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Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw

Study Questions

Analysis

Review Quiz

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.

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.

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.

"I care for life, for humanity; and you are a part of it that has come my way and been built into my house. What more can you or anyone ask?" Henry Higgins has this to say to Eliza when she complains that he does not care for anybody and threatens to leave him. How does the professor of phonetics treat the people in his life? Can one ask for more?

Describe the primary ways in which Eliza Doolittle changes in the course of the play. Which is the most important transformation, and what clues does Shaw give us to indicate this?

While Eliza Doolittle is being remade, Victorian society itself can be said to be unmade. How does Shaw reveal the pruderies, hypocrisies, and inconsistencies of this higher society to which the kerbstone flower girl aspires? Do his sympathies lie with the lower or upper classes?

"The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another." It is no small coincidence that the author of Higgins' Universal Alphabet is the same man to blur social distinctions, thereby suggesting that social standing is a matter of nurture, not nature. Examine carefully Higgins' attitude towards his fellow men. Can this be taken as an admirable brand of socialism? Or does he fail as a compassionate being in his absolutism?

Is "A Romance in Five Acts" an accurate description of the play Pygmalion? How does the play conform (or not) to the traditional form of a romance (for example: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy meets girl's father/evil twin/ex-fiance, boy learns to love girl despite everything, boy and girl live happily ever after...)? What do you think Shaw is trying to achieve in highlighting the concept of the romance in the title? (Hint: You might want to look closely at the written sequel to the play, in which Shaw gives some very strong opinions about romances.)

If you were to create a sixth act to Pygmalion, who would Eliza marry? Or does she marry at all? Use the lines and behavior of the characters throughout the first five acts to support the outcome of your finale.

If possible, try to watch the film version of Pygmalion (1938, screenplay by Shaw), and even the Audrey Hepburn film of the musical My Fair Lady (1956). Consider what has been changed, removed, or enhanced in the move from the stage to the screen, and from a talking play to a musical. What does each subsequent adaptation reveal about popular expectations of a romance, versus the original intentions of the playwright? In your opinion, which of these works is the best? Why?

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