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Pygmalion (1913) is a play by George Bernard Shaw. It tells the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics (based on phonetician Henry Sweet), who makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can turn a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a refined society lady merely by teaching her how to speak with an upper class accent and training her in etiquette. In the process, Higgins and Doolittle grow close, but she ultimately rejects his domineering ways and declares she will marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young but poor gentleman.
Shaw wrote the lead role of Eliza Doolittle for Mrs Patrick Campbell (though at 49 she was considered by some to be too old for the part). Due to delays in mounting a London production and Campbell's injury in a car accident, the first English presentation did not take place until some time after Pygmalion premiered at the Hofburg Theater in Vienna on October 16, 1913, in a German translation by Shaw. The first production in English finally opened at His Majesty's Theatre, London on April 11, 1914 and starred Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza, and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Henry Higgins; it was directed by Shaw himself.
Shaw based the play on Ovid's Pygmalion. Some have speculated that Alexander Melville Bell was the model for Professor Higgins. Evidence supporting this includes the fact Eliza is not a common name, and Eliza Grace Bell was Alexander Melville Bell's wife. However it should also be noted that in earlier retellings of Ovid's story a similar name is used; Goethe calls her Elise, based upon the variants in the story of Dido/Elissa. The play also owes something to the legend of King Cophetua. The play led to a series of adaptations:
- Pygmalion (1938), a film adaptation by Shaw
- My Fair Lady (1956), a Broadway musical by Lerner and Loewe, based on the 1938 film
- My Fair Lady (1964), a film version of the musical starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison
- She's All That (1999), modern film take on Pygmalion
Shaw's play shocked Edwardian audiences with Eliza's swearing in the line "Not bloody likely!". Campbell was considered to have risked her successful career by speaking the line.
Joseph Weizenbaum named his artificial intelligence computer program ELIZA after the character Eliza Doolittle.
Covent Garden - 11.15p.m. A group of people are sheltering from the rain. Amongst them are the silly, shallow, social climbing Eynsford-Hills, consisting of mother and daughter, Clara. Freddy Eynsford-Hill enters after being unable to find a cab to take them home. He is a weak and ineffectual character. His sister bullies him, and enjoys seeing him look ridiculous. As he goes off once again to find a cab, he bumps into a flower girl, Eliza. Her flowers drop into the mud of Covent Garden, the flowers she needs to survive in her poverty-stricken world. Shortly they are joined by a gentleman, Colonel Pickering. Whilst Eliza tries to sell flowers to the Colonel, a bystander informs her that a man is writing down everything she says. The man is Professor Henry Higgins. A row occurs when Higgins tells people where they were born, which creates both amazement and irratation. One man accuses Higgins of coming from Hanwell Insane Asylum. It becomes apparent that he and Colonel Pickering have a shared interest in phonetics. Indeed, they are supposed to be meeting one another. Higgins tells Pickering that he could turn the flower girl into a duchess. These words of bravado spark an interest in Eliza, who would love to better herself, even though, to her, that only means working in a flower shop. At the end of the act, Freddy returns after finding a taxi, only to find that his mother and sister have gone and left him with the cab. The streetwise Eliza takes the cab from him, leaving him on his own.
Higgins' Laboratory - Next Day. As Higgins demonstrates his equipment to Pickering, the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, tells him that a young girl wants to see him. She is shown up, and to his disappointment it is Eliza. He has no interest in her, but she says she wants to pay to have lessons, so she can talk like a lady in a flower shop. Higgins claims that he could turn her into a duchess. Pickering makes a bet with him on his claim, and says that he will pay for her lessons. She is sent off to have a bath. Mrs. Pearce tells Higgins that he must behave himself in the young girl's presence. He must stop swearing, and improve his table manners. He is at a loss to understand why she should find fault with him. Then Alfred Doolittle appears with the sole purpose of getting money out of Higgins. He has no interest in his daughter in a paternal way. He sees himself as member of the undeserving poor, and means to go on being undeserving. He has an eccentric view of life, brought about by his lack of education and an intelligent brain. He is also aggressive, and when Eliza, on her return, sticks her tongue out at him, he goes to hit her, but is prevented by Pickering. The scene ends with Higgins telling Pickering that they really have got a difficult job on their hands.
Mrs Higgins' drawing room. Henry tells his mother he has a young 'common' who he has been teaching. Mrs Higgins is not very impressed with her son's attempts to win her approval because it is her 'at home' day, in which she is entertaining visitors. The visitors are the Eynsford-Hills. Henry is rude to them on their arrival. Eliza enters and soon falls into talking about the weather and her family. The humour stems from the knowledge the audience have of Eliza, and of which the Eynsford-Hills are curiously ignorant. When she is leaving, Freddy Eynsford-Hill asks her if she is going to walk across the park, to which she replies; " Walk! Not bloody likely..." (This is the most famous line from the play, and, for many years after, to use the word 'bloody' was known as a pygmalion.) After she and the Eynsford-Hills leave, Henry asks for his mother's opinion. She says the girl is not presentable, and she is very concerned about what will happen to the girl; but neither Higgins or Pickering understand her, and leave feeling confident and excited about how Eliza will get on. This leaves Mrs Higgins feeling exasperated, and she says "Men! Men!! Men!!!"
Higgins' laboratory - The time is midnight, and Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza have returned from the ball. Pickering congratulates Higgins on winning the bet. As they retire to bed, Higgins asks where his slippers are, and on returning to his room Eliza throws them at him. The remainder of the scene is concerned with Eliza not knowing where she is going in life, and Higgins not really understanding her difficulty. Higgins says she could get married, but Eliza interprets this as selling herself like a prostitute. "We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road." Finally she returns her jewellery to Higgins, as though she is cutting her ties with him.
Mrs Higgins' drawing room. Higgins and Pickering are perturbed at discovering that Eliza has walked out on them. Doolittle returns now dressed in wedding attire, and transformed into the middle class in which he feels '..intimidated..'. The scene ends with another confrontation between Higgins and Eliza, which is basically a repeat of the previous act. The play ends with everyone leaving to see Doolittle married, and Higgins left on his own.
Despite the intense central relationship between Eliza and Henry, the original play ends with her leaving to marry the eager young Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Shaw, annoyed by the tendency of audiences, actors, and even directors to seek 'romantic' re-interpretations of his ending, later wrote an essay for inclusion with subsequent editions, in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married.
Subsequent adaptations have all changed this ending. Despite his previous insistence that the original ending remain intact, Shaw provided a more ambiguous end to the 1938 film: instead of marrying Freddy, Eliza apparently reconciles with Henry in the final scene, leaving open the possibility of their marriage. The stage musical and 1964 film have similarly happy endings.
Willy Russell's 1980 stage comedy Educating Rita, and the subsequent film adaptation, were also based on the myth of Pygmalion and may have been influenced by Shaw's play.
- Pygmalion stories across history
- Pygmalion, available freely at Project Gutenberg
- GradeSaver study guide: Pygmalion