Friday, 8 May 1998

George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion (1916)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 43

Pygmalion is a play which is concerned with Shaw's ideas about society and class in much the same way as Saint Joan is concerned with his ideas about religion. Pygmalion doesn't have a useful introduction like Saint Joan's, so the ideas have to come from the narrative in the play.

The play is rather unusual in its appearance; it is set out as though it were a novel with dramatised speech, which can be a little bit disconcerting (and is certainly irritating). The particular Penguin edition I read also has pointless illustrations.

The title comes from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who created a statue of surpassing beauty; at his request, the gods animated the statue as Galatea. The myth is updated, and substantially altered, by Shaw; instead of a statue, Galatea is Eliza Doolittle, a Covent Garden flower-girl, whose accent immediately marks her out as from the very bottom of the English class structure. Pygmalion is represented by Henry Higgins, who is an expert on accents and pronunciation, and who undertakes to transform her speech so that she can be taken for a duchess at a society party.

The play concentrates on the comedy of the early lessons, and the early attempts to pass Eliza off into society. Shaw makes some effort to avoid sentimentality - the fact that despite the title Henry and Eliza don't end up falling in love is an example - and his lead could with profit have been followed by those who adapted Pygmalion as the musical My Fair Lady. However, Shaw suffers from a sort of non-romantic sentimentality, as can be seen from the Epilogue, which tells the later stories of the characters. This is about success through personal endeavour - Eliza ends up setting up a flower shop with her upper class but poor husband, studying accounting and making a good living. In the cynical 1990s, this seems almost as unbelievable as the romance.

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