Play Review: Pygamalion


by Krittika Paul

Pygmalion the play by George Bernard Shaw, is derived from the famous story in Ovid’s book, Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion, a sculptor, disgusted by the loose and shameful lives of the women of his time, decides to live alone and unmarried. He creates a beautiful statue, more perfect than any living woman. The more he looked upon her, the more deeply he fell in love with her, until he wished that she were more than a statue. Lovesick, Pygmalion prayed to the goddess Venus to give him a lover like his statue, Venus was touched by his love and brought Galatea to life. When Pygmalion returned from Venus’ temple and kissed his statue, he was delighted and married her.

The basic Pygmalion story has been widely transmitted and represented inn the arts through the centuries. In the Middle Ages Pygmalion was held up as an example of the excesses of idolatry, however, by the 19th century, the story often became one in which the awakened beloved, rejects Pygmalion.

George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion is a more modern version of the myth with a subtle hint of feminism and socialism. It is a play about a phonetics professor and his attempts to refine the speech and manner of a Cockney flower girl, for life among the upper classes. He uses this as a platform for social critique, demonstrating the artificiality of class distinctions in early 20th century British society.  In his version of the myth, he purposely twists the myth so that the play does not conclude as euphorically or conveniently, hanging instead in ambiguity. In 1956, songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musicalized Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and later film producer Jack L. Warner turned the musical into the feature film, ‘My Fair Lady’ starring Audrey Hepburn, with a more romanticized ending.

George Bernard Shaw’s education was irregular, due to his dislike of any formal training. He wrote plays in order to bring out his social criticism on the English stage. Among these, Widower’s Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession savagely attack social hypocrisy. Shaw’s “radical rationalism” and his utter disregard of conventions, often turn the stage into a forum of ideas. All his plays were known to be influenced by his keen interest in dialect and his verbal insight. Pygmalion also reflected his wit and knowledge of phonetics. The play brought out the themes of gender inequality, middle class morality and class distinction. It is a combination of the dramatic, the comic, and the social corrective thatgive Shaw’s comedies their special flavor.

Pygmalion was written in 1913, and to get a better idea of the play, it is essential to understand the social situation of that time. This play was written just before the beginning of the First World War. At that time in England the  “suffragette” movement was strong, with women protesting against the discrimination they faced when it came to things such as the right to vote, right to property etc. Shaw’s depiction of women and attitudes towards them is impressively and sometimes confusingly varied. They are shown in conventional roles, as mothers and housekeepers, and also as strong willed and independent. The play Pygmalion pays special attention to the problem of women’s “place” in society, or lack thereof.

In the play, Shaw illustrates and discusses the defining qualities of two entirely different strata, emphasizing their difference in speech. He also demonstrates that these differences are so dramatic, that a person from one level of society would feel lost in another. The themes that Pygmalion touches on are not hard to pick out, however, they are woven into the play in appropriate character development and dialogue. The theme of the importance of vanity in Victorian society is seen through the different characters and their reactions to Eliza.

Shaw is demonstrating, how, when it comes to Victorian society, their ideals are completely skewed. High society is caught up in inconsequential notions such as inane small talk and looking good, so that they miss the more important notions that could have developed.Shaw is not only looking at the idea of woman as objects, but also at the role that Victorian women play in society. They dress up and act like coy dolls simply to attract a mate. 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.

The play is a strong critique of the class based society of that time and it questions people’s perception of worth and status. Both the film and the play bring out the artificiality of the British upper classes. It is depicted that changing a flower girl to a duchess, is so easy. Nice clothes and correct grammar is the only distinction between them. Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, shows how money was a burden and trapped him in what he described as “middle class morality”.

The film adaptation of the play, My Fair Lady, was released in 1965 starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. The movie followed the play fairly accurately, however there were certain significant changes made to the story, as well as in the depiction of characters. The film was a light-hearted romantic comedy in comparison to the play, which was an anti-romantic social satire. However the themes running through the movie were similar to that of the play. The film mocked the vanity of Victorian society, the status of women at that time and most importantly brought out the class distinction very vividly. The film was a musical and it must be noted that all the lyrics continued to reiterate the sociological themes. Even though the tunes were cheerful and fun, the lyrics bring out serious issues that were prevalent in society. Mr. Higgins is portrayed as a romantic hero towards the end, as Eliza returns to him eventually. In the play Eliza leaves Mr. Higgins and establishes her independence.

The difference between the endings of the play and the story can be due to two reasons. The play was written in 1913 and probably at that time it was unthinkable that a common flower girl would marry an educated man and therefore Shaw made the ending such. We could also guess that maybe Shaw was influenced by the suffragette movement going on at the time, and therefore chose to end it with Eliza establishing her independence.

Why did the film end as a love story? The audience that the film was aimed for was different, times had changed and it wasn’t as unheard of for a common flower girl to marry a wealthy man. The status of women had progressed between Shaw’s play and when the film was released. Two world wars had passed which lead to increased participation by women, and lead to more and more women coming out of economic dependence.The film was made to provide entertainment and movies with a happy ending were something people looked forward to.

The sociological importance of the play can be judged based on the fact that a phenomenon was named after it. The Pygmalion effect, which refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform is often cited with regard to education and social class.The Pygmalion effect is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, and, in this respect, people will internalize their negative label, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly.

Pygmalion was an extremely popular play at the time, Shaw’s unconventional outlook towards the social environment of the time made for a refreshing change. Everything he said about the vanity of Victorian society and the superficiality of it, were extremely accurate. His use of humour allowed people to laugh at themselves and see their lives from a different perspective.

The film also did phenomenally well, it broke all sorts of records at the box office and won many awards. The themes in them both are extremely relevant, even though they are dealt with in a nonchalant and witty manner. These were trendsetters for many other plays and films dealing with the status of women in society and class distinction.






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