Book Review: Pygmalion

PygmalionPygmalion by George Bernard Shaw wasn’t really on my radar, but one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge was a play. At first all I could think of was Shakespeare, and I wasn’t quite up to him just now. Then, perusing a list of classic play titles, I saw Pygmalion. Perfect!

The play opens with a number of people in front of Covent Garden late on a rainy night. All different classes of people are represented here. Someone trying to find a cab runs into a flower girl and knocks her basket out of her hand, spilling her wares and thus ruining her income for the night. In trying to sell her flowers, someone points out a man taking notes. She fears he is with the police and starts protesting her innocence and right to be there. As it turns out, he is not with the police. He is Henry Higgens, a professor of phonetics who can tell everyone where they are from by their accent. One of the crowd is a Colonel Pickering, who, as a student of Sanskrit, had just come from India to confer with Higgens. In their conversation, Higgens remarks offhandedly that he could take the flower girl’s “depressing and disgusting sounds” that would “keep her in the gutter to the end of her days,” and within three months’ time pass her off as a duchess.

To his surprise and consternation, the flower girl. Eliza Doolittle, shows up at his house the next day to take him up on what she perceived as an offer. She’d like to work in a flower shop instead of on the streets, and needs to know how to talk better to do so. Pickering encourages Higgens to take her on, saying that if he can teach her to pass for a refined member of society by an ambassador’s garden party, he’ll pay for her lessons. Despite the protests of his housekeeper that “You can’t take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach,” Higgens agrees.

Thus begins their work, with much clashing of wills and opinions, triumphs and not-quite triumphs. A couple of my favorites of the Professor’s instructions:

Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

Remember: that’s your handkerchief; and that’s your sleeve. Don’t mistake the one for the other if you wish to become a lady.

If you’ve ever seen the musical My Fair Lady, you may know that it is based on Pygmalion. The ending is vastly different, and the actual scene of Eliza’s ultimate test is shown in the film whereas it is only referred to in the book, but otherwise for the most part it follows the play pretty closely (at least as far as I can remember –  I haven’t seen the musical in a long time). Pygmalion is based in turn on a Greek mythological character of the same name who falls in love with a statue he created and gets his wish for it to come to life.

The end of My Fair Lady has Eliza and Higgens falling in love: Pygmalion does not. In fact, the end of Pygmalion seems a little unsatisfying at first. I thought that was just because I was used to My Fair Lady’s ending, but according to a number of sources I read, many who produced or directed the play varied the end slightly to at least hint that Eliza and Higgens came to some understanding. Shaw got so disgusted that he wrote a very long afterward explaining why they could not possibly have married, whom she does marry, and what happens to the major characters after the end of the play. Though this Pygmalion does not fall in love with his creation, he does “bring her to life.” In one of their final scenes together, when they’re arguing over what’s to become of her now, she shows she has gone from simpering and whining about it to having a plan, even if it means standing up to Higgens. He replies, “It’s better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.” So if we can set aside the desire to see a “romantic” ending, it is a conclusive ending in that now his “creation” is truly complete. Cliff notes says:

Consequently, with the conflict clearly stated for Higgins, the essence of human life is through mutual improvement; for Eliza, it is through human loving and commitment — then only the most sloppy, sentimental reader could ever think that their relationship will ever change.

In Shaw’s afterward he says, “The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of ‘happy endings’ to misfit all stories.” SparkNotes suggests Shaw was trying to deconstruct the typical fairy tale. If he was, he did a good job. Henry Higgens is no Prince Charming. He’s gruff, conceited, ill-mannered and self-centered. Though Eliza is transformed, she’s not exactly a Cinderella. And their ending, if not “happily ever after,” is probably more realistic (“What is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers?”)

Other sources say Pygmalion is a satire of the social classes, and I can see that angle, too, especially in the subplot with Eliza’s father. And though each class is shown to be ridiculous in some ways, Shaw makes some poignant observations as well. Eliza tells Colonel Pickering:

Your calling me Miss Doolittle…That was the beginning of self-respect for me. And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things like standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors — yes, things that showed you thought and felt about me as if I were something better than a scullery maid…

The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgens, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady  to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Shaw says in his preface, though, that it is primarily about speaking English and based on well-known phonetics specialists. He says, “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like…German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.” He says later:

I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.

As I said earlier, I had no thoughts of reading this play until I saw the title and thought it would be good for the Back to the Classics play category, and indeed it was.  It was nice to have lighter fare after some longer and heavier works. Though I missed the musical numbers, I did enjoy finding out what the original story was like. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook delightfully read by a full cast but also got the free Kindle version to go back over some parts more thoroughly.

Some readers will want to know that it has a smattering of “damns” in it.

And even though these are not part of the original play, especially the last two, they’re on my mind after finishing the story, so I will share them here: