Pygmalion Essays and Criticism
by George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion and Shaw's Other Great Works

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 4,952 words.)