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Pygmalion is a comedy about a phonetics expert who, as a kind of social experiment, attempts to make a lady out of an uneducated Cockney flower-girl. Although not as intellectually complex as some of the other plays in Shaw’s “theatre of ideas,” Pygmalion nevertheless probes important questions about social class, human behavior, and relations between the sexes.

Hoping to circumvent what he felt was the tendency of the London press to criticize his plays unfairly, Shaw chose to produce a German translation of Pygmalion in Vienna and Berlin before bringing the play to London. The London critics appreciated the acclaim the play had received overseas, and, after it opened at His Majesty’s Theatre on April 11, 1914, it enjoyed success, firmly establishing Shaw’s reputation as a popular playwright.

Accompanying his subterfuge with the London press, Shaw also plotted to trick his audience out of any prejudicial views they held about the play’s content. This he did by assuming their familiarity with the myth of Pygmalion, from the Greek playwright Ovid’s Metamorphoses, encouraging them to think that Pygmalion was a classical play. He furthered the ruse by directing the play anonymously and casting a leading actress who had never before appeared in a working-class role. In Ovid’s tale, Pygmalion is a man disgusted with real-life women who chooses celibacy and the pursuit of an ideal woman, whom he carves out of ivory. Wishing the statue were real, he makes a sacrifice to Venus, the goddess of love, who brings the statue to life. By the late Renaissance, poets and dramatists began to contemplate the thoughts and feelings of this woman, who woke full-grown in the arms of a lover. Shaw’s central character—the flower girl Liza Doolittle—expresses articulately how her transformation has made her feel, and he adds the additional twist that Liza turns on her “creator” in the end by leaving him.

In addition to the importance of the original Pygmalion myth to Shaw’s play, critics have pointed out the possible influence of other works, such as Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (which similarly involves a gentleman attempting to make a fine lady out of a “coarse” working girl), and a number of plays, including W.S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. Shaw denied borrowing the story directly from any of these sources, but there are traces of them in his play, as there are of the well-known story of Cinderella, and shades of the famous stories of other somewhat vain “creators” whose experiments have unforeseen implications: Faust, Dr. Frankenstein, Svengali.

The play was viewed (thankfully, by many critics) as one of Shaw’s less provocative comedies. Nevertheless, Pygmalion did provoke controversy upon its original production. Somewhat ironically, the cause was an issue of language, around which the plot itself turns: Liza’s use of the word “bloody,” never before uttered on the stage at His Majesty’s Theatre. Even though they were well aware of the controversy from its coverage in the press, the first audiences gasped in surprise, then burst into laughter, at Liza’s spirited rejoinder: “Not bloody likely!”


George Bernard Shaw was born into a poor Protestant family in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856. Despite childhood neglect (his father was an alcoholic), he became one of the most prominent writers of modern Britain. His mother introduced him to music and art at an early age and after 1876, when he moved to London to continue his self-education, she supported him for nine more years. During this period Shaw wrote five unsuccessful novels, then, in 1884, he met William Archer, the prominent journalist and drama critic, who urged him to write plays. Through Archer, Shaw became music critic for a London newspaper. With a strong background in economics and politics, Shaw rose to prominence through the socialist Fabian Society, which he helped organize in 1884. He also established himself as a persuasive orator and became well known as a critic of art, music, and literature. In 1895 he became the drama critic for the Saturday Review.

Shaw’s socialist viewpoint and penetrating wit show through in his journalism, economic and political tracts, and his many plays. An articulate nonconformist, Shaw believed in a spirit he called the Life Force that would help improve and eventually perfect the world. This hope for human and social improvement gave a sense of purpose to much of Shaw’s work and had a broad range of effects across many facets of his life, from his vegetarian diet to his satirizing of social pretensions. It also led to his rebellion against the prevailing idea of “art for art’s sake” (that is, works of art that did not also have an explicit social purpose).

Shaw’s plays were frequently banned by censors or refused production (both their themes and their expansive scope made them difficult to stage), so he sought audiences through open readings and publication. He published his first collection, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, in 1898, which included the combative, “unpleasant” works Widowers’ Houses (his first play), Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and The Philanderer; and the milder, more tongue-in-cheek plays Arms and the Man, Candida, The Man of Destiny, and You Never Can Tell. Also in 1898, Shaw married the wealthy Charlotte Payne-Townsend. The year was a turning point in Shaw’s life, after which he was centrally associated with the intellectual revival of the English theatre.

After the turn of the century, Shaw’s plays gradually began to achieve production and, eventually, acceptance in England. Throughout his long life, his work expressed a mischievous delight in outstripping ponderous intellectual institutions. His subsequent plays include Man and Superman (written from 1901 to 1903), a complex idea play about human capability; John Bull’s Other Island (1904), a satire of British opinions concerning his native Ireland; Major Barbara (1905), a dazzling investigation of social conscience and reform; Pygmalion (1914); Heartbreak House (1920), an anguished allegory of Europe before the First World War;

Back to Methuselah (1922), a legend cycle for Shaw’s “religion” of creative evolution; Saint Joan (1923), a startling historical tragedy; The Apple Cart (1929), one of three later plays Shaw termed “political extravaganzas”; and Buoyant Billions (1948), his last full-length play.

Shaw received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925, which was considered to be the high point of his career (although he was still to write seventeen more plays). In later life, he remained a vigorous symbol of the ageless superman he proclaimed in his works, traveling extensively throughout the world and engaging in intellectual and artistic pursuits. In September, 1950, however, he fell from an apple tree he was pruning, and on November 2 of that year died of complications stemming from the injury.


Act I

The action begins at 11:15 p.m. in a heavy summer rainstorm. An after-theatre crowd takes shelter in the portico of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. A young girl, Clara Eynsford Hill, and her mother are waiting for Clara’s brother Freddy, who looks in vain for an available cab. Colliding into flower peddler Liza Doolittle, Freddy scatters her flowers. After he departs to continue looking for a cab, Liza convinces Mrs. Eynsford Hill to pay for the damaged flowers; she then cons three halfpence from Colonel Pickering. Liza is made aware of the presence of Henry Higgins, who has been writing down every word she has said. Thinking Higgins is a policeman who is going to arrest her for scamming people, Liza becomes hysterical. Higgins turns out, however, to be making a record of her speech for scientific ends. Higgins is an expert in phonetics who claims: “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” Upbraiding Liza for her speech, Higgins boasts that “in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.” Higgins and Pickering eventually trade names and realize they have long wanted to meet each other. They go off to dine together and discuss phonetics. Liza picks up the money Higgins had flung down upon exiting and for once treats herself to a taxi ride home.

Act II

The next morning at 11 a.m. in Higgins’s laboratory, which is full of instruments. Higgins and Pickering receive Liza, who has presented herself at the door. Higgins is taken aback by Liza’s request for lessons from him. She wants to learn to “talk more genteel” so she can be employed in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street. Liza can only offer to pay a shilling per lesson, but Pickering, intrigued by Higgins’s claims the previous night, offers to pay for Liza’s lessons and says of the experiment: “I’ll say you’re the greatest teacher alive if you make that good.” Higgins enthusiastically accepts the bet, though his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, pleads with him to consider what will become of Liza after the experiment. Liza agrees to move into Higgins’s home and goes upstairs for a bath. Meanwhile, Higgins and Pickering are visited by Liza’s father, Doolittle, “an elderly but vigorous dustman.” Rather than demanding to take Liza away, Doolittle instead offers to “let her go” for the sum of five pounds. Higgins is shocked by this offer at first, asking whether Doolittle has any morals, but he is persuaded by Doolittle’s response, that the latter is too poor to afford them. Exiting quickly with his booty, Doolittle does not at first recognize his daughter, who has re-entered, cleaned up and dressed in a Japanese kimono.


The setting is the flat of Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother. Henry bursts in with a flurry of excitement, much to the distress of his mother, who finds him lacking in social graces (she observes that her friends “stop coming whenever they meet you”). Henry explains that he has invited Liza, taking the opportunity for an early test of his progress with Liza’s speech. The Eynsford Hills, guests of Mrs. Higgins, arrive. The discussion is awkward and Henry, true to his mother’s observations, does appear very uncomfortable in company. Liza arrives and, while she speaks with perfect pronunciation and tone, she confuses the guests with many of her topics of conversation and peculiar turns of phrase. Higgins convinces the guests that these, including Liza’s famous exclamation “not bloody likely!” are the latest trend in small talk. After all the guests (including Liza) have left, Mrs. Higgins challenges Henry and Pickering regarding their plans; she is shocked that they have given no thought to Liza’s well-being, for after the conclusion of the experiment she will have no income, only “the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living.” Henry is characteristically flip, stating “there’s no good bothering now. The thing’s done.” Pickering is no more thoughtful than Higgins, and as the two men exit, Mrs. Higgins expresses her exasperation.

A following scene, the most important of the “optional” scenes Shaw wrote for the film version of Pygmalion—and included in later editions of the play—takes place at an Embassy party in London. Higgins is nervous that Nepommuck, a Hungarian interpreter and his former student, will discover his ruse and expose Liza as an aristocratic imposter. Nepommuck, ironically, accuses Liza not of faking her social class, but her nationality. He is convinced Liza must be Hungarian and of noble blood, for she speaks English “too perfectly,” and “only foreigners who have been taught to speak it speak it well.” Higgins is victorious, but finds little pleasure in having outwitted such foolish guests.

Act IV

Midnight, in Henry’s laboratory. Higgins, Pickering, and Liza return from the party. Higgins loudly bemoans the evening:“What a crew! What a silly tomfoolery!” Liza grows more and more frustrated as he continues to complain (“Thank God it’s over!”), not paying attention to her or acknowledging her role in his triumph. Complaining about not being able to find his slippers, Higgins does not observe Liza retrieving them and placing them directly by him. She controls her anger as Higgins and Pickering exit, but when Higgins storms back in, still wrathfully looking for his slippers, Liza hurls them at him with all her might. She derides Higgins for his selfishness and demands of him, “What’s to become of me?” Higgins tries to convince her that her irritation is “only imagination,” that she should “go to bed like a good girl and sleep it off.” Higgins gradually understands Liza’s economic concern (that she cannot go back to selling flowers, but has no other future), but he can only awkwardly suggest marriage to a rich man as a solution. Liza criticizes the subjugation that Higgins’s suggestion implies: “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.” Liza infuriates Higgins by rejecting him, giving him back the rented jewels she wears, and a ring he had bought for her. He angrily throws the ring in the fireplace and storms out.

In the next important “optional scene,” Liza has left Higgins’s home and comes upon Freddy, who, infatuated with the former flower girl, has recently been spending most of his nights gazing up at Liza’s window. They fall into each other’s arms, but their passionate kisses are interrupted first by one constable, then another, and another. Liza suggests they jump in a taxi,“and drive about all night; and in the morning I’ll call on old Mrs Higgins and ask her what I ought to do.”

Act V

Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room, the next day. Henry and Pickering arrive and while they are downstairs phoning the police about Liza’s disappearance, Mrs. Higgins asks the chambermaid to warn Liza, taking shelter upstairs, not to come down. Mrs. Higgins scolds Henry and Pickering for their childishness and the careless manner in which they treated another human. The arrival of Alfred Doolittle is announced; he enters dressed fashionably as a bridegroom, but in an agitated state, casting accusations at Higgins. Doolittle explains at length how by a deed of Henry’s he has come into a regular pension. His lady companion will now marry him, but still he is miserable. Where he once could “put the touch” on anyone for drinking money, now everyone comes to him, demanding favors and monetary support. At this point, Mrs. Higgins reveals that Liza is upstairs, again criticizing Henry for his unthoughtful behavior towards the

girl. Mrs. Higgins calls Liza down, asking Doolittle to step out for a moment to delay the shock of the news he brings. Liza enters, politely cool towards Henry. She thanks Pickering for all the respect he has shown her since their first meeting: calling her Miss Doolittle, removing his hat, opening doors. “The difference,” Liza concludes,“between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.”

At this point, Doolittle returns. He and Liza are re-united, and all the characters (excepting Henry) prepare to leave to see Doolittle married. Liza and Higgins are left alone. Higgins argues that he didn’t treat Liza poorly because she was a flower girl but because he treats everyone the same. He defends his behavior by attacking traditional social graces as absurd: “You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers,” he says. Liza declares that since Higgins gave no thought to her future, she will marry Freddy and support herself by teaching phonetics, perhaps assisting Nepommuck. Higgins grows furious at Liza and “lays his hands on her.” He quickly regrets doing so and expresses appreciation of Liza’s newfound independence. At the play’s curtain he remains incorrigible, however, cheerfully assuming that Liza will continue to manage his household details as she had done during her days of instruction with him.



See Miss Clara Eynsford Hill


See Alfred Doolittle

Alfred Doolittle

Alfred is Liza’s father, whom Shaw describes as “an elderly but vigorous dustman. . . . He has well marked and rather interesting features, and seems equally free from fear or conscience. He has a remarkably expressive voice, the result of a habit of giving vent to his feelings without reserve.” Doolittle describes himself as the “undeserving poor,” who need just as much as the deserving but never get anything because of the disapproval of middle-class morality. Nevertheless, he is a skilled moocher who is capable of finessing loans from the most miserly of people. He is miserable when he comes into money during the course of the play, however, because people then come with hopes of borrowing money.

Eliza Doolittle

A cockney flower girl of around 18 or 20 years of age, Eliza is streetwise and energetic. She is not educated by traditional standards, but she is intelligent and a quick learner. As she presents herself in her “shoddy coat” at Higgins’s laboratory, Shaw describes the “pathos of this deplorable figure, with its innocent vanity and consequential air.” She learns a genteel accent from Higgins and, washed and dressed exquisitely, passes in society for a Duchess. In this transformed state, she is shown to be capable of inspiring awe in the observer. While she wins Higgins’s wager for him, she is shocked to find him lose interest in her once the experiment is complete; she cannot believe that he’s given no thought to her future well-being. Pickering, by having been polite to her from the very beginning, provides a contrast, from which Liza is able to realize that “the difference between a lady and a


  • Pygmalion was adapted as a film produced by Gabriel Pascal, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, starring Howard and Wendy Hiller; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938. The film received Academy Awards for Shaw’s screenplay and for the adaptation by Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, and W. P. Lipscomb.
  • Pygmalion was also filmed for American television, directed by George Schaefer for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, starring Julie Harris and James Donald, adapted by Robert Hartung; Compass, 1963.
  • The play has also been produced in audio recordings. In 1972 Peter Wood directed a recording starring Michael Redgrave, Donald Pleasence, and Lynn Redgrave (Caedmon TRS 354). In 1974, the play was recorded in association with the British Council, starring Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg (Argo SAY 28).
  • Pygmalion was also adapted into the musical My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. An original cast recording was released in 1959, starring Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Stanley Holloway (CK 2015 Columbia).
  • My Fair Lady was made into a film in 1964, produced by Jack L. Warner and directed by George Cukor, starring Audrey Hepburn as Liza with Rex Harrison reprising his stage role of Higgins. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and received eight. It is considered a film classic in the musical genre.

flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.” She learns from Higgins’s behavior an even deeper truth, that social graces and class are not the true measure of a person’s worth.

Miss Doolittle

See Eliza Doolittle


See Frederick Eynsford Hill

Henry Higgins

Henry Higgins is an expert in phonetics and the author of “Higgins’s Universal Alphabet.” Shaw describes him as “a robust, vital, appetizing sort of man of forty or thereabouts. . . .He is of the energetic, scientific type, heartily, even violently interested in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject, and careless about himself and other people, including their feelings. . . . His manner varies from genial bullying. . . to stormy petulance. . . but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments.” In his book Shaw: The Plays, Desmond MacCarthy observed that “Higgins is called a professor of phonetics, but he is really an artist—that is the interesting thing about him, and his character is a study of the creative temperament.”

For many, this temperament is a difficult one. His housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, observes of Higgins that “when you get what you called interested in people’s accents, you never think of what may happen to them or you.” Certainly, Higgins gives no thought to Liza’s future after his experiment, and when he gradually loses interest in it, he seems, at least from her perspective, to have disposed of her as well. He is shaken by the independence Liza demonstrates and thus by the end of the play is able to show a kind of respect to her. It is on such terms and presented in such a way, however, that a romantic ending between himself and Liza is never really feasible.

Mrs. Higgins

Henry’s mother, a generous and gracious woman. She is frequently exasperated by her son’s lack of manners and completely sympathizes with Liza when the girl leaves Higgins and takes shelter with her. She is perceptive and intelligent, and capable of putting Henry in his place. It is indicative of Mrs. Higgins’s character that after the conflict between her son and Liza, both characters choose to come to her for guidance.

