Places Discussed

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*London. In the early twentieth century, London was the center of world commerce and the leading city of the democratic societies. However, for all its importance to world democracies, London was home to the British Empire and organized into a rigid class system, which permitted no crossing of boundaries. One of the chief means of enforcing such a system was categorizing people according to their language patterns. Pygmalion is about how a guttersnipe, Eliza Doolittle, overcomes the English class system by exchanging her Cockney accent for an upper-class English one with the help of linguistics expert Henry Higgins. During the course of the lessons, they fall in love with each other, but Higgins is never able to escape his own class sufficiently to reciprocate Eliza’s love.

*St. Paul’s Cathedral

*St. Paul’s Cathedral. Magnificent late seventeenth century church located located in Covent Garden, London’s entertainment and market district. St. Paul’s portico, at the entrance to the building, is a place where the different classes are permitted to mingle. There, Eliza encounters Higgins and decides to accept the challenge of changing her speech patterns.

27A Wimpole Street

27A Wimpole Street. Address of Henry Higgins’s Covent Garden home and speech laboratory, located in an upscale area. It comes to represent the place of learning where Eliza is reborn as a “lady,” with an entirely new habit of speech. Higgins assumes that Eliza will never leave Wimpole Street, but to his surprise she does leave him to marry a young man from fashionable Earls Court, the final proof of her transformation.

Mrs. Higgins’s home

Mrs. Higgins’s home. As a test of her new social skills, Higgins brings Eliza to his mother’s home in exclusive Chelsea. There, Eliza meets the Eynsford Hills, who, although poor, are nevertheless members of the upper crust residing in Earl’s Court. Freddy Eynsford Hill falls in love with her almost immediately. Mrs. Higgins’s home is also where Eliza passes her first test in a new social setting and where she ultimately rejects Higgins.

Historical Context

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World War I
Nineteen-fourteen, the year of Pygmalion's London premiere, marked tremendous changes in British society. On July 28, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, setting off an international conflict due to a complicated set of alliances which had developed in Europe. Within two weeks, this conflict had erupted into a world war (known in Britain at the time as the "Great War"). By the end of World War I (as it came to be known later), 8.5 million people had been killed and 21 million wounded, including significant civilian casualties. The war constituted the most intense physical, economic and psychological assault on European society in its history; Britain was not alone in experiencing devastating effects on its national morale and other aspects of society.

It is ironic, Eldon C. Hill wrote in George Bernard Shaw, that Pygmalion, "written partly to demonstrate that language (phonetics particularly) could contribute to understanding among men, should be closed because of the outbreak of World War I." The war brought out Shaw's compassion, as well as his disgust with the European societies that would tolerate the destruction of so many lives. When the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell informed Shaw of the death of her son in battle, he replied that he could not be sympathetic, but only furious: "Killed just because people are blasted fools," Hill quoted the playwright saying. To Shaw, the war only demonstrated more clearly the need for human advancement on an individual and social level, to reach a level of understanding that would prevent such tragic devastation.

Colonialism and the British Empire
In 1914 Great Britain was very much still a colonial power, but while...

(The entire section contains 4772 words.)

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Critical Essays