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Pygmalion ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1925)

    The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.
        -George Bernard Shaw

Though almost universally interpreted as a critical statement on the artificiality of class and social status, Pygmalion is really just an update of Paradise Lost and the Genesis story of the Fall of Man.  This is most obvious from the way that Shaw changes the ending of the classic myth from which he borrows the plot and title and by his referring several times to Henry Higgins as Miltonic.  The original Pygmalion was a character in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a woman-hating sculptor who chiseled a perfect female out of stone.  He became so enamored with his creation that he asked the gods to grant her life.  Venus answered his prayers, turning the statue into a living woman, Galatea, whom Pygmalion then married.

In his version of the Pygmalion tale, Shaw eschews this happy ending and, whether wittingly or no, turns the story into a Biblical allegory.   Henry Higgins takes the role of God :

    You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the
    end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's
    garden party. I could even get her a place as lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better
    English. Thats the sort of thing I do for commercial millionaires. And on the profits of it I do
    genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines.

Lifting Liza--who it must be noted is a flower girl, deriving her living from the products of the garden, get it?--up from the gutter (note the implication that she is dirt), Higgins turns her into a cultured woman, remakes her in his own image, only to find himself taken with his creation.  He finds that he has not merely given her form, but has revealed a worthwhile soul too :

    HIGGINS [arrogant] I can do without anybody. I have my own soul: my own spark of divine fire.
    But [with sudden humility] I shall miss you, Eliza. [He sits down near her on the ottoman]. I have
    learnt something from your idiotic notions: I confess that humbly and gratefully. And I have grown
    accustomed to your voice and appearance. I like them, rather.

    LIZA. Well, you have both of them on your gramophone and in your book of photographs. When
    you feel lonely without me, you can turn the machine on. It's got no feelings to hurt.

    HIGGINS. I cant turn your soul on. Leave me those feelings; and you can take away the voice and
    the face. They are not you.

But this is not the same thing as love, and Liza wishes to be loved, resulting in an impasse between the two :

    LIZA. What did you do it for if you didnt care for me?

    HIGGINS [heartily] Why, because it was my job.

    LIZA. You never thought of the trouble it would make for me.

    HIGGINS. Would the world ever have been made if its maker had been afraid of making trouble?
    Making life means making trouble. Theres only one way of escaping trouble; and thats killing
    things. Cowards, you notice, are always shrieking to have troublesome people killed.

    LIZA. I'm no preacher: I dont notice things like that. I notice that you dont notice me.

    HIGGINS [jumping up and walking about intolerantly] Eliza: youre an idiot. I waste the treasures
    of my Miltonic mind by spreading them before you. Once for all, understand that I go my way and
    do my work without caring twopence what happens to either of us. I am not intimidated, like your
    father and your stepmother. So you can come back or go to the devil: which you please.

Liza ultimately chooses independence from her creator and marries the dull but earnest Freddy.  As Shaw said in a postscript which was added to later editions :

    Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether

And so you have it : God creates a creature in his own image, and is pleased with it, but wishes it to remain wholly His.  The creature, created too well, wants its independence, more than it wants to bask in the reflected glow of the Creator, and so rebels. Odd as it may seem, coming from a Socialist and an Atheist, Shaw's Pygmalion is a devoutly Biblical work, derived entirely from the most classic themes in Western thought.

In addition, though we try to avoid psychology as much as possible here, there are inevitable comparisons to Shaw's own life.  Read Higgins as a stand-in for Shaw, bringing culture to the unwashed masses (his Adams and Eves, Galateas, and Lizas) through his advocacy of Socialism.  However, this process will not create any love between him and the objects of his endeavor.  Instead, he will wish them to remain true to his vision of what they should be, and they will resent their creator and seek their independence from the life he envisions for them.  Looked at from this perspective, the play reflects the uneasy relationship between intellectuals and the intended beneficiaries of their theories.

At any rate, you can interpret the play on a number of levels, it has several memorable characters and it's quite funny, probably the greatest work of a Nobel laureate.  One recommendation : because of the reliance on language and dialects, you really need to hear it, rather than just read it.  The CD version--featuring Michael Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Michael Hordern, and Donald Pleasence--is especially good.