Frederick Eynsford Hill

Freddy is an upper-class young man of around 20, somewhat weak although eager and good-natured. Proper and upstanding, he is infatuated with Liza and thoroughly devoted to her both before and after she takes shelter with him in an all-night cab after leaving Higgins. Liza claims to be going back to him at the end of the play, an idea which Higgins finds preposterous. Freddy does not have the money to support them both (and from Liza’s perspective seems unfit for difficult work), which prompts her idea to earn a living by teaching phonetics.

Miss Clara Eynsford Hill

A pampered socialite of around 20, she is somewhat gullible and easily disgusted. Shaw writes that she “has acquired a gay air of being very much at home in society; the bravado of genteel poverty.” Her social position is not secured, however, and this anxiety drives much of her behavior.

Mrs. Eynsford Hill

The middle-aged mother of Freddy and Clara, whom Shaw describes as “well-bred, quiet” and having “the habitual anxiety of straitened means.” She is acutely aware of social decorum and highly invested in finding proper spouses for her two children.


See Eliza Doolittle


Higgins’s first pupil and later his dupe, a Hungarian of around 30. The mustachioed interpreter, according to Higgins, “can learn a language in a fortnight—knows dozens of them. A sure mark of a fool. As a phonetician, no good whatever.” He is completely fooled by Liza’s performance as a lady of high society and declares that she must be a European duchess.

Mrs. Pearce

Higgins’s middle-class housekeeper. Very practical, she can be severe and is not afraid of reproaching Higgins for his lack of social graces. She is conscious of proper behavior and of her position, and quite proud. She is taken aback by the seeming impropriety of Liza coming into the Higgins household but quickly develops a bond with the girl, often defending her from Higgins.


See Colonel Pickering


See Colonel Pickering

Colonel Pickering

A phonetics expert like Higgins, this “elderly gentleman of the amiable military type,” meets the latter in a rainstorm at the St. Paul’s Church. The “author of Spoken Sanskrit,” Pickering excels in the Indian dialects because of his experience in the British colonies there. Courteous and generous, as well as practical and sensible, he never views Liza as just a flower girl and treats her with the respect due a lady of society.“I assure you,” he responds to a challenge by Mrs. Higgins, “we take Eliza very seriously.” Open-hearted, he finds it easy to sympathize with others and, decidedly unlike Higgins, is conscience-stricken when he fears he’s hurt Liza.


Appearances and Reality

Pygmalion examines this theme primarily through the character of Liza, and the issue of personal identity (as perceived by oneself or by others). Social roles in the Victorian era were viewed as natural and largely fixed: there was perceived to be something inherently, fundamentally unique about a noble versus an unskilled laborer and vice versa. Liza’s ability to fool society about her “real” identity raises questions about appearances. The importance of appearance and reality to the theme of Pygmalion is suggested by Liza’s famous observation: “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference


  • Research the history of phonetics and speech as a subject of study; does Shaw’s depiction of the scientific interests of his character Higgins seem to have been well-grounded in historical precedent?
  • Compare and contrast the ways in which both Liza and her father are thrust into the middle class (she through learning to speak “properly,” he through obtaining money), and why each is not comfortable in it. Through these characters, what does Shaw seem to be saying about class distinctions?
  • Contrast Colonel Pickering and Henry Higgins in terms of manners and behavior. What are the implications of their very different treatments of Liza?
  • Research the social position of women in early twentieth-century Britain (economic opportunities, cultural conventions, legal rights), and use this information to explain further why Liza is so concerned about her future following the conclusion of Higgins’s “experiment.”

between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”


In Pygmalion, Shaw interrogates beauty as a subjective value. One’s perception of beauty in another person is shown to be a highly complex matter, dependent on a large number of (not always aesthetic) factors. Liza, it could be argued, is the same person from the beginning of the play to the end, but while she is virtually invisible to Freddy as a Cockney-speaking flower merchant, he is totally captivated by what he perceives as her beauty and grace when she is presented to him as a lady of society.

Change and Transformation

The transformation of Liza is, of course, central to the plot and theme of Pygmalion. The importance at first appears to rest in the power Higgins expresses by achieving this transformation. “But you have no idea,” he says, “how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.” As the play unfolds, however, the focus shifts so that the effects of the change upon Liza become central. The truly important transformation Liza goes through is not the adoption of refined speech and manners but the learning of independence and a sense of inner self-worth that allows her to leave Higgins.


The indeterminacy of appearance and reality in Pygmalion reveals the significant examination of identity in the play. Shaw investigates conflicts between differing perceptions of identity and depicts the end result of Higgins’s experiment as a crisis of identity for Liza. Liza’s transformation is glorious but painful, as it leaves her displaced between her former social identity and a new one, which she has no income or other resources to support. Not clearly belonging to a particular class, Liza no longer knows who she is.

Language and Meaning

In an age of growing standardization of what was known as “the Queen’s English,” Pygmalion points to a much wider range of varieties of spoken English. Shaw believed characteristics of social identity such as one’s refinement of speech were completely subjective ones, as his play suggests. While Shaw himself hated poor speech and the varieties of dialect and vocabulary could present obstructions to conveying meaning, nevertheless the play suggests that the real richness of the English language is in the variety of individuals who speak it. As for the dialect or vocabulary of any one English variety, such as Cockney, its social value is determined in Pygmalion completely by the context in which it is assessed. While Liza’s choice of words as a Cockney flower merchant would be thought as absurd as her accent, they are later perceived by the mannered Eynsford Hill family to be the latest trend, when they are thought to emanate from a person of noble breeding.

Sex Roles

Sex and gender have a great deal to do with the dynamics between Liza and Higgins, including the sexual tension between them that many audience members would have liked to see fulfilled through a romantic union between them. In Liza’s difficult case, what are defined as her options are clearly a limited subset of options available to a woman. As Mrs. Higgins observes, after the conclusion of the experiment Liza will have no income, only “the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living.” To this problem Higgins can only awkwardly suggest marriage to a rich man as a solution. Liza makes an astute observation about Higgins’s suggestion, focusing on the limited options available to a woman: “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

Ubermensch (“Superman”)

Shaw’s belief in the Life Force and the possibility of human evolution on an individual or social level led him to believe also in the possibility of the Superman, a realized individual living to the fullest extent of his or her capacity. (The naming of the concept is credited to the influential German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 1844-1900). Shaw addresses the topic explicitly in his play Man and Superman and in many other works, but he also approaches it in Pygmalion. Higgins, for example, represents the height of scientific achievement in his field, though he may be too flawed as an individual to continue evolving towards a superhuman level. Liza, proving herself capable of one type of transformation, also makes an important step towards self-awareness and self-realization, which for Shaw is the beginning of almost endless possibilities for personal development.

Wealth and Poverty

One of the many subjects under examination in Pygmalion is class consciousness, a concept first given name in 1887. Shaw’s play, like so many of his writings, examines both the realities of class and its subjective markers. The linguistic signals of social identity, for example, are simultaneously an issue of class. Economic issues are central to Liza’s crisis at the conclusion of Higgins’s experiment, for she lacks the means to maintain the standard of living he and Pickering enjoy. Doolittle’s unforeseen rise into the middle class similarly allows Shaw to examine wealth and poverty. Though Doolittle fears the workhouse he’s not happy with his new class identity, either; Shaw injects humor through Doolittle’s surprising (according to traditional class values) distaste for his new status.


Plotting with a Purpose

In Pygmalion’s plot, Higgins, a phonetics expert, makes a friendly bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can transform the speech and manners of Liza, a common flower girl, and present her as a lady to fashionable society. He succeeds, but Liza gains independence in the process, and leaves her former tutor because he is incapable of responding to her needs.

Pygmalion has a tightly-constructed plot, rising conflict, and other qualities of the “well-made play,” a popular form at the time. Shaw, however, revolutionized the English stage by disposing of other conventions of the well-made play; he discarded its theatrical dependence on prolonging and then resolving conflict in a sometimes contrived manner for a theater of ideas grounded in realism. Shaw was greatly influenced by Henrik Ibsen, who he claimed as a forerunner to his theatre of discussion or ideas. Ibsen’s A Doll House, Shaw felt, was an example of how to end a play indeterminately, leading the audience to reflect upon character and theme, rather than simply entertaining them with a neatly-resolved conclusion.

Intellect vs. Entertainment

Shaw broke both with the predominant intellectual principle of his day, that of “art for art’s sake,” as well as with the popular notion that the purpose of the theatre was strictly to entertain. Refusing to write a single sentence for the sake of either art or entertainment alone, Shaw openly declared that he was for a theater which preached to its audience on social issues. Edward Wagenknecht wrote in A Guide to Bernard Shaw that Shaw’s plays “are not plays: they are tracts in dramatic form.” He further reflected a popular perception of Shaw’s plays as intellectual exercises by stating that Shaw “has created one great character—G.B.S. [George Bernard Shaw]—and in play after play he performs infinite variations upon it.” Thus, in his day Shaw was viewed as succeeding despite his dramatic technique rather than because of it. Wagenknecht again: “it is amazing that a man whose theory of art is so patently wrong should have achieved such a place as Shaw has won.”

Though his plays do tend towards ideological discussion rather than dramatic tension, Shaw succeeded because he nevertheless understood what made a play theatrical, wrote scintillating dialogue, and always created rich, complex characters in the center of a philosophically complex drama. Among his character creations are some of the greatest in the modern theatre, especially the women: Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Liza Doolittle. Also, Shaw’s deep belief in the need for social improvement did not prevent him from having a wry sense of humor, an additional component of his dramatic technique which helped his plays, Pygmalion most predominantly, bridge a gap between popular and intellectual art.


In calling Pygmalion a romance (its subtitle is “A Romance in Five Acts”), Shaw was referencing a well-established literary form (not usually employed in theatre), to which Pygmalion does not fully conform. (Shaw was aiming to provoke thought by designating his play thusly.) The term romance does not imply, as it was misinterpreted to mean by many of Shaw’s contemporaries, a romantic element between Liza and Higgins. Since the middle ages, romances have been distinguished from more realistic forms by their exotic, exaggerated narratives, and their idealized characters and themes. Shaw playfully suggests Pygmalion is a romance because of the almost magical transformations which occur in the play and the idealized qualities to which the characters aspire.


World War I

Nineteen-fourteen, the year of Pygmalion’s London premiere, marked tremendous changes in British society. On July 28, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, setting off an international conflict due to a complicated set of alliances which had developed in Europe. Within two weeks, this conflict had erupted into a world war (known in Britain at the time as the “Great War”). By the end of World War I (as it came to be known later), 8.5 million people had been killed and 21 million wounded, including significant civilian casualties. The war constituted the most intense physical, economic and psychological assault on European society in its history; Britain was not alone in experiencing devastating effects on its national morale and other aspects of society.

It is ironic, Eldon C. Hill wrote in George Bernard Shaw, that Pygmalion, “written partly to demonstrate that language (phonetics particularly) could contribute to understanding among men, should be closed because of the outbreak of World War I.” The war brought out Shaw’s compassion, as well as his disgust with the European societies that would tolerate the destruction of so many lives. When the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell informed Shaw of the death of her son in battle, he replied that he could not be sympathetic, but only furious: “Killed just because people are blasted fools,” Hill quoted the playwright saying. To Shaw, the war only demonstrated more clearly the need for human advancement on an individual and social level, to reach a level of understanding that would prevent such tragic devastation.

Colonialism and the British Empire

In 1914 Great Britain was very much still a colonial power, but while victory in the First World War actually increased the size of the British Empire, the war itself simultaneously accelerated the development of nationalism and autonomy in the provinces. Even before the war, British pride in its Empire had reached a climax prior to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and the brutalities of the Boer War (1899-1902), fought to assert Britain’s authority in South Africa. Still, British society proudly proclaimed that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” and believed in Britain’s providential mission in geographies as widely diverse as Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, India, Burma, Egypt,


  • 1910s: Women in Britain do not have the right to vote, and their opportunities for education and employment remain limited.

    Today: Since 1928, all women over the age of 21 have had the right to vote in Britain. The direct participation of women in government continues to be more limited than that of men, although the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 set an important precedent. Women were admitted to full admission at Oxford in 1920 and to Cambridge University in 1948. Women make up a much larger portion of the work force than they did at the turn of the century, and although their compensation and employment opportunities continue to lag behind those of men, the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and other measures have addressed this issue. It is no longer the case that a women’s natural role is widely assumed to be limited to domestic work.

  • 1910s: With industrialization and legislative reform beginning a process of diversification, Britain’s society is still rigidly hierarchical, with a tradition of a landed aristocracy and a pyramid of descending ranks and degrees. In 1911, the power of the royally-appointed House of Lords in Parliament to veto the legislation of the democratically-elected House of Commons is reduced to a power to delay legislation.

    Today: The political power of royalty and the nobility has been greatly reduced through a process of legislative reform. While titles of nobility remain, Britain’s society remains stratified primarily by wealth rather than rank. While the middle class grew considerably throughout the century and there was significant growth in economic indicators such as owner-occupation of homes, sharp divisions between rich and poor persist in Britain. With the growth of the technical institutes, the “polytechnics,” the expansion of the university system after World War II greatly increased opportunities for higher education in the country.

  • 1910s: Despite the promotion of a standard “Queen’s English,” beginning in the Victorian era, the British Isles—even London itself—is marked by a wide diversity of spoken English. The diversity of British population (including its varieties of English) was further shaped by large-scale immigration, by Irish beginning in the 1830s, Germans in the 1840s, Scandinavians in the 1870s, and Eastern Europeans in the 1880s.

    Today: The diversity of English culture—especially in London and the major cities—has been further increased, along with the diversity of English dialects, by twentieth-century immigration from Britain’s colonies and former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, and the Far East.

  • 1910s: Europe is devastated by the 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded in “the Great War” (World War I), including unprecedented levels of civilian casualties. Britain was not alone in experiencing the most intense physical, economic, and psychological assault in its history.

    Today: The specter of civilian death leads to a realization that modern warfare potentially endangers the future of the entire nation. This feeling has been accentuated since the end of World War II by the threat of nuclear destruction. Much more so than at the beginning of the century, citizens have come to perceive war and the necessity of avoiding it as their business, and they often try to impact their government’s policies to this end. Shaw’s position against war, still somewhat radical in his day, has become much more common.

the Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, and numerous other islands throughout the Caribbean, and Canada.

In addition to providing a symbolic unity to the Empire, the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) also gave coherence to British society at home, through a set of values known as Victorianism. Victorian values revolved around social high-mindedness (a Christian sense of charity and service), domesticity (most education and entertainment occurred in the home, but children, who “should be seen and not heard,” were reared with a strict hand) and a confidence in the expansion of knowledge and the power of reasoned argument to change society. By the time of Victoria’s death, many of the more traditional mid-Victorian values were already being challenged, as was the class structure upon which many of these values depended. Victorianism, however, survived in a modified form through the reign of Victoria’s son, Edward. 1914, the year of Pygmalion and the onset of the Great War, constituted a much different kind of break, symbolic and social.


The growth of industrialization throughout the nineteenth century had a tremendous impact on the organization of British society, which had (much more so than the United States) a tradition of a landed aristocracy and a more hierarchical class system—a pyramid of descending ranks and degrees. Allowing for the growth of a merchant middle class, industrialization changed British society into a plutocracy—an aristocracy of money more than land. Social mobility, however, still did not widely extend into the lower classes, propagating a lack of opportunity reflected in Liza’s anxiety over what is to happen to her following Higgins’s experiment.

Industrialization brought about a demographic shift throughout the nineteenth century, with more and more agricultural laborers coming to seek work in the cities. Unskilled laborers like the Doolittles competed for limited employment amid the poverty of the inner city and were largely at the mercy of employers. Increased health standards combated urban crises like tuberculosis and cholera, but slum conditions and rampant urban poverty remained a major social problem after the turn of the century. Pygmalion suggests the subjectivity of class identity, and the rapid deterioration of many pre-industri-al social structures, but strict class distinctions of another kind nevertheless persisted. This fact is suggested by the severely disproportionate distribution of wealth in Britain at the time: during the years 1911-1913, the top 1% of the population controlled 65.5% of the nation’s capital. The poorest of the poor, meanwhile, were often forced into workhouses, institutions which had been developed in the 17th century to employ paupers and the indigent at profitable work. Conditions in the workhouses differed little from prisons; they were deliberately harsh and degrading in order to discourage the poor from relying upon them. Conditions in the workhouses improved later in the 19th century but were still unpleasant enough that fear of going to one, for example, causes Doolittle in Pygmalion to accept his new position in the middle class even though it is displeasing to him for other reasons.

The Rise of Women and the Working Classes

During the decade which produced Pygmalion, the political power of the working class increased greatly, through massive increases in trade union membership. Bitter class divisions gave rise to waves of strikes and disturbances, including a major railway strike in 1911, a national miners’ strike in 1912, and the “Triple Alliance” of miners, railway, and transport workers in 1914. A new political party, Labour, came into existence in 1893, advancing an eight-hour work day and other workplace reforms. Meanwhile, reforms to laws concerning suffrage, the right to vote, further brought men (and later, women) of the working class into Britain’s ever-more participatory democracy. Suffrage (the right to vote) had in Britain always been based on requirements of property ownership, reflecting the contemporary idea that only landowners were considered reasoned and informed enough to vote but also that they would do so in the best interest of those in the classes below them. These property requirements were gradually relaxed throughout the nineteenth century, gradually increasing the size of the male electorate.

Only after many years of political struggle by organizations of women known as “suffragettes” did women achieve the right to vote: first in 1918 for women over 30 who also met a requirement of property ownership, then extended in 1928 to all women over the age of 21 (as was already the case for men). Increased political participation further prompted a shift in sex roles: British society had already noted the phenomenon of “the new woman,” and was to see further changes such as increasing numbers of women in the work force, as well as reforms to divorce laws and other impacts upon domestic life.


Building upon the acclaim Pygmalion had received from German-language production and publication, the original English production of the play at His Majesty’s Theatre was likewise a success, securing Shaw’s reputation as a popular playwright. Still, contemporary reviews of Pygmalion are mixed, revealing the somewhat prejudicial views English critics continue to hold towards Shaw’s work. For example, an unsigned review in the Westminster Gazette, reprinted in Shaw: The Critical Heritage, criticized many aspects of the production but had qualified praise for the play, “a puzzling work.” Aware that Shaw usually “does not use the drama merely as a vehicle for telling stories,” the critic expressed a curiosity about what “the foundation idea” of Pygmalion might be. “Curiosity, in the present instance,” however, “remains unsatisfied. There are plenty of ideas, but none is predominant.”

Alex M. Thompson, meanwhile, wrote in a review in the Clarion that “Britain’s most famous playwright has won his place at last on the stage of Britain’s most famous playhouse” but regretted that “while the great playwright’s really significant plays” were wasted through production elsewhere, “the play admitted to our classic shrine is one whose purpose, according to the author himself, is ‘to boil the pot.’” H. W. Massingham, in a review for the Nation, declared that “there is a fault in the piece as well as in its production,” namely that Shaw “observes too coldly”: in pursuing the clash of wits, the excitement of argument, he obscures real beauty and affection. Shaw, somewhat like Higgins, “hides his spirituality or his tenderness under a mask of coarseness,” to the extent that he “has failed to show his audience precisely what he meant.”

The sensation caused by Shaw’s use of the mild profanity “bloody” (breaking with tradition at His Majesty’s Theatre) went a long way to ensure the publicity for Pygmalion, but many critics found the language of the play shocking. T. F. Evans commented in his notes for Shaw: The Critical Heritage, that “[it] is almost impossible . . . to assess accurately the critical response to the play itself because of the totally disproportionate amount of space, time and attention that was given to the use by Shaw . . . of the word ‘bloody’. . . . Some critics who might have been expected to give largely favourable comments on the play seem to have allowed the use of the adjective to affect them.” By 1938, however, the year Pygmalion was made into a movie, Shaw’s text was still dramatic and challenging but much of the shock had faded. Of the film version, Desmond MacCarthy observed in Shaw: The Plays that “‘bloody’ still gets its laugh, but it no longer releases the roar that greets the crash of a taboo.”

In his 1929 study A Guide to Bernard Shaw, Edward Wagenknecht demonstrated the delicate balance many critical interpretations of Shaw in that era tried to maintain, explaining how Shaw had succeeded despite breaking many established conventions of dramatic art. Shaw “revolted” against deeply-held ideas that literature is writing which supersedes a specific purpose other than to communicate life experience, and is not didactic. “It is amazing,” Wagenknecht wrote, “that a man whose theory of art is so patently wrong should have achieved such a place as Shaw has won.”

By the end of Shaw’s life, his status as perhaps the greatest single English dramatist since Shakespeare was secure, but nevertheless critical opinion on him appeared mixed and in many cases prejudiced. Eric Bentley wrote in his book Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, that in reviewing the already voluminous writing on Shaw, “I found praise, but most of it naive or invidious. I found blame, but most of it incoherent and scurrilous.” Perhaps Shaw’s complexity of thought provoked these mixed (and largely unsatisfying) critical assessments, to the extent that to some critics “Shaw, the champion of will and feeling, is an arch-irrationalist,” but to others “Shaw, the champion and incarnation of intellect, is the arch-rationalist.” In Pygmalion Bentley found a play of “singularly elegant structure . . . a good play by perfectly orthodox standards” needing “no theory to defend it.”

In his summary of the play’s merits, Bentley avoided the tendency of earlier critics to distinguish sharply between various aspects of Shaw’s work, instead celebrating the intimate connection between them. Pygmalion, he wrote, “is Shavian, not in being made up of political or philosophic discussions, but in being based on the standard conflict of vitality and system, in working out this conflict through an inversion of romance, in bringing matters to a head in a battle of wills and words, in having an inner psychological action in counterpoint to the outer romantic action . . . in delighting and surprising us with a constant flow of verbal music and more than verbal wit.” Bentley’s modern assessment of the complexity of Shaw’s political thought and dramatic method established a precedent for much Shavian criticism of the last fifty years.

Beginning immediately with the first English production of Pygmalion, a popular debate developed as to whether there should have been a romantic ending between Higgins and Liza. Shaw insisted that such an ending would have been misery for his characters but producers and audiences nevertheless tended to prefer a romantic ending. MacCarthy expressed the sentiments of many when he wrote about the original production “when the curtain fell on the mutual explanations of this pair [Higgins and Liza] I was in a fever to see it rise on Acts VI and VII; I wanted to see those two living together.”

When the play was first published in 1916, Shaw added an afterword which recounted what Liza did after leaving Higgins and was intended to show to audiences that there was to be “no sentimental nonsense” about the possibility of Higgins and Liza being lovers. The English-language film of Pygmalion gave Shaw another opportunity to remove “virtually every suggestion of Higgins’s possible romantic interest in Liza.” He was to discover, however, at a press show two days before the film’s premiere, that the director had hired other screenwriters who added a “sugar-sweet ending” in which Higgins and Liza are united as lovers. MacCarthy commented in 1938 that the effect of the changes in the film version “is merely that of a wish fulfillment love story of a poor girl who became a lady and married the man who made her one.” He observes that the difference is “due to a peculiarity inherent in the art of cinema itself (a need for closure), and that the changed ending is no doubt what accounts for the film’s “immense popularity.”


Christopher Busiel

Busiel is an English instructor at the University of Texas. His essay considers Shaw’s play within the context of his other great works.

Like all of Shaw’s great dramatic creations, Pygmalion is a richly complex play. It combines a central story of the transformation of a young woman with elements of myth, fairy tale, and romance, while also combining an interesting plot with an exploration of social identity, the power of science, relations between men and women, and other issues. Change is central to the plot and theme of the play, which of course revolves around Higgins’s transformation of Liza from a flower-girl who speaks a coarse Cockney dialect (a manner of speech which he says will “keep her in the gutter to the end of her days”) into a lady who passes as a duchess in genteel society. The importance of transformation in Pygmalion at first appears to rest upon the power Higgins expresses by achieving his goal. “But you have no idea,” he says, drawing attention to his talent,“how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her.”

But where does the real transformation occur in Liza? Much more important than her new powers of speech, ultimately, is the independence she gains after the conclusion of Higgins’s “experiment.” Charles A. Berst noted in his study Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama that Shaw omitted from Pygmalion the scene of the ball at the Ambassador’s mansion where Liza shows herself as the triumph of Higgins’s art. The reason Shaw does so is “because the emphasis here is not on the fairy-tale climax of the triumphant ‘test’ . . . but on the social and personal ramifications of the real world to which Eliza must adjust after the test.” In short, Liza realizes Higgins’s lack of concern at her unsure future, and she turns on her “creator,” leaving him.

Higgins’s successful transformation of Liza contradicts the class rigidity of Victorian and Edwardian society, demonstrating Shaw’s belief in the highly subjective construction of social identities. A proponent of a school of thought known as Fabianism, Shaw believed firmly in the power of individuals to transform, to improve themselves. Drawing on a power Shaw called the Life Force, human beings could both evolve to the full extent of their capabilities and collectively turn to the task of transforming society. Eric Bentley wrote in Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950 that “Fabianism begins and ends as an appeal—emotionally based—for social justice.” In the Fabian perspective, social systems are changeable and need to change. Shaw introduced his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism by encouraging the reader to “clear your mind of the fancy with which we all begin as children, that the institutions under which we live, including our legal ways of distributing income and allowing people to own things, are natural, like the


  • Major Barbara, another of Shaw’s plays, first produced in 1905, and considered his first major work. It explores the ideological conflict between “Major” Barbara Undershaft, who strives to lift up the poor through her untiring effort with the Salvation Army, and her father, Sir Andrew Undershaft, a fabulously wealthy arms manufacturer. Both achievers represent Shaw’s theory of the Life Force, or human advancement through “creative evolution.” The play explores the question of whose actions better serve society, Barbara’s or those of her father, who provides a comfortable existence for his employees but can only do so through his profiting by the destruction of human life. Similar to Pygmalion (and many of Shaw’s other plays), the action revolves around a strong, independent female character and explores issues of class, social identity, and human worth.
  • The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. A significant example of Shaw’s political writing, one which examines many themes central to Pygmalion. The text demonstrates Shaw’s firm, lifelong belief that only members of a socialist society—with collective ownership of wealth and equal opportunity for all—could look forward to the future with hope. Writing ten years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Shaw viewed that experiment as a failure (recognizing the developing trend towards totalitarianism in the Soviet state). In general, Shaw looked with hope not to revolution but to a democratic transition to socialism, a truly collective evolution towards an equitable society. That “the intelligent woman” was his audience for the work was a deliberate choice; Shaw was particularly concerned with the exploitation of women, both through their unpaid but crucial domestic labor and their limited and underpaid positions in the work force. “Our whole commercial system,” he wrote, “is rooted . . . in cheap female labour.” Shaw perceived the special need during his era to increase educational and employment opportunities for women. This text is of a significant length but has an encyclopedic structure.
  • Plays and Players: Essays on the Theatre, edited by A. C. Ward (Oxford University Press, 1952); and Shaw on the Theatre, edited by E. J. West (Hill and Wang, 1958). These volumes compile a number of Shaw’s extensive writings on the theatre (commenting on both the plays and productions of his own career, as well as on other playwrights such as Shakespeare and Ibsen.)
  • Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: Their Correspondence, edited by Alan Dent (Knopf, 1962). The compiled correspondence between Shaw and the actress who created the part of Liza in the English premiere. Shaw also wrote Caesar and Cleopatra for her and the actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson, though she never performed in it. Pygmalion is discussed extensively.
  • The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil (Viking Penguin, 1986; revised, 1992). A companion book to a public-television series (available on video at most libraries) about the history of English: its historical development out of Germanic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon roots; its transition from an early, to a middle and then a modern form; and its unprecedented spread throughout the world through British colonialism and emigration (approximately 1 billion people worldwide speak it as a first or second language). Students interested in Shaw’s exploration of issues of speech and dialect in Pygmalion will be especially interested in this book, which further examines the seemingly innumerable varieties of spoken English throughout the world. This text examines how standards of “the Queen’s English” developed in the Victorian era, and how social identities were constructed based on variations from this standard. The Cockney of Liza Doolittle, among numerous varieties in the British Isles, is given close attention. The Story of English provides the basis of valuable discussion on topics such as: what constitutes “Standard” English? What is a dialect? An accent? In what ways is dialect still a mark of social position?

weather. They are not. . . . They are in fact transient makeshifts; and many of them would not be obeyed, even by well-meaning people, if there were not a policeman within call and a prison within reach. They are being changed constantly by Parliament because we are never satisfied with them.”

As a Fabian, Shaw believed in human improvement and evolution as the key to social transformation. What Liza learns by breaking free of Higgins’s influence is an independence of thought Shaw believed was a crucial component of personal evolution. Berst emphasized the importance of this process by which “a soul awakens to true self-realization.” Having shown that there are no hard and fast rules for social identity, Shaw does not allow his leading character to remain limited within a society in which she can only marry for money. Liza identifies such an arrangement as a kind of prostitution, an explicit example of how, as Bentley summarized, in a culture built around “buying and selling the vast mass of the population has nothing to sell but itself.” Instead, Shaw has Liza break free—into an uncertain future to be sure but one in which she will work, struggle, and, hopefully, prosper as an independent woman.

Shaw did not believe in the sense of innate inequality which dominated British society around the turn of the century, in the supposedly natural divisions between classes based on built-in qualities of character. Instead, he believed in the power of “nurture” over “nature,” and the “conditioning effects of social circumstance,” as discussed by Lynda Mugglestone in the Review of English Studies. Though Liza appears rough on the edges to the standards of Edwardian society, she has self-respect, pride, ambition, and a sense of humor—all qualities which help her mature to the independence she achieves by the play’s end. That Liza has such great success mastering the speech of a duchess suggests that all people are fundamentally of equal worth, that the social differences between them are merely the result of different levels of opportunity (financial and otherwise). In Shaw’s view, meanwhile, a Socialist society would mean “equal rights and opportunities for all,” a definition he gave in a Fabian pamphlet published in 1890.

As Mugglestone wrote, Eliza’s education in the ways that the English upper classes act and speak provides an opportunity for the playwright to explore “the very foundations of social equality and inequality.” What we discover in Pygmalion is that phonetics and “correct” pronunciation are systems of markers superficial in themselves but endowed with tremendous social significance. Higgins himself observes that pronunciation is “the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.” Playwright and character differ, however, in that instead of criticizing the existence of this gulf, Higgins accepts it as natural and uses his skills to help those who can afford his services (or are taken in as experiments, like Liza) to bridge it.

Act III of Pygmalion highlights the importance of Liza’s double transformation, by showing her suspended between the play’s beginning and its conclusion. At Mrs. Higgins’s “At Home” reception, Liza is fundamentally the same person she was in Act I, although she differs in what we learn to appreciate as “superficialities of social disguise” (according to Mugglestone): details of speech and cleanliness. “In modern society, however, as Shaw illustrates, it is precisely these superficial details which tend to be endowed with most significance.” Certainly the Eynsford Hills view such details as significant, as Liza’s entrance produces for them what Shaw’s stage directions call “an impression of . . . remarkable distinction and beauty.” Ironically, however, Liza’s true transformation is yet to occur. She experiences a much more fundamental change in her consciousness when she realizes that Higgins has more or less abandoned her at the conclusion of his experiment.

At first, Liza experiences a sense of anxiety over not belonging anywhere: she can hardly return to flower peddling, yet she lacks the financial means to make her new, outward identity a social reality. “What am I fit for?” she demands of Higgins. “What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?” Berst wrote that “while Pickering is generous, Eliza is shoved into the wings by Higgins. The dream has been fulfilled, midnight has tolled for Cinderella, and morning reality is at hand.” Liza must break away from Higgins when he shows himself incapable of recognizing her needs. This response of Higgins is well within his character as it has been portrayed in the play. Indeed, from his first exposure to Liza, Higgins denied Liza any social or even individual worth. Calling Liza a “squashed cabbage leaf,” Higgins states that “a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live.” While treated primarily with humor, Higgins is a kind of anti-hero in Shaw’s dramatic universe, because he accepts as natural the divisions among the classes. Assuming that Liza has no inherent worth, Higgins believes only he can bestow worth upon her, by helping her pass in society as a lady.

A romantic union between Liza and Higgins is impossible primarily because unlike her, he is incapable of transformation. He remains the confirmed bachelor that he has always been, an unsuitable Prince Charming denying either a fairy-tale ending to Pygmalion or a satisfactory marriage to its “Cinderella.” Nowhere is Higgins shown more strongly to be incapable of change than in his response to Liza’s challenge to him. Liza has thrown his slippers at him out of frustration with his lack of concern for her. “I’m nothing to you,” she observes, “not so much as them slippers.” Higgins instantly corrects her with “those slippers,” a mechanical response which shows him clinging to the externals of his trade, incapable of recognizing the importance of the change which has come over Liza.

The response of audiences and actors alike was strongly in favor of a romantic liaison between Higgins and Liza, but such a future for the characters would depend upon a transformation in Higgins which he is incapable of making. Indeed, Berst ventured, a “close examination of Higgins’s character and comments cannot support a romantic conclusion. He is by nature celibate and self-centered, slightly perverse in both respects.” Shaw altered the play’s ending to make his point more explicit, and when the play was first published in 1916, he added an afterword which recounted what Liza did after leaving Higgins. This was intended to show to audiences that there was to be “no sentimental nonsense” about the possibility of Higgins and Liza being lovers.

Source: Christopher Busiel, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Stanley J. Solomon

Solomon addresses the controversy surrounding the ending of Shaw’s Pygmalion in this essay. Examining the play’s action, he concludes that the playwright’s original denouement is the only appropriate one.

Solomon is an educator and critic who specializes in film theory.

Pygmalion is one of Shaw’s most popular plays as well as one of his most straightforward ones. The form has none of the complexity that we find in Heartbreak House or Saint Joan, nor are the ideas in Pygmalion nearly as profound as the ideas in any of Shaw’s other major works. Yet the ending of

Pygmalion provokes an interesting controversy among critics. Higgins and Eliza do not marry at the end of the written text, while the play as it is usually produced often does reconcile the two main characters. Obviously many directors and many readers feel that the apparent unromantic ending is an arbitrary bit of sarcasm appended to the play merely for spiteful humor.

It is my contention that the only valid approach to the problem of Pygmalion’s ending is to analyze the structure of the dramatic movement. In examining the play, I will consider the central situation and the dramatic problem it raises in preparation for the ending, which is the solution to that problem. All other critical approaches applied to the ending have tended to introduce extraneous information and lead to inconclusive suppositions about which of the possible endings is to be preferred. For instance, in evaluating the ending, one would probably be wise to pass over two extremely interesting but contradictory pieces of evidence which, at first, seem to bear directly on the matter. On the one hand we have the postscript which Shaw added to the published version of Pygmalion. In it he explains vehemently and reasonably why Eliza will not marry Higgins. On the other hand there is the movie version ending which Shaw rewrote so that it becomes clear to the audience that Eliza will marry Higgins. We can speculate about Shaw’s real intention, but lacking conclusive external evidence we should justify or condemn the ending of the stage play only in relation to the text itself.

The controversy over the ending deserves some scrutiny, however, because the criticism represents a good many different approaches to Shaw’s work. One approach is the “instinctive” method, a method which is outside the realm of literary criticism but is certainly of value in judging a play, since Shaw or any good dramatist realizes that during a performance the spectators will intuitively “feel” that an action is right or wrong without bothering to analyze their feelings. After considering the structure of Pygmalion, Milton Crane, in an often-quoted article, concludes that Shaw was either wrong or not serious in his ending. But Professor Crane gives no objective reason for his point of view, nor does he tie it in with his analysis of structure. A similar view is expressed by St. John Ervine concerning the denouement:

[The ending] convinces nobody who reads it. . . the facts of the play cry out against its author. The end of the fourth act as well as the end of the fifth act deny . . . [the postscript], and assure all sensible people that she married Henry Higgins and bore him many vigorous and intelligent children (Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work, and Friends, [New York], 1956).

The trouble with such opinions is that a great many people may instinctively feel that the play ends correctly. We cannot depend too much on a director’s view of the text, for if the play in production has been interpreted romantically, the ending of the stage version seems inappropriate; on the other hand, if the play is produced “anti-romantically,” the ending of this version is necessary.

Two directly opposing interpretations of the ending can be based on an analysis of character and situation. In one view, Eliza, a representative of Shavian vitality, is in the vitalistic sense superior to Higgins who is “the prisoner of ‘system,’ particularly of his profession” (Eric Bentley in his Bernard Shaw, [Norfolk], 1957). Higgins and Eliza are un-suited for one another since their temperaments are totally dissimilar. Another interpretation places emphasis on the growth of Eliza’s character to the point where she is able, at the end of the play, to rid herself of her fear of the rich (her middle-class morality); thus, no longer the intimidated flower girl, Eliza has no need to bargain for Higgins’ affection. On the other hand, Eliza may be considered as less than a match for Higgins, for her desires are the common-place ones of marriage and security. Higgins, then, is the representative of Shavian vitality, the true superman, and as such he is superior to Eliza. In each interpretation, the Shavian denouement is justified by the critics’ belief that a marriage between the two characters would be a misalliance; or, as Eric Bentley has said, “Eliza’s leaving Higgins is the outcome of the realities of the situation” {Modern Drama, September, 1958).

The criterion of realism is of questionable value here. Shaw is a realist—if we must classify him at all—but dramatic realism does not always call for a “realistic” (that is, “true-to-life”) ending. After all, Shaw often does marry off his heroine and hero (e.g. Arms and the Man, Man and Superman, The Millionairess, Buoyant Billions), and when he does so, it is not because he is particularly concerned with “true-to-life” probabilities, but because he is doing the correct dramatic thing. Furthermore, even if the criterion of realism were valid, we would face a difficult task in trying to prove that a marriage between Higgins and Eliza is hopelessly unrealistic. The two have existed in the same environment for a long time, they have grown used to one another—even reliant on one another, and they are no longer very far apart in social position. The fact is, as Shaw


himself points out and as Professor Bentley notes, such a marriage would be a bad one. But what is more realistic than a bad marriage! It happens so often in real life that one can hardly accuse an author of being a romanticist if he includes it in his play. It is not quite right dramatically, but for critics to attribute Shaw’s ending to “the realities of the situation” is to evince a rather unnecessarily limited view of what reality is.

An examination of the structure of Pygmalion can leave little doubt that Shaw’s ending is the only logical one. The most direct way to approach the structure is to discern what the dramatic problem of the plot is. Some possibilities that might come immediately to mind concern the superficiality of class distinctions, the inability of Higgins to dominate Eliza’s spirit, and the satire on middle-class morality. All of the preceding are aspects of the play, but further thought on the matter of what happens in Pygmalion will eventually lead us to some statement about Higgins’ making Eliza into a “lady.” Indeed, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is just what the play is about since the action, obviously, is mainly taken up with the development of Eliza from Act I through Act V. Furthermore, the play is concerned not only with the fact of her development but with the peculiar circumstances surrounding it, that is, the manner in which she is transformed.

It is important to decide whether Eliza or Higgins is the main character, for the main plot will be constructed around the actions of this central character. If we try to put the subject of the play’s action into the form of a dramatic question, we would ask, “Will Eliza become a lady?” The action is done either by or to Eliza, but in either case we may be certain that the passive main character does not occur in Shaw’s work. We need not assume that he is the most interesting character in the play or that he is the one who occupies the author’s greatest attention. It appears that Shaw was more interested in Eliza than in Higgins because he explains in detail what happens to her after the play is over. Nevertheless, Higgins must be the main character because he manipulates the action. In a comedy it is not necessary for the main character to undergo a change or show character development. Higgins remains the same from first to last; to use Shaw’s term he is “incorrigible.” Eliza changes, but Higgins makes her change; she is his product. Thus, a more accurate way of stating the dramatic question would be: Will Higgins succeed in re-creating the common flower girl into a truly different person, inwardly as well as outwardly?

Once we see the dramatic problem of the play in this light, we can begin to trace the steps leading to the logical conclusion of Pygmalion. The first act is dramatically essential to the play not merely because it introduces the characters or serves as a prologue, but because it begins the action: Higgins makes such an impression on the flower girl that she is filled with a desire for her physical improvement, her external recreation. In Act II, the question is raised as to whether Higgins will succeed in his experiment.

As is usual in a play with a traditional five-act structure, the climax occurs in Act III and virtually resolves the question. Although the question is not definitely answered, certainly some strong indication is given the audience as to the direction which the following action will take. A shift in the direction of the action after the climax would surely confuse the spectators and might result in bringing the play to the level of romance. But Pygmalion is not romance, in spite of the subtitle, and thus Shaw makes his denouement consistent with his climax.

After the second act, the audience might expect the reception scene to contain the climax as it does in the movie and in My Fair Lady, but Shaw does not dramatize this scene. It is necessary to have a scene precede the ambassador’s reception so as to show the developing process of Eliza’s education, and Shaw is skillful enough to make the scene of Mrs. Higgins’ at-home serve both as an expository scene of characterization and as climax. However, a few critics are determined to make the omitted garden party into the climax. Professor Bentley says:

If again we call Act I the prologue, the play falls into two parts of two Acts apiece. Both parts are Pygmalion myths. In the first a duchess is made out of a flower girl. In the second a woman is made out of a duchess.

Since these two parts are the main, inner action the omission of the climax of the outer action—the ambassador’s reception—will seem particularly discrete, economical, and dramatic.

But we need not be deceived by the subtlety and calmness of Shaw’s climax. The dramatic question is answered at the home of Mrs. Higgins when Eliza encounters society and passes as acceptable to the Hills, and even to the much cleverer Mrs. Higgins. We now feel certain that, with more practice, Eliza will succeed in her official debut at the ambassador’s party, although she probably would not be able to do so at the time of the climax. Nevertheless, what is important is the knowledge which one now has that Higgins is on the verge of succeeding with his experiment. Eliza’s success will be Higgins’ success. The question, “Will Higgins be able to recreate the flower girl?” is answered affirmatively.

But Higgins’ success is not complete in Act III. In Act I, he had expressed a wish to Pickering to demonstrate what kind of a Pygmalion he could be in regard to Eliza if he had the chance. He wanted to see if he could create a new human being, not merely a duchess, out of flower girl. The climax, then, only indicates his accomplishment but does not actually show it. It remains for Act V to reveal to us the full extent of Higgins’ achievement. Then we see that Higgins has succeeded so well—he has turned the frightened, easily-dominated Eliza into an independent woman—that he loses the prize possession itself. irony of such a success is evident. Thus, Pygmalion has created a masterpiece, a real person—and to Shaw a real person is one who is not dominated in spirit by the elements of his environment. Pygmalion loses his Galatea, for he has recreated her with the great humanizing qualities of character: independence of spirit and vitality of mind.

It is now possible to see why Shaw’s ending is the only satisfying one, and why certain adapters such as Alan Lerner in My Fair Lady contradict the meaning of the play. Suppose Eliza’s last line were changed from one of disdain (in answer to Higgins’ confident order to her as his servant) to an acquiescent reply that indicates she will return to Higgins. If this were the case, then Higgins would not have really succeeded. He would have taken Eliza, the flower girl, the servant of society, and changed her physically but not spiritually. In the end, she will still be a servant girl at heart. Shaw’s ending is not an arbitrary imposition of the author’s temperament. Without the essential paradox involved in Higgins’ accomplishment of recreation, the play becomes sentimental and one-dimensional.

The traditional structure serves Shaw well here. Professor Bentley is right in dividing the inner development of Eliza into two parts. But he does not go far enough, for the inner development is also dramatized; both inner development and plot structure are connected inseparably—that is, theme and action are virtually the same thing. Pygmalion is one of Shaw’s best-constructed plays, and this is an important reason for its repeated success in production.

Source: Stanley J. Solomon, “The Ending of Pygmalion: A Structural View” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 16, no. 1, March, 1964, pp. 59-63.

Myron Matlaw

In this essay, Matlaw examines Pygmalion’s ending and the ways that subsequent adaptations have strayed from Shaw’s original vision. The critic ultimately affirms the play’s original conclusion.

Alan Jay Lerner, probably the most successful adapter of Shaw’s Pygmalion, commented: “Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and—Shaw and Heaven forgive me!—I am not certain he is right.” Many critics would agree with this sentiment. A recent analysis of the play goes so far as to dismiss the Epilogue as a bit of Shavian frivolity and to cite the “happy ending” Shaw himself wrote for Pascal’s film as the proper denouement of a play which is persuasively categorized by one critic as a play which follows “the classic pattern of satirical comedy” [Milton Crane in PMLA, vol. 66, 1956].

Such an ending has been popular also with audiences and actors ever since the play first appeared in 1913. Shaw chided both Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Beerbohm Tree for their romantic interpretations in the first productions: “I say, Tree, must you be so treacly?” he asked during the rehearsals. Tree’s stage business before the curtain fell left no doubts in the minds of audiences that Higgins’s marriage to Eliza was imminent. Justifying it, Tree wrote Shaw: “My ending makes money; You ought to be grateful.” Shaw replied: “Your ending is damnable: You ought to be shot.” And he continued fulminating against romantic portrayals of an ending which caters to what, in the Epilogue written for Pygmalion later, he called “imaginations. . . so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-medowns of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of ‘happy endings’ to misfit all stories.”


Nonetheless, the recurrent arousing of inappropriate audience expectations and the apparent inability of the play to arouse the appropriate expectations (or those which Shaw considered appropriate) raise a question about Pygmalion’s success on the playwright’s terms. Perhaps even more important, they call for a re-examination of these terms; for I think that the ending is significant and dramatically inevitable, and that it is the ending Shaw himself rewrote for the film (thereby confusing the matter further)—rather than his Epilogue—which is frivolous. . . .

While one of the most penetrating and suggestive of the analyses of Shaw’s work accepts the original ending of Pygmalion, it seems to do so for the wrong reasons. I cannot agree with the assertion in that analysis that “the ‘education of Eliza’ in Acts I to III is a caricature of the true process.” No educative process is in fact represented in the play (although Shaw inserted “a sample” for film production at a later date—a hint which was deftly developed in My Fair Lady). But more important, the conclusion that “Eliza turns the tables on Higgins, for she, finally, is the vital one, and he is the prisoner of ‘system,’ particularly of his profession,” seems to me to miss the point (Eriz Bertley in his Bernard Shaw, [New York], 1957).

Rather the reverse is true. The magnificent comic subplot underlines the point, for Doolittle was once, like Higgins, outside of class or “system” and had vitality. Both Doolittle and Eliza are brought to join the middle class. What is sharply contrasted, however, is the consequence of the transformation: for Doolittle it is a descent while for Eliza it is an ascent—the transformation makes the previously articulate (vital) father comically impotent while it gives the previously inarticulate (“crooning like a bilious pigeon”) daughter human life. In sum, Higgins, the life-giver, will continue his study of phonetics while Eliza will settle for the life her father describes so picturesquely in the last act when all the cards are put on the table. Higgins, that is, will continue to teach proper, civilized articulation, a superman attempting to transform subhumans into humans; while Eliza will lead an admirable if circumscribed middle-class existence, having been given humanity—life—by Higgins.

Her ability to undergo successfully such a transformation evidences her superior qualities and often makes her appear as the hero of the play. She is only a Shavian hero manque, however, and she is not the wife for Higgins. She can not even understand him, their values and interests being so different. Higgins genuinely admires Eliza, although he is first shocked and then amused by her values: in a most effective and inevitable denouement, the curtain falls as “he roars with laughter” —at the thought of her marrying Freddy. Admirable as she now is—especially when compared with what she was when he met her—she is not, and never can be, his equal. She is now part and parcel of the system of “middle class morality” which the early Doolittle and Higgins find ludicrous. Higgins and Eliza, then, still do not speak the same language, although this is true now only in the figurative sense. This does not, however, preclude the existence of an affinity between them, perhaps one comparable to the one existing between Caesar and Cleopatra. Nevertheless, marrying Eliza would be preposterous for Higgins, a superman with the vitality of a soul and a “Miltonic mind” (as he himself labels it) who lives on an entirely different plane, a plane where sex and marriage, indeed, are unknown.

What causes audiences to wish for it (as Eliza herself, for that matter, was wishing for it) is the Cinderella guise of the plot—which buttresses audiences’ perennial desires, as Shaw rightly said in the Epilogue, for the marriage of the hero and the maiden—and the sentimental part of the myth which the title incidentally also calls to mind. The Cinderella guise, however, is accidental and irrelevant; it is purposely negated by the omission of scenes depicting the process of the transformation and by the omission of the grand ball scene, the highpoint of any Cinderella story. The title specifically and intentionally focuses attention away from the heroine and on Higgins, and on Higgins’s life-giving qualities in particular.

