Pygmalion is a play in five acts by the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. The play was written in early 1912. Due to a delay in the London production, it premiered in Vienna, Austria, in a German translation on October 16, 1913. The troubled London production finally opened on April 11, 1914 and ran for 118 performances at His Majesty's Theatre.
The play's main protagonists are a phonetics expert, Henry Higgins, and a common Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle. Eliza hears Higgins boasting that he can teach anyone to speak like the upper class. She asks Higgins for lessons so she can better herself and work in a respectable flower shop. Colonel Pickering, another phonetician to whom Higgins had been speaking, makes a bet that Higgins will not be able to pass Eliza off as a duchess at a party in six months. Higgins accepts the challenge. Neither Higgins nor Pickering realizes that there is more at stake than an experiment in phonetics.
The title of the play refers to a Greek mythological character. In Ovid's poem Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is described as a bachelor who held a low opinion of women. He was a gifted sculptor, however, and created a statue of a beautiful woman so perfect that he fell in love with it. According to the legend, the statue came to life when Pygmalion prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Pygmalion is a satire on Edwardian British society. It tackles serious social and political issues such as women's independence and the class system. Although Shaw himself called it didactic, the play was an instant popular success when it opened. It still remains one of the most famous and beloved works by the author.
There have been many adaptations of Pygmalion. The 1938 film, with screenplay co-written by Shaw, won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The popular Broadway musical My Fair Lady (1956) is based on the film version of Pygmalion.
The play opens on a summer night in Covent Garden. A sudden heavy rain has prompted people to take shelter under the portico of St. Paul's Church. A mother and her daughter are impatiently waiting for the son, Freddy, who went off some time ago to look for a cab. When Freddy returns from his unsuccessful mission, the women force him back out into the rain for a second attempt. On his way out, Freddy bumps into a flower girl, knocking her basket out of her hands. The girl is between 18 and 20 years of age and very dirty. She complains in a thick Cockney accent as she picks up her basket and flowers.
An elderly gentleman of military bearing joins them in the shelter. The girl tries to sell him flowers. As she speaks, a bystander warns her that there is a man behind her writing down every word she is saying. The girl assumes the note taker is a policeman and begins to protest her innocence. Seeing her distress, bystanders begin to speak up in her defense. The note taker listens to each person and begins to guess where they are from. As his guesses prove accurate, a crowd begins to gather. The working-class bystanders are initially not pleased at the meddler, but they are impressed when the note taker correctly identifies the military gentleman as "Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India."
The rain stops and the crowd disperses, leaving only the note taker, the military gentleman, and the flower girl. The gentleman asks the note taker how he does it, and the man explains that he is a phonetician, an expert in speech sounds. He claims to be able to place any person within six miles, and within two miles or less in London. He makes his living teaching self-made men how to speak like the upper class to help them blend into society. He tells the military gentleman that he could even make the flower girl sound like a duchess in three months. The gentleman says he is himself a student of Indian dialects, and the note taker inquires if he knows Colonel Pickering, the author of Spoken Sanscrit. It turns out that the gentleman is Colonel Pickering, and the note taker is the famous phonetician Henry Higgins whom the Colonel has come from India to meet. Pickering invites Higgins to dinner at his hotel. The flower girl makes one last attempt to sell them her flowers, and Higgins carelessly tosses her some coins from his pocket as he follows Pickering out of the shelter. The girl, delighted by the unexpectedly large donation, splurges by taking a cab home.
The following day, Higgins and Pickering are discussing phonetics in Higgins' laboratory when the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, announces a visitor. The flower girl enters and says she has come to take lessons. She wants to work in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street, but they will not hire her because of her speech. Higgins does not take her seriously, and his insensitive remarks insult and frighten the girl. Pickering, on the other hand, is a true gentleman. He speaks to the girl gently and treats her with courtesy.
