Tuesday, 9 September 2014

'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw (1912)

Synopsis: George Bernard Shaw's play was inspired by the Pygmalion story of Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, Pygmalion is a Cypriot sculptor who carves a beautiful woman out of ivory and then falls in love with his creation. He then persuades the goddess Aphrodite to bring the sculpture to life so that he can marry her. George Bernard Shaw's play is a radical interpretation of the story with a strong feminist message. The Pygmalion figure is now a renowned and eccentric professor of phonetics called Henry Higgins who makes a bet with his new friend Colonel Pickering. Higgins bets that he can train a dishevelled cockney flower girl called Eliza Doolittle into passing herself off as a duchess within six months, simply by changing her vocabulary and accent. Eliza agrees to receive speech lessons from Higgins as she wishes to become genteel enough to work in a flower shop. Higgins succeeds in getting Eliza to speak and act like a duchess but Eliza becomes angry at Higgins' lack of consideration for her feelings and proudly asserts her independence.

I don't usually read more than one book at a time but since I'm finding the book that I'm currently reading very boring I took a break from it and read Pygmalion. The play's most famous adaptation is the musical My Fair Lady and I've long regarded it as one of my favourites. I've never had the chance to see the musical live but I've seen the 1964 movie quite a few times. There are many, many things that I love about that film. I love the brilliant wit and the comedy, the Lerner-Loewe songs, the costumes, the sets and Audrey Hepburn's delightful performance as Eliza. The scene where Eliza goes to the Ascot races is absolutely hilarious! But even though My Fair Lady is a fantastic musical it has a major flaw - the ending. I've always found it weird and confusing and after reading this play I can't stand it! What were they thinking?! Did they not read George Bernard Shaw's afterword?! The ending is completely out of character for Eliza! She gives Higgins a much deserved lecture about his treatment of her, asserts her independence, and then walks out on him only to go crawling back?! No! The Eliza of the play and the musical wouldn't settle for a man who constantly puts her down! She wouldn't fetch his slippers, she ain't got time for that! Okay so we're not told why Eliza has gone back to Higgins but still... there's a heavy implication that Eliza and Higgins are going to be having a romantic relationship and that's what most people have took from the musical.

I still love My Fair Lady but I really can't deny that the ending completely undermines Shaw's powerful feminist message. The whole point of his play is that the Pygmalion and Galatea characters don't end up together! Eliza isn't a romantic and she isn't in love with Higgins. She only wants him to respect and appreciate her as his equal. It makes absolutely no difference to Eliza that she's an uneducated, lower-class girl and that Higgins is a man and a gentleman. Eliza is a woman who is truly ahead of her time and she's a delightful character. She's strong, independent, self-confident, practical and brave even before her lessons. And she's hilarious! She's honestly one of my favourite fictional heroines now and how anyone could want her to spend her life with Higgins is beyond me. I'm really not fond of Higgins despite him getting some amusing one-liners every now and again. Higgins is smug, immature, rude, manipulative, selfish and misogynistic. He calls Eliza an "idiot" and a "slut" and almost hits her twice! The ending of the play is in no way depressing. When Eliza basically tells Higgins to f-cough and walks out on him I think it's glorious! Shaw would have absolutely hated the musical's ending. In fact Shaw was so annoyed by audiences interpreting Higgins and Eliza's relationship as a romantic one that he would later write an afterword for the play. In this afterword - which is just as entertaining as the play itself! - Shaw gives a detailed and painstaking explanation of what happened to the characters after the ending of the main plot. He has this to say:

"Almost immediately after Eliza proclaims her considered determination not to marry Higgins, she mentions the fact that the young Mr. Frederick Eynsford Hill is pouring out his love daily for her through the post. Now Freddy is young, practically twenty years younger than Higgins: he is a gentleman (or, as Eliza would qualify him, a toff), and speaks like one. He is nicely dressed, he is treated by the Colonel as an equal, loves her unaffectedly, and is not her master, nor ever likely to dominate her in spite of his advantage of social standing. Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered, if not actually bullied and beaten," *claps* Bravo Shaw, bravo!

In the afterword Shaw makes it clear that Eliza and Freddy really do marry. They then open a flower shop and have a happy life together. This is an immeasurably better ending than the musical's ending! Freddy is by far the better match for Eliza! Okay so he's not all that bright but he truly loves Eliza and is perfectly happy to let her do her own thing. He never seeks to boss her around. Shaw also makes it clear that Freddy improves under Eliza's influence and becomes a much more useful and productive member of society. Even in the musical Freddy is much nicer to Eliza than Higgins is and actually compliments her. And he's played by Jeremy Brett which is a massive bonus!

Pygmalion is a brilliant play and a true classic. I absolutely loved it and I would love to see it live. It's extremely entertaining and funny and Eliza is a wonderful character. But it's also very deep and thought-provoking too. I'm sure that fans of Greek mythology will find it interesting and there's quite a bit of social commentary on feminism and the classes of society. The play also touches on the importance of language and how it can change lives. Words have power. God created life with words and I don't think it's a coincidence that there are countless fairytales and fantasy stories where magic is produced with words. The great leaders of our time have all been powerful writers and communicators. Pygmalion is also surprisingly short considering the length of My Fair Lady! This play and Tolkien's The Hobbit are two books that you could actually read in less time than it would take you to watch their adaptations! So if you're one of those people who says "Oh gee, I would love to read more books but I just haven't got the time so I watch the adaptations instead", well, you've got no excuse not to read these books! :D

Rating: 5/5

P.S. George Bernard Shaw sounds like an interesting man. He was very good friends with G.K. Chesterton despite them having completely different views on religion, politics and the eating of meat. He also wanted the spelling of "fish" to be changed to "ghoti". I'm totally with him there. Who wouldn't want to catch a ghoti?


Bethany Morrow said...

I really loved reading this play.
I agree the ending in the musical is terrible! Totally out of character and stupid!

samara said...

Love your review here! I definitely prefer the ending of Pygmalion to My Fair Lady (despite guiltily adoring the movie...because Audrey!). My only disappointment is that Freddy becomes "the kept husband." I have no problem with women being the primary bread winner--but in this situation, Freddy seems to be rather useless. Eliza deserves someone who both adores her AND matches her vivacity.

samara said...

Also... have you been watching Classic Alice's take on this? It's fascinating!!

Hannah said...

Samara - I have! I had a big catch up on the episodes the other day. I really like how they've adapted it although I AM essentially shipping Higgins and Eliza in this version! :)

I can see what you mean about Freddy because although he definitely adores Eliza he isn't really worthy of her. Eliza deserves to be with someone as awesome as she is! But then take Northanger Abbey. I mean, Catherine's really sweet and kind and all but we both know that she isn't really worthy of Henry's awesomeness right? I think Henry deserves to have his own Elizabeth Bennet. But I should add that still doesn't stop me from absolutely adoring Northanger Abbey and Pygmalion!