Pygmalion: A Romance in 5 Acts by Bernard Shaw
Eliza Doolittle is just a lowly flower girl on the streets of London when she happens across Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, two of the world’s most renowned linguists. With their help, Eliza learns to alter not only her speaking patterns, but her behavior and way of thinking as well. A play, with five acts carries us through Eliza’s transformation from a guttersnipe, to a lady of esteemed worth.
Anyone who has seen My Fair Lady, is already familiar with this story. My Fair Lady is based on Pygmalion and very little of the text has been altered for the movie. The only changes are the musical renditions thrown into the movie. The whole time I was reading the play, I kept pausing for the songs that I know so well from the movie. Having seen My Fair Lady about 50x in my lifetime, I have a fondness for Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins. I’m not sure I would feel the same about him having only read the play. Henry Higgins is a bully. He is very self-centered and negligent of people’s feelings. Through the playwright’s notes, we see that Henry Higgins is still a softy under his harsh demeanor. His love of linguistics prevents him from being able to really appreciate anything else in his life. Eliza’s speech patterns are grating to the ear, but her lines are the most fun to read aloud in attempts to mimic her cockney accent. Her character is naive and innocent, but still intelligent. Despite her transformation, she remains aware of who she is and where she came from.
The play Pygmalion is based on the Greek myth of the same name. The myth goes as follows:
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 similarities between the myth and play are endless. Eliza Doolittle is Higgins’ own statue brought to life. Even Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mom, comments on the two men playing with their “living doll.” Henry instills in Eliza a new perspective, a new meaning and a new validity. The play was written in the early 20th Century, and is still a strong piece of literary work.
I particularly liked my edition of the play, because it came with a thoughtful introduction, as well as a preface to the play written by Shaw himself. Once the play ends, there is an exposition written further expounding on the themes and social commentaries noted in the play.Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts Bernard Shaw Penguin Classics, 1916 (first publication) 133 pages Book 7 of 2011