It is very appropriate, therefore, that the most recent popular production is called My Fair Lady, focusing attention, as the musical itself does, on the Cinderella theme. At the same time, with all the brilliance of this version, even with the dialogue culled from the original play, this one is a very different play throughout. All the noncomic lines. . . are omitted, for in My Fair Lady Higgins is the conventional romantic hero and not what he surely is in Pygmalion: the Shavian hero, standing alone, a superman embodying a life force divorced from human social and sensual drives, but representative of the vitality and creative evolution in which, in Shaw’s philosophy, lies the ultimate hope of mankind.

Source: Myron Matlaw,“The Denouement of Pygmalion,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 1, no. 1, May, 1958, pp. 29, 33-34.


Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, amended edition, New Directions, 1957.

Though Bentley’s book (originally published in 1947) is not adulatory, Shaw considered it “the best book written about himself as a dramatist.” Bentley states that his double intention in the book is “to disentangle a credible man and artist from the mass of myth that surrounds him, and to discover the complex component parts of his ‘simplicity.’” Pygmalion is discussed in detail, pages 119-126, and elsewhere in the book.

Crane, Milton. “Pygmalion: Bernard Shaw’s Dramatic Theory and Practice” in Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 66, no.6, December, 1951, pp. 879-85.

Crane begins with the question of whether Shaw was old-fashioned in his approach to drama or innovative. Wrapped up in this issue is the figure of Ibsen, who Shaw declared was revolutionary for giving his plays indeterminate endings and concluding with “discussion,” rather than the clear unraveling of a dramatic situation in the “well-made play”—the popular form of the day. Crane demonstrates that Ibsen did not present a new innovation so much as modify earlier forms and claims that something similar holds true for Shaw as well. Although Shaw denied his audience a romantic ending in Pygmalion, Crane does not feel it is true of the playwright what many have said, “that he is primarily a thinker, who chose for rhetorical reasons to cast his ideas in dramatic form.” Rather than viewing his characters abstractly, as means to a rhetorical end, Shaw was passionately invested in their lives and destinies, which highlights a basic “conventionality” in his technique.

Dukore, Bernard F. “The Director As Interpreter: Shaw’s Pygmalion” in Shaw, Vol. 3, 1983, pp. 129-47.

A three-part article analyzing, first, “Shaw’s concept of the question of directorial interpretation”; then his own directorial interpretation of Pygmalion (in the London premiere and several subsequent productions); and finally, the revisions he made to Pygmalion as a result of the experience of directing the play. Dukore shows the careful separation Shaw maintained between “Playwright Shaw” and “Director Shaw”: rather than explain to his actors the ideas in his play in a literary manner, Shaw was able to help them in very practical terms to develop their performances. Often these actors led him to new insights about his own characters. “While he recognized that there are a variety of appropriate ways to interpret any well-written role,” however, Shaw also “rejected what he considered inappropriate interpretations.”

Evans, T. F., editor. Shaw: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London), 1976.

An extremely useful collection of 135 contemporary writings on Shaw’s plays: reviews, essays, letters, and other sources. Arranged roughly in chronological order and grouped by play, the items “give a continuing picture of the changing and developing reaction to Shaw’s dramatic work.” Pygmalion is covered on pages 223-29.

Harvey, Robert C. “How Shavian is the Pygmalion We Teach?” in English Journal, Vol. 59, 1970, pp. 1234-38.

This article by a former high school English teacher begins with the observation that while Shaw lived, he absolutely refused to let his plays be published in school textbooks: “My plays were not designed as instruments of torture,” he wittily commented. Harvey recognizes that despite the wishes of the playwright, there are definite values to students reading his work in a school setting. Too often, however, the work is taught to support grammar lessons, with the message that like Liza, students can succeed if they learn to speak “correctly.” Harvey affirms that the real value of the piece for students is in trying to grasp its literary complexity. If anything, the play should show students “the social importance of all varieties of language . . . the equality of every dialect” rather than being used “to forge the very chains [Shaw] wrote the play to break.”

Henderson, Archibald. George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century, Appleton-Century-Crofts (New York), 1956.

A final, culminating book by Shaw’s “official” biographer, incorporating much material from his previous works. Henderson studied Shaw first-hand and wrote on him for over fifty years.

Hill, Eldon C. George Bernard Shaw, Twayne (Boston), 1978.

A biography and critical study intended not for the Shaw specialist but for the general reader “who seeks an understanding of Shaw’s life and work.” Pygmalion is discussed in detail, pages 118-21.

Huggett, Richard. The Truth about Pygmalion, Heinemann (London), 1969.

Focusing predominantly on Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the actress who created Liza for the London premiere, this study is the result of three years of research into the play and its performances.

Kaufman, R. J., editor. G. B. Shaw: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1965.

While none of the essays examines Pygmalion exclusively, the topics of these compiled studies overlap extensively with issues in that particular play. Notable contributions include a short, provocative piece by Bertolt Brecht, showing Shaw’s influence on his work. Brecht states of Shaw’s view towards society, “it should be clear by now that Shaw is a terrorist. The Shavian terror is an unusual one, and he employs an unusual weapon—that of humor.” In his article “Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw’s Style,” Richard M. Ohmann investigates the development of Shaw’s position as a social outsider, “the critic of things as they are.” Eric Bentley’s “The Making of a Dramatist” examines the formative years 1892-1903 in Shaw’s life.

MacCarthy, Desmond. Shaw: The Plays, Newton Abbott, 1951.

Originally published as a series of essays from 1907 to 1950, this book offers a unique chance to trace the development of a particular perspective on Shaw’s long and prolific career. Pygmalion is discussed in detail, pages 108-13.

Miller, Jane M. “Some Versions of Pygmalion” in Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, edited by Charles Martindale, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

A study of Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth (including possible antecedents for it), and its influence on later works. Miller stresses the sexual implications of the Pygmalion-Galatea relationship in Ovid’s story (which suggest possible consequences for Shaw’s version). Miller states that the various versions of Pygmalion tend in general to be of two types: historical, which depict a social transformation and which usually contain “an element of social comment” (she places Shaw’s Pygmalion in this category); and mystical, which explore “love as a divine experience.” Miller suggests Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as an early example of the “mystical” interpretation but comments that the form abounded in the nineteenth century in particular. Miller concludes that the “historicist” versions of Pygmalion, Shaw’s included, “are interesting products of their time but lack the vitality of the Ovidian original.”

Muggleston, Lynda. “Shaw, Subjective Inequality, and the Social Meanings of Language in Pygmalion” in Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language, Vol. 44, no. 175, August, 1993, pp. 373-85.

A detailed study of the social importance of Pygmalion’s exploration of accent and pronunciation as determiners “not only of social status but also of social acceptability.” Although difficult only in places for readers not familiar with some linguistic vocabulary, the article’s central argument is easily grasped: that Shaw rebelled against the idea that there was something inherently better about people of the upper classes and therefore demonstrated that social judgments of a person’s merit depend on superficial, subjective qualities (like proper speech). Pygmalion is a “paradigm of social mobility,” illustrating that social transformation is possible, and “a paean to inherent equality,” suggesting that a person’s merit is distinct and separate from their level of social acceptability.

Quinn, Martin. “The Informing Presence of Charles Dickens in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion” in the Dickensian, Vol. 80, no. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 144-50.

This article traces a number of connections between Pygmalion and various works of Dickens, who Quinn states “entered Shaw’s life early and completely and was thereafter always at his fingertips when not on the tip of his tongue.” Quinn shows that Dickens was specifically on Shaw’s mind when writing Pygmalion in 1912, because he was completing at the same time an introduction to Dickens’s novel Hard Times. The influence of Dickens was “pervasive” throughout Shaw’s career, however. The value of Quinn’s article is in documenting the exhaustive reading of “[a]n intellect as comprehensive as Shaw’s,” and inserting the name of Dickens, a novelist, among the list of dramatic artists considered to be Shaw’s major influences: Shakespeare, Moliere, and Ibsen.

Shaw Bulletin, Shaw Review, Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, the Shavian.

Publications of the Shaw Society of America (The Shaw Bulletin, 1952-1958; Shaw Review, 1951-1980; and the Shaw annual, 1981-present) and the Shaw Society, London (the Shavian, 1953-present). These journals have published extensively on all topics related to Shaw’s work; check their title and subject indexes for further information.

Small, Barbara J. “Shaw on Standard Stage Speech” in Shaw Review, Vol. 22, 1979, pp. 106-13.

A short but enlightening study of Shaw’s interest in diction and stage speech. Not entirely about Pygmalion, but its references to that play suggest the close relationship between Higgins and Shaw’s own ideals of spoken speech. “Shaw was preoccupied with the dearth of good standard speech on the English stage,” Small wrote. “Good diction was, for Shaw, associated with fine acting.” Shaw did not blame individuals for their poor pronunciation; in his preface to Pygmalion, for example, he decries the problems stemming from English not being a language with phonetic spellings of words. These larger issues Shaw addressed through a phonetic system of his own devising, and other means, but regarding individual persons what Shaw hated most was pretension. “An honest slum dialect” was preferable to him “than the attempts of phonetically untaught persons to imitate the plutocracy.”

Wagenknecht, Edward. A Guide to Bernard Shaw, Russell & Russell (New York), 1929.

A study written while Shaw was alive and at the peak of his career (he had won the Nobel Prize only a few years previously). Wagenknecht wrote that the purpose of his book is expository rather than critical: that is,“to gather together . . . all the information which, in my judgment, the student or general reader needs to have in mind in order to read Shaw’s plays intelligently.” As a study, it has largely been superseded by other later works, but it remains an important historical document.


Berst, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama University of Illinois Press (Urbana), 1973, pp. 197-218.


views updated May 23 2018


by George Bernard Shaw


A play set in London, England and during the 1910s; first periormed in 1913; published in 1414.


A professor of phonetics makes a wager to pass off a London flower girl as a high-society lady by refining her speech, manner, and appearance.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

George Bernard Shaw was born in 1856 in Dublin, Ireland. He was the only son of an Anglo-Irish family that belonged to the upper-middle-class Protestant section of Irish society but, despite its status, had little money. Shaw’s father, a civil servant, experienced little professional success. An alcoholic, he neglected Shaw as well as Shaw’s two sisters, as did his wife, so the three were raised mainly by servants. At age 15, after attending several different Irish schools, Shaw took a job as an office boy for Uniacke Townshend and Company, a firm of estate agents; he later became a clerk for this same firm. In 1876 Shaw joined his mother and sisters in London, where they had moved 5 years before, leaving Shaw’s father behind. For several years, Shaw attempted to establish himself as a novelist without much success. He made his mark in other ways, however. Becoming passionately interested in social reform, in 1884 Shaw helped found the Fabian Society, an organization dedicated to the establishment, by gradual stages, of a socialist government in England. During the late 1880s, he began to make a name for himself in the literary world as a music critic, writing for such journals as the London and the World. In 1895, Shaw became dramatic critic for the Saturday Review, a London periodical; his provocative reviews galvanized contemporary audiences and introduced a slew of controversial ideas about plays and acting. Meanwhile, Shaw embarked on a playwrighting career, in which he was to achieve lasting success; his first play, Widowers’ Houses, which dealt with the problem of slum landlordism, was produced in 1892. Most of Shaw’s plays explored social issues—prostitution in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), war in Arms and the Man (1894), and evangelism in Major Barbara (1907). Pygmalion (1912), arguably Shaw’s best-known play to modern audiences, is considered not only an effective comedy, but a brilliant study of the connection between accent and social class in England.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Upstarts, social climbers, and class-consciousness

Early in the play, Henry Higgins declares, “This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand” (Shaw, Pygmalion, p.15). His words accurately describe the changes overtaking British society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although, in theory, society continued to be as rigidly hierarchical as ever, in reality, wealth and power were no longer exclusively held by the landed aristocrats. Fortunes had been made in the 1800s by the spread of the railway, the conversion of sailing to steamships, the construction of factories, and the discovery of distant markets for products. Many of these rich industrialists became favorites of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who found his mother’s social circle—royal relatives from Europe and a few members of the old nobility—dull and staid. In contrast, the newly wealthy could entertain Edward VII in the lavish style that he favored, thus cementing their popularity with him.

It is not to be supposed that the English aristocracy was pleased by the influx of nouveaux riche into what had formerly been regarded as elite social circles. Many aristocratic families became increasingly obsessed with demonstrating their superiority—in birth, breeding, and social graces—over these extravagant newcomers. According to historian Ronald Pearsall, “Arrogance and irritability marked many of the old gentry in both town or country. It was as if they were aware they were a dying breed. . In the women there was a note of petulance when confronted with the changed conditions” (Pearsall, p. 74). He goes on to quote some aristocrats, namely, the Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre. “The lavish expenditure and the feverish pursuit of pleasure that constitute Society do not appeal to me any more than the restaurant life, which did not exist in my day. . . . Nowadays money shouts, and birth and breeding whisper!” (Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre in Pearsall, p. 74). Given this class-conscious attitude, it is not surprising that formal occasions such as dinner parties and country-house visits often became social battlefields. Wealthy social climbers sought to prove themselves worthy of inclusion in the upper ranks of society. On the other hand, those born to upper-class status continued to emphasize the importance of qualities that could not be bought and proved quick to snub or patronize newcomers who did not measure up to their aristocratic standards. Even the domestic staff of a great estate could enter into the game of social one-upmanship: “At one great country house, a footman kept a meticulous record of all the bad English and ‘ignorance’ he heard while waiting at table, and related the choicer items, with names and dates, to the servants of later visitors” (Pearsall, p. 73).

In Pygmalion, Higgins attacks the artificiality and snobbery that he sees reflected in the British class system by teaching Eliza Doolittle, the lower-class flower girl, to look, act and, even more importantly, speak like a duchess. Higgins explains to his astonished mother, “But you have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” (Pygmalion, pp. 63-64). Later, after being criticized by Eliza herself for his rudeness and bad manners, Higgins lends a retort that reveals his true feelings about class distinctions: “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners and good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls. . . . The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better” (Pygmalion, p. 98).

The London poor

The luxury and comfort enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged during the Edwardian Age formed a stark contrast to the wretched, squalid lives of the poor in the same period. The years before World War I were marked by vigorous consumer spending and conspicuous display, and a growing economic gap: “The poor were getting poorer and the rich were getting richer. . . . The poor, it was considered, were poor because they deserved to be, and were largely made up of idlers and scroungers who could get jobs if they were less work-shy” (Pearsall, p. 103). For the most part, the poor remained downtrodden and apathetic during the early 1900s, resenting their situation but helpless to remedy it.

Poverty tended to be a more pressing concern in urban areas than in rural areas. In London alone, the number of paupers increased by 15,800 during the period from 1880 to 1907. In the East End of London and in some of its boroughs were a number of perpetually unemployed citizens. “The poor married too young, had large families, were riddled with venereal disease, and drank” (Pearsall, p. 109). Local government offices did little to improve the morale or living conditions of the poor and indigent. Boards of Guardians, comprised of elected officials, were responsible for the organization and running of urban workhouses. Often these boards employed poorly trained or incompetent men to serve as relieving officers, many of whom dispersed money carelessly, without sufficient regard for the needs of the applicants. Seldom did the relieving officers inquire into the resources of the applicants, or bother to verify the facts behind each plea for aid. The Guardians were frequently corrupt as well; many were estate agents, slumowners, and public-house and saloon owners who had a vested interest in keeping the amount of financial relief quite low and readily gave away the money to friends, relatives, and customers. Meanwhile, the poor shied away from the overcrowded, unsanitary, and otherwise hateful workhouse, many of them choosing starvation or suicide over going into the workhouse.

The cost of living increased in the early twentieth century, but there was no corresponding rise in working-class wages so that even those in a somewhat better financial position often had to struggle to make ends meet. In 1903, the minimum living wage for a family of five was considered to be 21 shillings, 8 pence a week, but in 1914 nearly a quarter of male wage earners garnered less than 25 shillings a week. Working women in sweatshops and factories often fared worse than their male counterparts. In the East End tailoring district, makers of artificial flowers, which were often used to trim gowns and hats, earned 8 to 12 shillings a week, corset makers 8 to 16 shillings a week, corset makers 10 to 18 shillings a week, and umbrella makkers 10 to 18 shillings a week (Priestley, p. 74). Workdays lasted up to 12 or 14 hours, and working conditions were usually appalling—crowded, dirty, poorly lit, and inadequately ventilated.

Many of the same complaints could also be made about the workers’ living conditions. The poorest Londoner lived in filthy, vermin-ridden slums, possessed no furniture beyond a straw pallet and some orange crates to sit on, and had no access to lavatories. Workers with more money could usually find cleaner quarters, but living conditions remained unsatisfactory for them as well. Author J. B. Priestley, who grew up during the Edwardian period, describes a third of the population as overworked, underpaid, and packed into slum quarters that should have been pulled down years earlier. In fact, “conditions were so bad that it was believed that they were producing degenerate physical types, anemic mothers of rickety children, young men who were incapable of defending the Motherland and Empire” (Priestley, pp. 72-73).

