Skip over navigation

Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw

Context

Table of Contents

Summary

Born in Dublin in 1856 to a middle-class Protestant family bearing pretensions to nobility (Shaw's embarrassing alcoholic father claimed to be descended from Macduff, the slayer of Macbeth), George Bernard Shaw grew to become what some consider the second greatest English playwright, behind only Shakespeare. Others most certainly disagree with such an assessment, but few question Shaw's immense talent or the play's that talent produced. Shaw died at the age of 94, a hypochondriac, socialist, anti-vaccinationist, semi-feminist vegetarian who believed in the Life Force and only wore wool. He left behind him a truly massive corpus of work including about 60 plays, 5 novels, 3 volumes of music criticism, 4 volumes of dance and theatrical criticism, and heaps of social commentary, political theory, and voluminous correspondence. And this list does not include the opinions that Shaw could always be counted on to hold about any topic, and which this flamboyant public figure was always most willing to share. Shaw's most lasting contribution is no doubt his plays, and it has been said that "a day never passes without a performance of some Shaw play being given somewhere in the world." One of Shaw's greatest contributions as a modern dramatist is in establishing drama as serious literature, negotiating publication deals for his highly popular plays so as to convince the public that the play was no less important than the novel. In that way, he created the conditions for later playwrights to write seriously for the theater.

Of all of Shaw's plays, Pygmalion is without the doubt the most beloved and popularly received, if not the most significant in literary terms. Several film versions have been made of the play, and it has even been adapted into a musical. In fact, writing the screenplay for the film version of 1938 helped Shaw to become the first and only man ever to win the much coveted Double: the Nobel Prize for literature and an Academy Award. Shaw wrote the part of Eliza in Pygmalion for the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, with whom Shaw was having a prominent affair at the time that had set all of London abuzz. The aborted romance between Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle reflects Shaw's own love life, which was always peppered with enamored and beautiful women, with whom he flirted outrageously but with whom he almost never had any further relations. For example, he had a long marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townsend in which it is well known that he never touched her once. The fact that Shaw was quietly a member of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, an organization whose core members were young men agitating for homosexual liberation, might or might not inform the way that Higgins would rather focus his passions on literature or science than on women. That Higgins was a representation of Pygmalion, the character from the famous story of Ovid's Metamorphoses who is the very embodiment of male love for the female form, makes Higgins sexual disinterest all the more compelling. Shaw is too consummate a performer and too smooth in his self- presentation for us to neatly dissect his sexual background; these lean biographical facts, however, do support the belief that Shaw would have an interest in exploding the typical structures of standard fairy tales.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us