The girl, Eliza Doolittle, offers to pay a shilling an hour for lessons. Although it is a laughably small amount, Higgins is impressed that she is willing to offer two-fifths of her daily income. Pickering is touched by her innocent earnestness and is also intrigued by the idea. He bets all expenses of the experiment that Higgins will not be able to pass her off as a duchess at the ambassador's garden party in six months. Higgins accepts the challenge and asks Mrs. Pearce to take Eliza, clean her up, and get her new clothes. Mrs. Pearce expresses her concern for Eliza's welfare and asks what will happen to the girl after the experiment is over. Higgins will not be talked out of it, however, so Mrs. Pearce takes charge of Eliza.
While Eliza is being cleaned up, her father comes to see Higgins. Doolittle is ostensibly there to take Eliza back, but Higgins realizes all he really wants is money. He goads him on until Doolittle admits his true intentions and asks for five pounds. Doolittle is quite a character, unapologetically dishonest yet witty and amusingly philosophical. Higgins takes a liking to the man and offers him ten pounds. To his surprise, Doolittle refuses to take it, explaining that too much money will make a man feel prudent and spoil his carefree happiness. As Doolittle is leaving with his five pounds, Eliza enters. She has cleaned up nicely and looks dainty and beautiful in a blue kimono. Her own father does not recognize her, and Higgins and Pickering cry out in amazement. Mrs. Pearce announces the arrival of her new clothes, and Eliza eagerly dashes out of the room. Having watched her rough manners and listened to her terrible grammar, Higgins and Pickering agree that they have taken on a difficult job.
Some months later, Higgins comes to see his mother as she is preparing to receive afternoon visitors. Mrs. Higgins tells her son to leave at once before he offends her friends. Higgins informs her that he has invited a common flower girl whom he has been training. He explains that the girl has a quick ear and her pronunciation is now quite good, but she still needs to learn what to say. He wants Mrs. Higgins to help teach the girl.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill, the mother and daughter who were sheltering from the rain in Covent Garden. Colonel Pickering and Freddy join them shortly. As they begin conversing, Mrs. Higgins tries desperately to keep her blunt and tactless son from insulting everyone. She is saved by the parlor maid announcing Eliza. Eliza looks so exquisite and dignified that everyone rises upon seeing her. Once she joins the conversation, however, Eliza quickly gives herself away with her working-class vocabulary and inappropriate choice of topics. Higgins tries to pass off her gaffes as the "new small talk," something fashionable among the younger generation. Freddy finds the whole business hilarious and becomes infatuated by the beautiful Eliza.
After the Eynsford Hills leave, Mrs. Higgins declares Eliza not presentable and blames her poor conversational skills on Higgins. Then she inquires about the arrangements regarding Eliza. Higgins explains that Eliza is not a servant but is useful – she knows where his things are and when his appointments are. Both Higgins and Pickering speak enthusiastically about Eliza's progress, what a quick ear she has for both language and music, and how much time they spend teaching her and dressing her up. Like Mrs. Pearce, Mrs. Higgins realizes that the men have no idea that they are playing with a living doll with no consideration for her future or her happiness. Higgins and Pickering assure her they will make sure Eliza is all right when the experiment is over. As they depart happily, Mrs. Higgins cries out in exasperation, "Oh, men! men!! men!!!"
The clock strikes midnight in Higgins' laboratory. Eliza enters dressed in a brilliant evening dress accessorized with diamonds and flowers. She looks pale and tired. Higgins and Pickering follow. They are also tired, having attended the garden party, a dinner party, and the opera. Higgins cannot find his slippers as usual, and Eliza silently goes to look for them. She returns and quietly places the slippers at his feet. Higgins is too busy talking to Pickering about the day to notice her. He sees the slippers and reacts as if they have magically appeared on their own.
Pickering is speaking to Higgins about Eliza's performance at the garden party. He congratulates Higgins on his success. Higgins says "Thank God it's over!" and claims the whole experiment had been a bore ever since the phonetics part was finished months ago. Neither man pays any attention to Eliza who is sitting there like a stone with a murderous look on her face. Pickering retires to bed without a word to her. Higgins follows him out, telling Eliza to put out the lights. Left by herself, Eliza finally loses control and furiously flings herself on the floor.