Pygmalions flower girl, Eliza, reveals her own slum background during her first meeting with Higgins. Alarmed by Higgins’s observation that she came from Lisson Grove, a slum area in West London, Eliza wails, “Oh, what harm is there in my leaving Lisson Grove? It was not fit for a pig to live in; and I had to pay four [shillings]-and-six [pence] a week” (Pygmalion, p. 12). At this point in the play, Eliza’s present accommodations represent a small improvement but are not in the least palatial. In the stage directions, Shaw describes Eliza’s living quarters as “the irreducible minimum of poverty’s needs: a wretched bed heaped with all sorts of coverings that have any warmth in them, a draped packing case with a basin and jug on it and a little looking glass over it, a chair and table, the refuse of some suburban kitchen, and an American alarum clock on the shelf above the unused fireplace: the whole lighted with a gas lamp with a penny in the slot meter. Rent: four shillings a week” (Pygmalion, p. 19). Given her living conditions, it is not surprising that Eliza ultimately leaps at the chance of something better.

Social rituals and the season

Much of the action in Pygmalion takes place against the background of the “London Season,” a giddy round of social events lasting from May through July that consumed the attention of the wealthy and well-established. Traditionally, a private gallery exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in May began the Season; other important social events included horse races at Ascot, the Henley regatta, cricket matches between the schools of Eton and Harrow and Oxford and Cambridge, and, of course, countless private balls and parties.

The Season also had a serious side: Parliament was in session, and the social events provided a convenient venue for men who occupied high places in government to conduct political business and form useful alliances among colleagues. Moreover, the Season, even in the early years of


Throughout the year, women of leisure exchanged calls-short visits lasting from 15 to 30 minutes, during which tea and light refreshments were usually offered. The purpose was not only to chat and socialize but to further an acquaintance that might prove useful or advantageous in the future. During the Victorian period 11837-1901), visitors hoping to call upon the mistress of a certain house often left small cards bearing their names with her servants. Social contact was established if, on reading the cards, the lady invited the visitors inside, sent them a card of her own in return, or paid them a visit at their homes instead. The usual hours for paying calls were between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.—however, these visits were referred to as “morning calls” because callers wore “morning dress” (daytime clothes rather than evening dress). If the lady of the house was busy, indisposed, or disinclined to visit with anyone, she often instructed her servants to inform prospective callers that she was not “at home” or, rather, not receiving visitors that day. The excuse was generally not intended as a snub or a slight. Often a woman had a designated At-Home day, with predetermined hours—again, usually between 3 and 6 p.m.—during which friends and acquaintances could call upon her, in full expectation of finding her available. In Pygmalion, Higgins commandeers his mother’s At-Home day for Eliza’s first test as a “lady.” As a new acquaintance, Eliza stays for the minimum amount of time at Mrs. Higgins’s house, though not before making several outlandish remarks that Higgins just manages to explain away as “the new small talk” (Pygmalion, p. 59).

the twentieth century, still revolved around the no-less-serious business of marrying off middle-and upper-class young girls to eligible young men. Debutantes were presented to English royalty at drawing rooms in St. James’s Palace, then made the rounds at countless parties, balls, dances, and other festive occasions.

Evening parties tended to fall into two categories: those with dancing and those without dancing. Among the latter were the grand receptions—nicknamed “drums” in the nineteenth century—at which guests were invited to meet others of equal or superior social consequence. Historical novelist Rona Randall writes, “The highest level of reception included those given by the wives of cabinet ministers or ambassadors; at the opposite scale were those boring little drums for a few elegant ladies in someone’s drawing room very late in the afternoon” (Randall, p. 27). The most formal of the evening receptions tended to begin around 10 or 11 p.m. and feature superbly dressed guests, even if they planned on only staying a short while before leaving to attend some rival party. Apparently “the whole reason for being there was to see and be seen, to be able to say that you had met such-and-such a person at such-and-such a house, the more imposing the better” (Randall, p. 27).

In the play, Higgins and Pickering use the events of the Season as venues to test Eliza’s progress at speaking and behaving like a lady. Although the former flower girl makes several verbal gaffes at Mrs. Higgins’s tea party, held during the older woman’s At-Home day, she later manages to pass muster among the cream of high society at a garden party, a dinner, and an Embassy reception, all held on the same day! Exhausting as such a schedule may sound, it was not unusual to attend a string of social events lasting from morning until night during the height of the London Season.

The birth of modern phonetics

Shaw enjoyed making the claim that Pygmalion was primarily a didactic work that explored the importance of phonetics, the study of speech sounds, that is, of their physiological production and acoustic qualities. Phoneticians study the configuration of the vocal tract used to produce speech sounds (articulatory phonetics), the acoustic properties of speech sounds (acoustic phonetics), their effect on the ear (auditory phonetics) and the manner in which sounds combine to make syllables, words, and sentences (linguistic phonetics).

In Britain, modern phonetics began towards the mid-nineteenth century with the work of Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-97), an English inventor. In Stenographic Shorthand (1837), Pitman set forth a shorthand system based on phonetic rather than orthographic principles (later called “phonography”). His system was adapted to more than a dozen languages and soon became one of the most widely used methods in the world, replacing all the older forms of shorthand. During the 1840s, Pitman collaborated with another phonetician, Alexander John Ellis, to produce a series of phonetic alphabets. The final result of their collaboration—Phonotypic alphabet no. 10—was published in 1847. Their labors “during the ten years that preceded the 1847 alphabet can be said to have established phonetics as a modern science in Great Britain” (Kelly in Asher and Henderson, p. 262). The two brought a great deal of innovation to the field. While Pitman poured energy into effecting reforms, Ellis showed an unparalleled knack for observation, description, and experimentation, setting new standards in the study of phonetics.

Alexander Melville Bell (1819-1905)—a Scottish-American educator and the father of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell—was another important pioneer of modern phonetics. Bell’s Visible Speech (1867) introduced a physiological or visible alphabet composed of symbols that were intended to represent every sound of the human voice. Called Steno-Phonography, Bell’s system won the admiration of Henry Sweet (1845-1912), an English phonetician and philologist. Sweet, an authority on Anglo-Saxon and the history of the English language, had studied the widely used Pitman system but considered it “one of the poorest systems in existence, on account of its geometric-shaped symbols, its use of the thick/thin distinction and its inherent character of brevity” and irritably dubbed it the “Pitfall” system instead (MacMahon in Asher and Henderson, pp. 265-66).

From 1869 to the 1880s, Sweet relied on Bell’s system for his own studies, but eventually acknowledged that there were some inadequacies there as well: “One defect was . . . the method of indicating a consonant’s place of articulation by the angle of the slope of the symbol” (MacMahon in Asher and Henderson, p. 266). In 1892, Sweet published an improved version of Bell’s system, which relied more on cursive writing and less on geometric shapes. In Current, as Sweet’s version was called, the symbols were based on whole letters of the alphabet, on parts of letters, or on innovative ways to combine parts of letters. Current avoided the “angularity, jerkiness, sprawliness, and hand-cramping movements” of the geometric based shorthands, “especially Pitman’s” (MacMahon in Asher and Henderson, pp. 268-69). While Current failed to supplant the Pitman system, Sweet’s efforts were encouraged and commended by friends and colleagues. Shaw, who corresponded with Sweet and met him on a few occasions, became an admirer of his work and of Sweet himself. In his Preface to Pygmalion, Shaw paid tribute to Sweet, who died the year the play was written:

His great ability as a phonetician (he was, I think, the best of them all at his job) would have entitled him to high official recognition, and perhaps enabled him to popularize his subject, but for his Satanic contempt for all academic dignitaries and persons in general who thought more of Greek than of phonetics. . He was, 1 believe, not in the least an illnatured man: very much the opposite, I should say; but he would not suffer fools gladly; and to him all scholars who were not rabid phoneticians were fools.

(Shaw in Pygmalion, pp. 1-2)

Sweet, in fact, became the model for Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. While Shaw denied that Higgins


During the late nineteenth-century, the speech of the London working class became generally known as “Cockney” (from “coken-ay,” meaning a cock’s egg, or a worthless thing). The term, dating back to the late 1400s, originally applied to the language of all Londoners who were not part of the court. However, by the 1900s, the Education Acts, which insisted on the use of “proper English” in schools, had helped transform speech and London working-class talk “was fast becoming the Cockney of caricature and stereotype. . ., The appearance of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion with her ‘kerbstone English’ of flars and garn (go on) and Ay-ee, Ba-yee, Cy-cc (A, R, C) consummated the marriage of [the poor] East End and Cockney” (Mc-Crum, p. 275). In the published version of the play, Shaw attempted to recreate Eliza’s exact manner of speech as a flower-girl in her first scene:

Cockney: “Ow, eez y ooa son, is e? Wai, fewd dan y’ d-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now better to spawl a pore get’s flahrzn then ran awy athaht pyin. Will y-oo py me f’ them?”

(Pygmalion, p. 120)

Translation: “Oh, he is your son, is he? Well, if you had done your duty by him as a mother should, he would know better than to spoil a poor girl’s flowers and then run away without paying. Wilt you pay me for them?”

(Pygmalion, p. 120)

was an exact portrait, he conceded that “there are touches of Sweet in the play,” adding, “With Higgins’s physique and temperament Sweet might have set the Thames on fire” (Shaw in Pygmalion, p. 4).

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

The play begins one rainy summer night, in the Covent Garden area of London. A crowd of people have taken shelter from the


As well as providing a location for a theatre and an Opera House, Covent Garden—a corruption of the phrase “convent garden” because it used to be the garden of the abbot of Westminster—served as the principal fruit, flower, and vegetable market of London for over 3OO years. The market was first established in ì670 and rebuilt in 1830. During the nineteenth century, Covent Garden market did a booming trade—fruit sellers, costermongers, porters, florists and flower girls arrived in the square during the early hours of the morning to start their day’s work. In the mid-1800s, Henry Mayhew described the “bustle and confusion” of the market on a typical morning: “[I]n the paved square the people pass and cross each other in all directions, hampers clash together, and excepting the carters from the country, every one is on the move, . . . Cabbages are piled up into stacks as it were. Carts are heaped high with ïumtps, and bunches of carrots like huge red fingers, are seen in all directions. Flower girls with large bunches of violets under their arms, run past, leaving a trail of perfume behind them” (Mayhew, pp. 103-104}. From 1884 to 1904, the market underwent a period of great expansion, prompting numerous public complaints about crowds, traffic, and vegetable refuse.

downpour in a church portico, among them an upper-class mother, daughter, and son. As the son searches for a taxi, he collides with a young flower girl who startles his family by calling him by his name, “Freddy.” Fearing a possible indiscretion, Freddy’s mother quickly buys flowers from the girl who, encouraged by her increased business, approaches a gentleman in a similar vein. The flower girl becomes alarmed, however, when a bystander informs her that another man is writing down everything she says. The crowd’s attention quickly shifts to the note taker, Henry Higgins, who claims that he can identify everyone’s place of origin from his or her speech, then proceeds to demonstrate that ability. Higgins proudly explains to his impressed audience that he is a phonetician, one who studies the science of speech. Higgins also claims that he could pass off the flower girl as a duchess at a garden party in three months’ time, simply by changing the way she speaks.

At this point, one of the bystanders to whom Higgins has been talking reveals himself to be Colonel Pickering, another phonetician. Favorably impressed by each other’s work, Higgins and Pickering agree to meet to discuss their shared profession in more detail. Pickering invites Higgins to sup with him, and the two men depart as Higgins flings some money into the flower girl’s basket. The astonished girl treats herself to a taxi ride home.

The next day, at his home on Wimpole Street, Higgins proudly shows off his laboratory and the results of his studies to Pickering. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl they met at Covent Garden the previous night. Eliza tells an astonished Higgins that she wants to hire him to teach her to “talk more genteel” so she can work in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street. At first Higgins rejects Eliza’s proposal, but Pickering challenges him to prove his skill by teaching the flower girl to pass for a duchess and offers to pay for Eliza’s lessons. Higgins gleefully accepts the challenge and instructs his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, to take the thoroughly confused Eliza in hand and make her presentable.

While Eliza is being bathed, Mrs. Pearce warns Higgins that he must set a good example for the girl by curbing some of his own bad habits, including swearing and slovenliness. An irritable Higgins agrees, then privately complains to Pickering that Mrs. Pearce is “firmly persuaded that I’m an arbitrary, overbearing bossing kind of fellow” (Pygmalion, p. 38). Meanwhile, Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father and a London dustman (so called because his trade involves collecting the dust—ashes and other refuse—from people’s dustbins), calls on Higgins, demanding his daughter’s return. Higgins correctly interprets Doolittle’s indignant display as a plot to extort money and calls his bluff, telling him to take Eliza away. Doolittle quickly changes tactics, expresses approval of Eliza’s wish to improve her speech, and attempts to engage Higgins and Pickering’s sympathies on his behalf, as Eliza’s father and one of the “undeserving poor.” The term refers to idlers and scroungers, and Doolittle makes no pretense to being deserving. Amused, Higgins at last gives Doolittle a five-pound note; the dustman departs, though not before seeing a clean, immaculately dressed Eliza. All three men are astonished by her improved appearance.

For the next few months, Higgins relentlessly drills Eliza on her speech, often driving her to tears of frustration. He schedules her first test in society by inviting her to his mother’s At-Home. Mrs. Higgins is dismayed by this last-minute addition to her guest list but, on learning of her son’s project, reluctantly consents to include Eliza. The Higginses’ conversation is cut short by the arrivals of Pickering and the Eynsford Hills, the same mother, daughter, and son trio whom Eliza encountered that night at Covent Garden. Higgins recognizes them, but fortunately the Eynsford Hills—genteel but financially straitened—do not recognize him or Eliza in her fashionable new clothes. Freddy Eynsford Hill is especially struck by Eliza’s beauty. At first, Eliza’s deportment and conversation are quite proper, if a bit stilted, but as the visit continues, her speech becomes more colorful and less appropriate. Higgins manages to pass off her utterances as the “new small talk” and ushers her discreetly out of the house, although Eliza shocks Mrs. Higgins’s other guests by using the word “bloody” as she departs (Pygmalion, p. 59). After the Eynsford Hills leave, Mrs. Higgins remonstrates with Higgins and Pickering for not giving sufficient thought to what they will do with Eliza if or when they succeed in transforming her. Both men airily dismiss her concerns and resume their project of “inventing new Elizas” (Pygmalion, p. 64).

Six months after Eliza began her speech lessons, Higgins and Pickering take her to an ambassador’s evening reception. This time Eliza’s appearance, deportment, and speech are faultless; the other guests react to her as though she were a princess. Even Nepommuck, a foreign interpreter who was Higgins’s first pupil, is convinced that she is Hungarian royalty. Pickering informs a nervous Eliza that she has won Higgins’s bet “ten times over” and the trio quickly exits (Pygmalion, p. 71).

Back at Higgins’s house, the two men congratulate each other on their victory and loudly express relief that their experiment is over, oblivious to Eliza’s presence and growing distress. After Pickering leaves the room, Eliza explodes at Higgins, berating him for his thoughtlessness and asking him what is to become of her now. Taken aback by her passionate outburst, Higgins nonetheless refuses to take Eliza’s concerns seriously, enraging her further. Their quarrel ends with Higgins accusing Eliza of ingratitude and storming from the room.

Upstairs, Eliza changes into walking clothes, gathers up a few personal belongings, and leaves the house. Outside, she encounters the lovestruck Freddy Eynsford Hill who has been haunting the neighborhood in the hopes of seeing her again. In need of comfort, Eliza encourages his devotion and asks him to accompany her on a taxi ride through London while she sorts out her predicament.

