Pygmalion derives its name from the famous story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion, disgusted by the loose and shameful lives of the women of his era, decides to live alone and unmarried. With wondrous art, he creates a beautiful statue more perfect than any living woman. The more he looks upon her, the more deeply he falls in love with her, until he wishes that she were more than a statue. This statue is Galatea. Lovesick, Pygmalion goes to the temple of the goddess Venus and prays that she give him a lover like his statue; Venus is touched by his love and brings Galatea to life. When Pygmalion returns from Venus' temple and kisses his statue, he is delighted to find that she is warm and soft to the touch--"The maiden felt the kisses, blushed and, lifting her timid eyes up to the light, saw the sky and her lover at the same time" (Frank Justus Miller, trans.).
Myths such as this are fine enough when studied through the lens of centuries and the buffer of translations and editions, but what happens when one tries to translate such an allegory into Victorian England? That is just what George Bernard Shaw does in his version of the Pygmalion myth. In doing so, he exposes the inadequacy of myth and of romance in several ways. For one, he deliberately twists the myth so that the play does not conclude as euphorically or conveniently, hanging instead in unconventional ambiguity. Next, he mires the story in the sordid and mundane whenever he gets a chance. Wherever he can, the characters are seen to be belabored by the trivial details of life like napkins and neckties, and of how one is going to find a taxi on a rainy night. These noisome details keep the story grounded and decidedly less romantic. Finally, and most significantly, Shaw challenges the possibly insidious assumptions that come with the Pygmalion myth, forcing us to ask the following: Is the male artist the absolute and perfect being who has the power to create woman in the image of his desires? Is the woman necessarily the inferior subject who sees her lover as her sky? Can there only ever be sexual/romantic relations between a man and a woman? Does beauty reflect virtue? Does the artist love his creation, or merely the art that brought that creation into being?
Famous for writing "talky" plays in which barely anything other than witty repartee takes center stage (plays that the most prominent critics of his day called non-plays), Shaw finds in Pygmalion a way to turn the talk into action, by hinging the fairy tale outcome of the flower girl on precisely how she talks. In this way, he draws our attention to his own art, and to his ability to create, through the medium of speech, not only Pygmalion's Galatea, but Pygmalion himself. More powerful than Pygmalion, on top of building up his creations, Shaw can take them down as well by showing their faults and foibles. In this way, it is the playwright alone, and not some divine will, who breathes life into his characters. While Ovid's Pygmalion may be said to have idolized his Galatea, Shaw's relentless and humorous honesty humanizes these archetypes, and in the process brings drama and art itself to a more contemporarily relevant and human level.