Higgins returns to the room in search of his slippers. Eliza throws the slippers at him screaming. Higgins, taken completely by surprise, pulls her up and asks what is wrong. Eliza calls him selfish and accuses him of not caring what happens to her after she won his bet for him. Higgins does not understand her at all and thinks she is simply overtired. Eliza asks what is to become of her, what she will do and where she will go. It had not even occurred to Higgins that Eliza may be leaving now that the experiment is over. He suggests perhaps his mother can find a suitable young man for her to marry, or Pickering might set her up with her own flower shop. Satisfied with his own suggestions, he begins to leave.
Eliza stops him and asks what she is allowed to take away with her. She says she does not want to be accused of stealing. Higgins' feelings are hurt by what he considers to be her ungrateful behavior. He tells her she can take everything except for the diamonds which were hired for the party. She hands over the diamonds and also takes off her ring, which Higgins had bought her, saying she does not want it anymore. Higgins throws the ring into the unlit fireplace in a rare display of temper. He curses himself for wasting his efforts on a "heartless guttersnipe."
The following morning, Higgins and Pickering come to Mrs. Higgins' house to use the telephone to call the police. Higgins, looking terribly upset, tells his mother that Eliza has gone. Mrs. Higgins points out that the girl has the right to leave if she wishes, but Higgins complains that he cannot find anything and does not know what appointments he has. Pickering joins them shortly and Mrs. Higgins chides them both for calling in the police.
The parlor maid interrupts them to say that a Mr. Doolittle has come looking for Higgins. Doolittle enters dressed fashionably like a gentleman and accuses Higgins of ruining him. He says that Higgins wrote in a letter to a rich American Moral Reformer that Doolittle was "the most original moralist at present in England." Higgins meant it as a joke, but the American took him seriously and left Doolittle three thousand pounds a year in his will. Doolittle says he used to be free and happy taking money from people. Now he is bound by middle-class morality and everyone comes to him for money.
Mrs. Higgins is relieved that Doolittle will be able to provide for Eliza, but Higgins will not hear of it. He says he gave Doolittle five pounds for Eliza, so she no longer belongs to him. Mrs. Higgins tells her son to stop being absurd then confesses that Eliza is upstairs. Both Higgins and Pickering are astonished when Mrs. Higgins points out to them how badly they treated Eliza the previous night. She explains how Eliza became fond of them and worked hard for them, only to have them ignore her completely after her flawless performance at the great trial. Higgins still does not understand, but Pickering realizes they were inconsiderate. He asks if Eliza is very angry. Mrs. Higgins tells him that Eliza will not go back, but she is willing to make up with them. She makes Higgins promise to behave himself and asks Doolittle to step out before sending for Eliza.
Eliza enters looking very much relaxed and at home. She greets the men cordially and, ignoring the blustering Higgins, speaks calmly to Pickering. She tells him how much she owes him, not because of the dresses he bought her but because she learned nice manners from him. She thanks him for treating her with respect from the first day, and explains that what differentiates a lady from a flower girl is not her behavior but how she is treated by others. She will always be a flower girl to Higgins, but she can be a lady to Pickering.
As Eliza speaks, Doolittle enters and surprises her. He tells Eliza that he has come into money and, as dictated by middle-class morality, is on his way to the church to finally marry her stepmother. He asks Eliza to come to the wedding. He also asks Pickering to come for moral support and welcomes Mrs. Higgins who wishes to join them. Mrs. Higgins goes off to get dressed and Pickering leaves with Doolittle, leaving Eliza alone with Higgins.
Higgins tells Eliza that it is up to her to decide whether to come back. He refuses to change his manners, explaining that it is not about having good or bad manners but about having the same manner for everyone; Pickering treats a flower girl like a duchess while he treats a duchess like a flower girl. Eliza tells him that all she wants is a little kindness between friends. If she cannot have kindness, Eliza declares, she will have independence. She will marry Freddy and teach phonetics to make a living. Higgins is incensed. Seeing his reaction, Eliza has a sudden revelation – all the time, she has had it in her power to be his equal instead of being bullied by him. Higgins calls her impudent, but he is really pleased to have seen her transform from a sniveling girl to a strong woman. He happily tells her that he likes the new Eliza.