The following morning, Higgins and Pickering, distraught over Eliza’s mysterious departure, show up at Mrs. Higgins’s house. Mrs. Higgins scolds both men for sending the police out to look for Eliza “as if she were a thief, or a lost umbrella,” but does not let them know that the girl has taken refuge with her (Pygmalion, p. 84). Then, Alfred Doolittle, who has been searching for Higgins, appears; to everyone’s surprise, the dustman is splendidly dressed, as though for a fashionable wedding. Doolittle glumly confesses that, owing to a legacy from a wealthy American, he is no longer a member of “the undeserving poor” but now a gentleman besieged by requests for money and obliged to uphold “middle-class morality” (Pygmalion, p. 86). Doolittle blames Higgins for letting the American know of his existence. (Higgins, in fact, has mentioned Doolittle’s name and unusual outlook on morality to the American benefactor.) The subject of Eliza comes up and Mrs. Higgins reveals that Eliza has been staying with her since that morning, then criticizes the astonished Higgins and Pickering for their unthinking, unappreciative treatment of their former protege. After making the two men promise to mind their manners, Mrs. Higgins has Eliza join them in the drawing room.

Now poised and self-possessed, Eliza thanks Pickering for the kindness and courtesy he consistently showed her during her lessons, crediting him with teaching her self-respect. She also makes several barbed comments about Higgins’s lack of manners, which infuriates the professor. Despite Pickering’s entreaties, Eliza declines to return to Wimpole Street with him and Higgins. At this point, Doolittle startles his daughter by stepping forward, revealing his newfound wealth to her, and announcing that he is to marry her “stepmother” that afternoon. Although Eliza despises the bride as a “low common woman,” she reluctantly agrees to attend the wedding (Pygmalion, p. 95).

While everyone else readies themselves to go to the church, Eliza and Higgins are finally left alone. Once again they clash, widening the gulf between them. Eliza demands to be treated with respect and consideration, while Higgins, with equal obstinacy, refuses to change his nature for anyone. He can offer her nothing more than a platonic relationship, yet he becomes indignant when he learns that Freddy is her suitor and outraged when Eliza threatens to go to work for the interpreter Nepommuck and teach phonetics. Irritated but intrigued by this independent new Eliza, Higgins invites her to return to Wimpole Street with him and Pickering and be “three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl” (Pygmalion, p. 104). As Mrs. Higgins re-enters, Eliza coolly refuses, tells him they will not be seeing each other again, and makes a majestic exit. As the play ends, the incorrigible Higgins continues to call out domestic instructions to her and laughs uproariously at the thought of Eliza marrying Freddy.

An independent woman

Shaw’s play recalls the Greek myth of Pygmalion—in which a sculptor carves a statue of the ideal woman and falls in love with his creation, then brings it to life by his prayers to the love goddess Aphrodite. The play does not so much update the Greek myth as invert it. Shaw’s biographer Michael Holroyd points out, “Higgins [creates] a petrified social statue of Eliza. Under his tutelage she becomes a doll of ‘remarkable distinction and beauty . . . speaking with pedantic correctness of pronunciation and great beauty of tone’. . . . This dummy figure replaces the ‘draggle tailed guttersnipe . . . more brute than being’ whose life Higgins acknowledges to have been real, warm, and violent” (Holroyd, p. 327). Calling her son and Pickering “a pretty pair of babies playing with your live doll,” the acerbic Mrs. Higgins questions whether their experiment will do Eliza more harm than good (Pygmalion, p. 63). They have not considered what is to be done with her afterward, once they have given her manners that disqualify her from earning her living as a flower girl without furnishing her with an income.

Mrs. Higgins’s words prove prophetic. Having passed in high society as a duchess and won Higgins’s wager, a despairing Eliza asks her former teacher, “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? Whats to become of me?” (Pygmalion, p. 76). The unthinking Higgins is forced to admit that he has never given much consideration to the subject. His vague suggestion that Eliza might marry “some chap or other” that his mother picks out meets with the scornful response, “We were above that in Tottenham Court Road. . I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now youv’e made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else” (Pygmalion, p. 77).

Significantly, the final stage of Eliza’s metamorphosis—from guttersnipe to doll-like duchess to living woman—takes place only after she breaks with Higgins. While Galatea, the statue in the original legend came to life to wed Pygmalion, her modem counterpart ultimately rejects her creator and the life of “three old bachelors together” that he offers her, in favor of a possible career as a teacher and marriage to the feckless Freddy Eynsford Hill, who loves her. (Pygmalion, p. 104). Threatening to set herself up as a rival in Higgins’s own field of phonetics, Eliza revels in his discomfiture:

You cant take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can. . . . 0h, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself.

(Pygmalion, pp. 103-104).

Despite being taken aback by Eliza’s defiance, the unpredictable Higgins declares, “By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this. . . . Five minutes ago you were like a millstone round my neck. Now you’re a tower of strength: a consort battleship” (Pygmalion, p. 104).

Eliza’s startling declaration of independence coincides with historical changes in the lives of women in the early twentieth century. Even in the late Victorian Age, a growing number of middle-and upper-class women became less content to accept marriage and motherhood as their sole lot in life. Indeed, the surplus of women in Great Britain meant that many would end up as spinsters. Nor were such women content to be only governesses and schoolteachers; with the founding of women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge during the 1870s, higher education for women became increasingly possible. Some of these New Women, the term for the increasing number of middle-and upper-class women of the 1880s and ‘90s who sought lives beyond the domestic sphere, followed the example of Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse of the Crimean War, studying medicine and even qualifying as doctors. Others tried to enter the law courts. Meanwhile, women of the working-and lower-classes began to aspire to higher-status positions than laborers in factories or sweatshops. Some became secretaries in banks and commercial houses.

Also, the campaign for women’s suffrage ignited during the Edwardian Age. In 1903 Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst formed a new, more militant women’s suffrage movement. Pankhurst’s followers were far more insistent and aggressive than previous campaigners had been—holding vigorous public demonstrations, visiting the House of Commons and shouting the slogan “Votes for Women,” while dropping leaflets onto the heads of startled members of Parliament, and, on a few occasions, even damaging public property in an attempt to make themselves heard. For their efforts, the suffragists were harassed, arrested, jailed, and subjected to brutal force-feeding if they staged hunger strikes in jail. The British public refused to take the suffragists seriously until one of them, Emily Wilding Davidson, threw herself in front of the king’s horse on Derby Day, 1913. When her injuries proved fatal, the suffragist movement acquired its first martyr to the cause; the opposition was sufficiently “startled and roused” by Davidson’s actions to wonder what harm could truly result from granting women the vote (Minney, p. 171). In 1918, women over the age of 30 at last gained the vote as well as the right to sit in Parliament; ten years later, the vote was extended to all women aged 21 and older.

Sources and literary context

Shaw took the title of his play from the Greek legend of Pygmalion described above, in which a statue of a beautiful woman becomes the object of its creator’s desire. Like his mythical counterpart, Shaw’s Henry Higgins “creates” a woman out of unpromising material—in this case, the “squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden”


It was perhaps a minor miracle that the English production of Pygmalion managed to be staged at all. Shaw, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who played Higgins, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who played Eliza, were each accustomed to having his or her own way. Plays seldom had an official producer during the early twentieth century. Rather, theatrical companies and the productions as well were usually run by the chief actor in the troupe, who was often called the Actor-Manager. Shaw, however, had very specific ideas of how he wanted Pygmalion to be performed, so he himself served as the producer, overseeing rehearsals and demanding that the actors perform their roles according to his directions. Quarrels frequently erupted between the playwright and his two stars. Years later, Mrs. Patrick Campbell recalled the experience in a letter to Shaw; “At long last came the rehearsals—Oh my God! . I was 25 years too old for the part . . . you bullied me unmercifully. I was having infinite trouble with the accent, I wanted to get rhythm into it, and no comic adenoid effects—nothing to worry the audience—I have one letter of yours, written just before the first night, that would have made a weaker woman commit suicide” (Campbell in Shaw, p. xix). The male star, Tree, presented other difficulties, the most obvious being his desire to play Higgins as a romantic hero and imply that, despite Shaw’s insistence to the contrary, Higgins and Eliza were united in the end. After Pygmalion opened in England and Shaw stopped attending performances, Tree essentially threw out the playwright’s directions in favor of his own interpretation, which included a scene at the end in which Higgins threw flowers and blew kisses to a departing Eliza. Shaw, on hearing about this, was enraged. Tree defended his changes: “My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful,” whereupon Shaw fi red back, “Your ending makes nonsense, you ought to be shot” (Huggett, p. 162).

(Pygmalion, p. 92). In the myth, however, Pygmalion the sculptor marries the woman into which the statue turns, whereas the relationship between Higgins and Eliza remains undetermined at the end of the play. Shaw maintained to the end of his life that the two did not marry, although filmmakers and modern audiences have often disagreed with him.

While there was no one-to-one correspondence between real-life originals and the characters in Pygmalion, Shaw, as mentioned, based Henry Higgins in part on the revolutionary phonetician Henry Sweet, who died while the play was being written. The part of Eliza was created for Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a leading actress of Shaw’s day with whom, for a time, he was in love.

As a play, Pygmalion combines elements of comedy, satire, farce, and biting social commentary. Shaw himself insisted that Pygmalion was a didactic work, intended to demonstrate how phonetics could break apart an antiquated and artificial class system. He, however, conceded that there were elements of “romance” in Pygmalion, though not in the sense that the hero and heroine were to be romantically involved:

I call it a romance because it is the story of a poor girl who meets a gentleman at a church door and is transformed by him into a beautiful lady. That is what I call a romance. It is also what everybody else calls a romance, so for once we are all agreed. She does not marry anybody. I draw the line at that. She can marry whom she pleases when the curtain comes down, but I have something better for her to do when it is up.

(Shaw in Huggett, p. 111)


To the considerable indignation of the British theatrical establishment, which criticized Shaw for disloyalty, Pygmalion actually premiered abroad, making its debut in Vienna on October 16, 1913. The play was a resounding success from the start, whetting English appetites for the London premiere, which took place 6 months later, on April 11, 1914. Despite a horrendous and stormy rehearsal process, the English production, like Vienna’s, proved to be a triumph.

There were some complaints about the venue: the reviewer for the Westminster Gazette argued that His Majesty’s Theatre was large for such an intimate play, but conceded that the play is full of good qualities. The reviewer singled out Alfred Doolittle—an audience favorite—for special praise, calling the character “one of the most entertaining in the whole Shaw theatre” (Evans, pp. 224-25). In the Nation, H. W. Massingham, agreed, and also showered praise on Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: “Sir Herbert is a large, filling personality, he does well for the blustering Professor. . . . Mrs. Campbell’s beauty is not the beauty of a London flower-girl; but she simulated it with great skill and humor” (Massingham in Evans, p. 229). Other critics praised Shaw’s verbal brilliance. Alex M. Thompson, writing for the Clarìon, observed in Pygmalion an “abundance of bold and startling wit, most of which probably no other author would have thought of, and much of which assuredly no other author would have dared to offer to any audience” (Thompson in Evans, p. 226). Finally, in the New Statesman, the prominent drama critic Desmond MacCarthy, called Pygmalion “an exhilarating, amusing, and often a deep comedy,” adding

Like all good comedies, it is full of criticism of life; in this case criticism of social barriers and distinctions, of the disinterested yet ferocious egotism of artists, of genteel standards, of the disadvantages of respectability, of the contrast between man’s sense of values and women’s, and of the complexity and misunderstanding which a difference of sex introduces into human relations, however passionately one of the two may resolve to sink the He and She.

(MacCarthy, p. 108)

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Asher, R. E., and Eugénie J. A. Henderson, eds. Towards a History of Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Crow, Duncan. The Edwardian Woman. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978.

Evans, T. F., ed. Shaw: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.

Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. Vol. 2. New York: Random House, 1990.

Huggett, Richard. The Truth about Pygmalion. New York: Random House, 1969.

MacCarthy, Desmond. Shaw’s Plays in Review. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

Mayhew, Henry. Mayhew’s London. London: The Pilot Press, 1949.

McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert Mac-Neil. The Story of English. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Minney, R. J. The Edwardian Age. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

Pearsall, Ronald. Edwardian Life and Leisure. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1973.

Priestley, J. B. The Edwardians. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Randall, Rona. The Model Wife, Nineteenth-Century Style. London: The Herbert Press, 1989.

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. Burnt Mill: Longman, 1983.


views updated May 18 2018


by George Bernard Shaw


A play set in London in the early twentieth century; first performed in 1913.


Two men interested in phonetics transform the speech and manners of a common flower girl and present her as a lady to fashionable London society.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born into a poor family in Dublin, Ireland. Despite childhood neglect and inadequate schooling, he became one of Britain’s most articulate and famous writers. His plays, economic and political tracts, journalism, and public speaking appearances were all colored by his socialist views and sparkling wit. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, traveled the world, and amassed a considerable fortune before his death. Pygmalion, one of his less serious plays, helped secure Shaw’s success as a popular playwright.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Social class and social climbing

In every scene of Pygmalion, Shaw juxtaposes different social classes and explores how they relate to one another. Accents, clothing, and manners indicate the degree of wealth and social status of each family. Social climbers in England at the time faced slim odds, while well-to-do families devoted considerable time, energy, and money to the preservation of their status.

The rise of the middle class in nineteenth-century England had fundamentally redefined the class system. As more and more businessmen and their families prospered and imitated the upper classes, subtle distinctions became all-important. Aristocrats tried to maintain their superiority by glorifying attributes that could not be bought easily, such as family history, refined social graces, and old traditions.

The London season

In the play, Eliza’s recently refined speech and manners are put to the test one summer day at a garden party, a dinner, and an embassy reception. Such events filled the London social calendar from May until late July. For the duration of this season, 4,000 of England’s richest, most aristocratic families crowded into London to attend events like these. May was replete with social events. The season began with a private gallery exhibition at the Royal Academy. Taking an after-church Sunday stroll in Hyde Park was a fashionable amusement of the month, and the first garden parties of the year were held in May. Also debutantes were presented to English royalty at court receptions, or drawing rooms, during this month. Covent Garden opera season opened in May, and concerts, balls, and theater performances took place.

In the off-season, popular activities included ice skating, horse racing, and the hunting of pheasant, rabbit, stag, partridge, and fox. Throughout Britain, visiting days called “at homes” also provided entertainment all year long.

The English At-Home

During the Victorian era, members of the upper and upper-middle classes formally visited or “called on” one another several afternoons each week. Eliza gains easy access to Mrs. Higgins, but the average newcomer would have had to earn the chance to visit: she had to have been formally introduced, and in most cases, to have received a card and a visit from the hostess. The would be social newcomer might then arrive in a carriage and give a card bearing her name to a household servant. The card was taken upstairs and presented to the lady of the house, who decided whether or not to receive the caller. If all went well, the servant returned with the answer that her mistress was “at home,” and the relieved visitor proceeded upstairs.

A well-to-do woman made herself available by choosing a day of the week and setting a time between the hours of three and six. The friends she welcomed into her drawing room were almost all women, but men could also attend. Light conversation prevailed as guests sipped tea daintily. If a family had marriageable daughters, it might show them off by having them sing a song or play a piece on the piano. Visits usually lasted fewer than fifteen minutes, especially if one did not know the hostess well. One historian comments on how newcomers would be scrutinized by regular visitors:

They will listen to her voice (too shrill? too breathy? a trace of undesirable accent?) and pay attention, not just to what she says, but to how she says it. Does she say ‘father’ rather than the correct ‘my father’? Does she gush? Does she wear the right clothes for the occasion, does she move without flurrying, does she keep her gestures to a minimum? Above all, does she carry herself with a poise that declares that she is neither the group’s superior nor yet its hopeful probationer but a potential full member as of right?

(Sproule, p. 39)

For better or worse, the at-home gave women a sphere for themselves, to regulate as they pleased. Although it offered them contact with the outside world, the nature of that contact was sometimes considered superficial and unrewarding. Inevitably the at-home cultivated women who were practiced in the arts of flattery and small talk. In the play, Henry Higgins complains about sitting at dinner “with nobody but a damned fool of a fashionable woman to talk to!” (Shaw, Pygmalion, p. 71). Ironically, he is the mentor who teaches Eliza to speak and behave like these fashionable women do.

“The Queen’s English.”

Regional differences in pronunciation have always complicated and enriched the communication of British speakers of English. However, Queen Victoria’s reign witnessed England’s most concerted effort yet to establish a nationwide spoken standard, known as “the Queen’s English.” The Education Act of 1870 brought together the children (mostly boys) of upper and middle-class families for education in the English public school system, where accents were smoothed out. By the end of the 1800s, a new term had been coined: Received Pronunciation (RP). This accent was the outward indication that one belonged to the upper or professional middle class or to the Civil Service, and to speak anything “less” denoted a lack of education.


The Doolittles. Alfred Doolittle and his daughter, Eliza, are the “undeserving poor/’ They are therefore are less eligible for charity than the “deserving poor/’ such as widows. The Doolittles are expected to work; he labors as a dustman (garbage man) and Eliza, who lives on her own, peddles flowers on the street.

