Pygmalion

Bernard Shaw edited by Leonard Conolly

DOI: 10.5040/9781408183595.00000022
Acts: 5. Roles: Male (6) , Female (7) , Neutral (0)

Pygmalion is the famous story of phonetics expert Henry Higgins and his bid to transform the impoverished flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a society lady. From Henry’s attempts to iron Eliza’s resilient vowels and colourful vocabulary into a more refined shape, Shaw creates brilliant comedy, as well as an engaging and provocative examination of class and women’s independence. The play premiered in German at the Hofburg Theatre, Vienna in 1913; its English premiere at His Majesty’s Theatre, London in 1914 starred the theatre’s actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs Patrick Campbell, with whom Shaw had fallen madly in love and for whom he claimed he had written the part especially.

Pygmalion has proved a controversial play since its first performance: while the audience was taken aback by some of Eliza’s less respectable language, Shaw himself was appalled at the cast’s last-minute romantic changes to the play’s ending. His titling of the play Pygmalion set up a certain marital expectation, however, as, in the Ovidian myth, the sculptor Pygmalion ultimately marries the female statue he has created, who is brought to life by the goddess Venus.

The male fantasy of a silent and malleable wife that lies behind this myth has led to a wealth of interest into Shaw’s portrayal of female independence, himself desiring to be a trenchant social critic. Parallels have been drawn between Eliza and Ibsen’s Nora (the protagonist of A Doll’s House), with both characters leaving behind the men to whom they feel themselves beholden. It is left up to the reader/viewer to judge whether the play speaks of economic and social liberation through education, or of the perpetuation of male control and self-interest disguised as a moral campaign.

With subsequent film and musical adaptations and many stage revivals, Pygmalion remains one of Shaw's most engaging, provocative, and accessible plays.