Mrs. Higgins returns dressed for the wedding. As she and Eliza are leaving, Higgins incorrigibly tells Eliza to go buy a pair of gloves and a tie for him. Eliza replies "Buy them yourself" and sweeps out. Higgins sits back and chuckles, certain that she will buy them all the same.
Shaw revised Pygmalion many times, altering and adding scenes over the years. For the final authorized version published in 1941, he also incorporated scenes he wrote for the 1938 screenplay. Due to the technical difficulties involved in staging, Shaw marked some of the scenes as optional for most theatrical performances. Additional scenes which can be found in some editions include:
- a silent scene at the end of Act I which shows Eliza in her small apartment
- an upstairs scene in Act II where Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza to her new bedroom then scrubs the terrified girl in a hot bath
- Eliza's first lesson at the end of Act II
- Embassy party at the end of Act III in which a former student of Higgins, who is there serving as the interpreter for the hostess, misidentifies Eliza as a Hungarian princess based on her royal bearing and impeccable English (judged too perfect for a native speaker)
- an extension at the end of Act IV in which Eliza leaves Higgins' house after the argument and finds the love-struck Freddy on the street
There are several alternate endings to Pygmalion as a result of Shaw's attempts to remove ambiguities (see Sequel below). In the 1941 version of the play, Eliza corrects Higgins on every errand he tells her to run then exits with the line, "What you are to do without me I cannot imagine." The play ends with Higgins laughing at the thought of Eliza marrying Freddy. In addition, Shaw wrote two different endings for the film version, both showing a happy ending for Eliza and Freddy. Neither ending was used.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the manager of His Majesty's Theatre and the first English actor to play Higgins, altered the ending against Shaw's wishes. Shaw had intended no suggestions of romance between Higgins and Eliza, and he directed the actors accordingly. Tree defied him by having his Higgins display feelings towards Eliza in the final scene. By the 100th performance, which Shaw attended, Tree's Higgins was throwing flowers after Eliza as she exited. Shaw was so incensed that he added a Sequel, a narrative epilogue, to the 1916 publication of the play.
In the Sequel, Shaw laments the popular assumption that Eliza must have married Higgins simply because she is the heroine and he the hero of the story. He states that the true sequel should be obvious if we consider human nature and feminine instinct without succumbing to our desire for happy endings. He then explains that Eliza knows better than to marry Higgins who is "a predestinate old bachelor" and proceeds to tell the story of what really happened.
Eliza did marry Freddy, Shaw writes, and they both moved in with Higgins and Pickering. Eventually the Colonel helped the couple set up a flower shop. After some unprofitable years, the shop, now a combination florist and greengrocer, has become quite successful. Eliza is still very much close to both Higgins and Pickering in spite of the shop and her own family. She is very happy with Freddy, loves the Colonel like a father, and still argues fiercely with Higgins.
Shaw closes with his opinion that Galatea (the name commonly given to the statue that came to life) "never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable."
- ↑ A particular line spoken by Eliza in the scene caused much sensation when the play opened in London. Freddy asks Eliza as they are leaving if she intended to walk across the park, and she replies "Not bloody likely." The expletive, quite scandalous at the time, somehow passed the censors, but the audience laughed so much that the performance was almost disrupted. It also distressed Shaw that the line preoccupied the press and the critics so completely that the serious social questions he raised went unnoticed.
- ↑ The best-remembered ending today, ironically, is the unauthorized version invented for the 1938 film. The ending, substituted without Shaw's knowledge, shows Higgins returning to his laboratory. He is listening to the old recording of Eliza on her first day when Eliza walks in and surprises him. The film ends with Higgins' line, "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" The same ending is used in the musical version of the story My Fair Lady.
- ↑ It may be argued that Shaw himself was to blame for the popular romantic interpretation of the ambiguous ending. In the myth, Galatea marries Pygmalion. Having named the play "Pygmalion", he should have known that people would assume a similar outcome.