Pickering and the Higginses . These members of the genteel middle class have the money, status, and leisure to attend university, become officers in the Civil Service, and participate in fashionable London social life. Mrs, Higgins’s manners and her elegant, expensive flat on the Thames River are also marks of good breeding and affluence.

The Eynsford Hills. Mrs. Eynsford Hill’s move from the wealthy Epsom area to the moderately fashionable Earl’s Court section of London signals a decline in the family fortune. Their genteel background would have made it almost unthinkable for her son Freddy to open a flower shop with Eliza, since a venture into retail trade would have damaged the family reputation further and hurt his sister’s chances for a good marriage. Unfortunately, the family lacks the money to give Freddy an alternative.

The Doolittles’ Cockney intonation provides a striking contrast to the RP spoken by Pickering, the Higginses, and the Eynsford Hills. Higgins, moreover, is so competent in the study of phonetics that he can place anyone he meets within a few miles of his or her birthplace, sometimes even within a few streets. Like Higgins, real phoneticians were working to invent alphabets that could better represent the sounds of spoken English. Sir Isaac Pitman developed and published a shorthand system that became widely used. Although Shaw preferred the system of another phonetician, he jotted down the preface to Pygmalion in Pitman because it was the only shorthand his secretary could read.

Shaw also had a lifelong interest in the development of a more complete alphabet for everyday use. He advocated simplified spelling and the addition of letters to represent common English sounds for which he felt there were no satisfactory letters. To make his point about simplified spelling, Shaw once wrote the word Fish as Ghoti, using the gh of rough, the o of women, and the ti of nation. His will provided a substantial amount of money for the reformation of the English language, but a legal ruling held that part of the will to be impractical and directed the money elsewhere.

Science and experimentation

Henry Higgins describes his work with Eliza as “the most absorbing experiment I ever tackled” (Pygmalion, p. 58). Insofar as Eliza’s ordeal can be considered an experiment, it raises questions that were on the minds of many people in Edwardian England: could science really help to cure society’s ills, and how carefully did scientists think out the consequences of their work? These issues tempered the seemingly limitless optimism of the Victorian era, in which Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) was only the most famous of many astonishing scientific theories. Exciting progress in the 1890s, such as the discovery of the x-ray, the electron, and radioactivity, kept these questions current. Shaw himself was fundamentally hopeful about what science could offer society, as he himself noted in a 1909 paper on “Socialism and Medicine”:

I belong to a generation which, I think, began life by hoping more from Science than perhaps any generation ever hoped before, and, possibly, will ever hope again.... At the present moment we are passing through a phase of disillusion. Science has not lived up to the hopes we formed of it in the 1860s; but those hopes left a mark on my temperament that I shall never get rid of till I die.

(Shaw in Hynes, p. 132)

The Play in Focus

The plot

Late one rainy night, in the busy Covent Garden section of London, a mother, daughter, and son meet a persistent flower girl who tries to sell them flowers while they look for a taxi. Out of sight, a stranger scribbles notes as the flower girl speaks. She realizes he is writing down her words and soon becomes outraged to discover he can identify where she is from by listening to the way she speaks. A crowd gathers to watch the fun, and the mysterious man shows them the special alphabet he uses to transcribe speech sounds. The stranger, Henry Higgins, boasts that the flower girl could pass for a duchess if he chose to teach her to speak English properly. By chance, the crowd contains another phonetician, Colonel Pickering, who has already heard of Henry Higgins and his alphabet. The two men excitedly schedule time to discuss their interest in the science of speech. In parting, a reluctant Higgins gives the flower girl a few coins, and she treats herself to a ride home in a taxi.

The next morning, the Colonel visits Higgins at home and reviews his colleague’s complex phonetic alphabet. The men are surprised by the arrival of the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, who wishes to hire Higgins as a speech therapist. He rejects the proposal, but the Colonel challenges him to prove his skill and make good his boast, promising to pay the expenses of the work if Eliza succeeds. Higgins accepts the bet and hastily addresses the practical details of the arrangement.

His housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, admonishes Higgins to mind his own speech and manners while he reforms Eliza’s. The girl’s inadequate upbringing and impressionable nature have left her illequipped to disregard his coarser habits, such as swearing. Higgins promises to be good. He and Pickering are then visited by Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. One of the “undeserving poor,” Doolittle tries to win their sympathy and coax money out of Higgins. As a parent, he feels entitled to share in Eliza’s good fortune. He leaves, satisfied with a five-pound note; Higgins, convinced that they will suffer no more interference, feels ready to start the experiment.

Some months later, Higgins measures Eliza’s progress by inviting her to his mother’s at-home. Before Eliza is presented, Higgins and his mother are interrupted by the arrival of Pickering, Mrs. Eynsford Hill, her daughter Clara, and her son Freddy. Ironically the Eynsford Hills are the same family Eliza tried to sell flowers to in Act One; Higgins recognizes them, but the others fail to make the connection. Eliza starts off well enough, and she succeeds in charming Freddy. Slowly, her contributions to the conversation become less proper, and she stuns the assembly by using the offensive word “bloody” as she leaves.

Six months after Eliza begins her lessons, Higgins and the Colonel settle their wager by watching people react to her at an ambassador’s reception. Eliza has the bearing and speech of a princess, and she fools everyone, including an expert interpreter. Higgins has clearly won the bet.

The three of them arrive at Higgins’s house, exhausted after the day’s events. Eliza flinches as Higgins expresses relief that the tedious job is over. He and Pickering revel in Eliza’s success as if she were not in the room. After the Colonel bids them goodnight, Eliza confronts Higgins in despair, wondering what will become of her. He thoroughly fails to understand her, and the two of them part in anger. Eliza changes into walking clothes and is surprised to meet her admirer, Freddy Eynsford Hill, in the street. She turns to him for consolation, and he is only too happy to comply.

The next day, Higgins and Pickering arrive at Mrs. Higgins’s house, desperate to find their lost Eliza, unaware that she has taken refuge upstairs there. Again, Mrs. Higgins points out the flaws in their regard for women, but before she gets very far, Eliza’s father pays them a surprise visit. Alfred Doolittle has come into quite a bit of money, and he tells them it is ruining his life. When they discuss what will happen to Eliza, her father makes it clear that he does not want to support her financially. Eliza comes downstairs and thanks Pickering for the courtesy he has consistently shown her, citing his behavior as a turning point in her self-respect. Meanwhile, her composure and pointed comments shock Higgins.

Eliza and Higgins are left alone while the others prepare to attend Alfred Doolittle’s wedding that afternoon. The two of them discuss the nature of their acquaintance and Eliza’s prospects for the future. Mrs. Higgins returns to collect Eliza, who has made it clear that she intends to marry Freddy and part company with Higgins permanently.


Ow, eez yE-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ dE-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore get’s flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py ma f’them?

(Shaw, Pygmalion, p, 5)

Oh, he’s your son, is he? Well, if you had done your duty by him as a mother should, he would know better than to spoil a poor girl’s flowers [and] then run away without paying. Will you pay me for them?

(Shaw, Pygmalion, p. 26 of insert)

True gentility

Higgins’s success in training Eliza calls into question the notion of gentility. The theatergoer is left wondering what, if anything, inherently distinguishes the upper class from their lower-class counterparts. By the end of the play, it is clear that anyone might acquire the riches and superficial refinement often equated with gentility. Alfred Doolittle’s fortune and Eliza’s chance to join the ranks of high society unexpectedly put the privileges of the upper-middle class within their reach. On the other hand, the well-born Eynsford Hills have come down in the world, and the reduction of their means has caused the daughter, Clara, to become abrasive and unkind. And although Mrs. Higgins is a model of courtesy, her son has turned out to be insensitive to the feelings of others.

The play raises the question of who or what turns Eliza into a lady. Higgins’s expertise and Eliza’s own talent and motivation are certainly required. But in the end, Eliza gives Pickering the credit, citing his example of unaffected gentility and the self-respect he inspired in her:

Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me.… And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors.… You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.

(Pygmalion, p. 90)


Many scholars have found a close parallel between the story line of Pygmalion and an episode in Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). Peregrine takes charge of a coarse young woman and transforms her into a fine lady. He compensates her mother with a small sum of money, battles the girl’s tendency to swear, and shows her off at a grand ball. Later, the girl elopes with his valet. Peregrine’s initial anger cools, and he helps the young couple open a coffee-house and tavern (Eliza and Freddy start a flower shop with Pickering’s help, as Shaw explains in the afterword). Other scholars have pointed out the possible influence of a number of plays too, including W. S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea (1871) and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879; also covered in Literature and Its Times). But Shaw denied borrowing the story directly from any of these sources.

Many agree, however, that the play echoes the wellknown fairy tale of Cinderella. Like Cinderella, Eliza is a virtuous, hard-working drudge and a victim of circumstance until, by a stroke of luck, she has the chance to mix with elite society. Trademarks of the story—the stepmother, the midnight curfew, and the glass slipper—find counterparts in the play’s housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce; the twelve o’clock return home after the reception; and the emphasis on Higgins’s slippers. There are also overtones in the play of the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, after whom the work is named.

The myth of Pygmalion

“I wish [Mr. Shaw’d] found a better title,” observed a flower girl who attended the London premiere. “Who’s ter know Pygmalion is anything to do wiv flower girls?” (Berst, p. 19). However, Shaw was sure that many regular theatergoers would in fact have recognized the name Pygmalion and remembered the story associated with it. Hoping to surprise the very first audience, he tried to fool it into expecting a classical play. To do this, he produced the play anonymously, chose a leading actress who had never appeared in a low-life part, and trusted that people would, at the very least, link the title with classical mythology.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is a man disgusted with the behavior of women whom the love goddess, Venus, has turned into whores. He prefers celibacy instead and chooses to carve a beautiful woman out of ivory. The statue seems almost alive, and he runs his hands over it, pays it compliments, and brings it small gifts. Tenderly, he lays it down beside him in his bed, wishing it were real. On a holiday dedicated to Venus, Pygmalion makes a sacrifice to the goddess of love. Not daring to ask that his statue come to life, he prays that his wife be one like his ivory girl. Venus understands his true intention, and when he returns to caress the statue in his bed, it comes alive under his hands.

The poets and dramatists of the late Renaissance wondered how the woman must have felt, being born into the world full-grown and waking in the arms of a lover. Similar to this humanized statue, the female creation in Shaw’s play expresses how being transformed makes her feel, and she acts in a way that adds a twist to the story: Higgins’s masterpiece, Eliza, turns on her “creator” and proceeds to live her life, quite happily, without him.

Production, reviews, and new formats

Shaw chose to produce Pygmalion in Vienna and Berlin in 1913 before bringing it to London the next year, citing the fact that “It is the custom of the English press when a play of mine is produced, to inform the world that it is not a play—that it is dull, blasphemous, unpopular, and financially unsuccessful” (Shaw in Weiss, p. 170). When the play did open at His Majesty’s Theatre on April 11, 1914, the London critics did not fail to appreciate the acclaim it had won overseas. The success Pygmalion enjoyed in London and elsewhere firmly established Shaw’s reputation as a popular playwright.

As is so often the case, success was accompanied by controversy, especially regarding Eliza’s use of the word bloody. Such outrageously offensive language had never before been uttered in a performance at His Majesty’s Theatre. Newspapers seized upon the information, and tickets for the premiere sold quickly. Even though they knew what to expect, the audience gasped in unison when the lead actress delivered the line, “Not bloody likely!” (Pygmalion, p. 55). A stunned silence and waves of uproarious laughter followed, and the performance ground to a halt briefly. The next day’s theater headlines talked of little else: “BERNARD SHAW’S BOLD BAD WORD SPOKEN … SENSATION AT HIS MAJESTY’S …

PROTEST BY DECENCY LEAGUE … I SEE NO OBJECTION SAYS PRIME MINISTER” (Berst p. 18). One newspaper, the Daily Express, had sent a Charing Cross flower girl named Eliza to review the show:

I never thought I should be so conspic— conspic—well, yer knows wot I mean! … It was all rite, though, wen the curten went up. I reely enjoyed myself then, and wen I ’eard the langwidge, it was quite home-like. I never thought as ’ow they allowed sich langwidge on the stige.… I thought it was funny when she got into the taxi wiv her basket. Of course, flower-girls don’t make a habit of getting into taxis, but you know, when you’ve had a good day, you feels sporty. I didn’t like the last bit when Eliza’s supposed to fall in love with the Prof. He wanted her to go back to him, yet he didn’t say he loved her. It wasn’t one thing or another.

(Berst, p. 19)

Although she appreciated the familiar Cockney English, the young lady protested that she herself did not speak half as crudely as Eliza. Her dissatisfaction with the ending hinted at a debate that has haunted the play ever since the earliest productions: should there be a romantic ending between Higgins and Eliza or not? Producers and audiences generally favored one, but Shaw insisted that a marriage between the girl of eighteen and the middle-aged bachelor with a mother complex could lead only to misery.

In 1916 he wrote a preface and an afterword, which try to steer the reader away from speculation about a romance between the hero and heroine. Shaw modified the text several times in the years that followed, adding whole scenes for a 1938 film version of Pygmalion. Some of them, such as the embassy reception, were then written into the play as optional scenes, creating what is now distributed as the final text. Pygmalion was later reworked by others into the musical My Fair Lady, which became a motion picture that won several Academy Awards. Many Shaw fans could not bring themselves to applaud the flashy musical, and at least one critic dismissed it as far less intellectually pleasing than the play (Moore in Shaw, p. 48 of insert).

For More Information

Berst, Charles A. Pygmalion: Shaw’s Spin on Myth and Cinderella. Twayne’s Masterworks Series. No. 155. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Ervine, St. John. Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends. New York: William Morrow, 1956.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Hynes, Samuel. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert Mac-Neil. The Story of English. New York: Viking, Elizabeth Sifton Books, 1986.

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. New York: Washington Square, 1957.

Sproule, Anna. The Social Calendar. Poole, Dorset: Blandford, 1978.

Weiss, Samuel A., ed. Bernard Shaw’s Letters to Siegfried Treditsch. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986.


views updated May 17 2018


In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a king of the island of Cyprus and a sculptor. He spent many years carving an ivory statue of a woman more beautiful than any living female.

Pygmalion became fascinated by his sculpture and fell in love with it. He pretended it was an actual woman. He brought it presents and treated it as if it were alive. However, the statue could not respond to his attentions, and Pygmalion became miserable. Finally, he prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to bring him a woman like his statue. Aphrodite did even better. She brought the statue to life. Pygmalion married this woman, often called Galatea, who gave birth to a daughter (some versions of the story say the child was a boy).

The writer George Bernard Shaw took the name Pygmalion as the title of his play about an English professor who turns a poor girl from the streets into a fashionable society woman. Shaw's story was the basis of the later Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady.


views updated May 17 2018

Pygmalion in Greek mythology, a king of Cyprus who fashioned an ivory statue of a beautiful woman and loved it so deeply that in answer to his prayer Aphrodite gave it life. The woman (later named Galatea) bore him a daughter, Paphos.

Pygmalion was used as the name of a play (1916; the musical My Fair Lady was based on it) by George Bernard Shaw, in which the phonetician Henry Higgins teaches the Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle to pass herself off as a society woman. Before her transformation is fully achieved, Eliza utters the words ‘not bloody likely’, which caused a public sensation at the time of the first London production; as a result, Pygmalion became a humorous euphemism for ‘bloody’.


views updated May 23 2018

Pygmalion ★★★½ 1938

Oscarwinning film adaptation of Shaw's play about a cockney flowergirl who is transformed into a “lady” under the guidance of a stuffy phonetics professor. Shaw himself aided in writing the script in this superbly acted comedy that would be adapted into the musical, “My Fair Lady,” first on Broadway in 1956 and for the screen in 1964. 96m/B VHS, DVD . GB Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfred Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, David Tree, Everley Gregg, Leueen McGrath, Jean Cadell, Eileen Beldon, Frank Atkinson, O.B. Clarence, Esme Percy, Violet Vanbrugh, Iris Hoey, Viola Tree, Irene Browne, Kate Cutler, Cathleen Nesbitt, Cecil Trouncer, Stephen Murray, Wally Patch, H.F. Maltby; D: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard; W: W.P. Lipscomb, Anatole de Grunwald, Cecil Lewis, Ian Dalrymple, George Bernard Shaw; C: Harry Stradling Sr. Oscars '38: Screenplay; Venice Film Fest. '38: Actor (Howard).