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Pygmalion

by: George Bernard Shaw

Study Questions

1

In his preface to the play, Shaw writes that the figure of Henry Higgins is partly based on Alexander Melville Bell, the inventor of Visible Speech. How does Shaw utilize this idea of "Visible Speech"? Is it an adequate concept to use to approach people?

Through the concept of "Visible Speech," Shaw hits on the two aspects of theater that can make the greatest impression on an audience: sight and sound. Therefore, the transformation of Eliza Doolittle is most marked and obvious on these two scales. In regard to both these senses, Pygmalion stays faithful to the most clichéd formula of the standard rags-to-riches stories, in that the heroine changes drastically in the most external ways. However, while Eliza certainly changes in these blatant external ways, these changes serve as a mask for a more fundamental development of self-respect that Eliza undergoes. Because Higgins only ever charts "Visible Speech," it makes him liable to forget that there are other aspects to human beings that can also grow. But in the possible loss that Higgins faces in the final scene, and in is inability to recognize that loss as a possibility at all, the play makes certain that its audience sees the tension between internal and external change, and that sight and sound do not become measures of virtue, personality, or internal worth.

2

It has been said that Pygmalion is not a play about turning a flower girl into a duchess, but one about turning a woman into a human being. Do you agree?

When Eliza Doolittle threatens Higgins that she will take his phonetic findings to his rival in order to support herself, art imitates life, and Shaw's literature echoes a significant episode from his own youth. As a boy, Shaw's mother was an accomplished singer who dedicated herself to the perfection of "The Method," her teacher George Vandeleur Lee's yoga-like approach to voice training. She went so far as to leave her husband to follow her teacher to London. However, upon realizing that Lee was concerned only about his appearances and the status of his street address, she left him and brought up her daughters by setting up shop herself, teaching "The Method" as if it were her own. Shaw could not have helped but be impressed and influenced by this courageous move on the part of his mother to strike out on her own and to create an independent life for herself. Thus, though Pygmalion shows a lot of sympathy for the flower girl who wants a higher station in life, it is even more concerned with the unloved, neglected woman who decides to make herself heard once and for all. The plays determination to have Eliza grow into a full human being with her own mind and will also explains why the play makes seemingly inexplicable structural moves like leaving out the climax, and carrying on for a further two acts after the climax. In other words, the superficial climax is not the real climax at all, and Shaw's project is deeper than that of a fairy godmother.

3

What is the Pygmalion myth? In what significant ways, and with what effect, has Shaw transformed that myth in his play?

The Pygmalion myth comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Pygmalion is a sculptor who creates a sculpture of a woman so perfectly formed that he falls in love with her. Aphrodite is moved by his love and touches the statue to life so that she becomes Galatea, and the sculptor can experience live bliss with his own creation. While Shaw maintains the skeletal structure of the fantasy in which a gifted male fashions a woman out of lifeless raw material into a worthy partner for himself, Shaw does not allow the male to fall in love with his creation. Right to the last act, Higgins is still quarrelsome and derisive in his interaction with Eliza, and does not even think of her as an object of romantic interest. Shaw goes on to undo the myth by injecting the play with other Pygmalion figures like Mrs. Pearce and Pickering, and to suggest that the primary Pygmalion himself is incomplete, and not ideal himself. In transforming the Pygmalion myth in such a way, Shaw calls into question the ideal status afforded to the artist, and further exposes the inadequacies of myths and romances that overlook the mundane, human aspects of life.