shaw's philosophy, lies the ultimate hope of mankind.

Source: Myron Matlaw, "The Denouement of Pygmalion," in Modern Drama, Vol. 1, no. 1, May, 1958, pp. 29, 33-34.

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Critical Overview