Grade: (A)


Book-related and General Links:
    -George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: bernard shaw
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Shaw, George Bernard
    -The Nobel Prize in Literature 1925 (Nobel Site)
    -GEORGE BERNARD SHAW  : 1925 Nobel Laureate in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -ETEXT : Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1916) (Bartleby)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Pygmalion (Mei Pin Phua, Spark Notes)
    -Pygmalion Discussion Questions/Answers
    -ESSAY : Capital Punishment  (George Bernard Shaw, Atlantic Monthly, June 1948)
    -ESSAY : How to Write a Popular Play (1909) (George Bernard Shaw)
    -ETEXTS : |Shaw, George Bernard|
    -S H A W   B I Z N E S S : Links to the life, times, & work of Irish playwright
    -Shaw Chicago Theater Company
    -George Bernard Shaw Information & Research Service
    -George Bernard Shaw (BBC)
    -BIO : Bernard Shaw: a Brief Biography (Cary M. Mazer, University of Pennsylvania)
    -SHAW Annual : The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies
    -EducETH: Shaw, George Bernard
    -George Bernard Shaw (Spartacus)
    -Shaw, George Bernard : Pygmalion (Die Krefelder Referate Homepage)
    -ESSAY : G.B.S.:  The life of George Bernard Shaw (Brooke Allen, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Shaw - and a lesson in evil :  George Bernard Shaw had a misanthropic world view that
led him to idolise Stalin and sympathise with Hitler. (Benedict Nightingale, Times of London)
    -ESSAY : Belligerent romantic :  Fifty years after his death at 94, George Bernard Shaw is the least fashionable of playwrights and is vilified for his politics. (Michael Holroyd,  December 16, 2000, The Guardian uk)
    -ESSAY : GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, CUB REVIEWER  (Michael Holroyd, NY Times Book Review, September 18, 1988)
    -ESSAY : O'Casey's Widow Muses on His Friendship With Shaw (GLENN COLLINS, NY Times, November 13, 1989)
    -ESSAY : LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY : Shawís Pygmalion and Willy Russellís Educating Rita (Kenneth Hermansson)
    -ARCHIVES : "george bernard shaw" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : Books Unlimited | Authors | Shaw, George Bernard
    -ARCHIVES :  "george bernard shaw" (Find Articles)
    -LINKS : George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion (Trinity College)
    -LINKS : George Bernard Shaw   1856-1950      Irish playwright and critic (ENG 114)
    -REVIEW : of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
    -REVIEW : of Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw (Peter Marks, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SHAW'S MUSIC By Bernard Shaw. The Complete Musical Criticism in Three Volumes. Edited by Dan H. Laurence. Volume I, 1876-1890, Volume II, 1890-1893,  Volume III, 1893-1950 (Donal Henahan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BERNARD SHAW Volume One, 1856-1898: The Search for Love. By Michael Holroyd (Robertson Davies, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Bernard Shaw Volume II: 1898-1918 The Pursuit of Power By Michael Holroyd (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of BERNARD SHAW The Ascent of the Superman. By Sally Peters (Valentine Cunningham, NY Times Book Review)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : George Bernard Shaw (
    -INFO : Pygmalion (1938) (Imdb)
    -INFO : My Fair Lady (1964) (Imdb)
    -REVIEW : of My Fair Lady (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of My Fair Lady (Tim Dirks, Film Site)

    -Fabian Society : The UK's premier left of centre think tank
    -Colchester Fabian Society
    -Oxford University Fabian Society
    -Fabian Review
    -ARCHIVES : "Fabian Society" (Find Articles)
    -xrefer : Fabianism
    -ESSAY : Fabianism : An essay (G.D.H. Cole, Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences)
    -ESSAY : Why Fabianism Could Not Survive (Vernon Bogdanor, New Statesman)
    -EXCERPT : from The Unbroken Thread by Ted Grant : Marxism vs. New Fabianism (
    -REVIEW : of  THE INTELLECTUALS AND THE MASSES Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. By John Carey (Nina Auerbach, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Deeper into the Brain (Charles Murray, National Review)

    -Ovid : Metamorphoses
    -LECTURE : "OVIDIUS NASO WAS THE MAN:" : SHAKESPEARE'S DEBT TO OVID (Jeremy McNamara, The 1992-93 Fox Classics Lecture )
    -Ovid, The Metamorphoses Study Questions  (
    -ESSAY : The Pygmalion myth recycled (Iliyana Nedkova, Paradoxa)
    -REVIEW : of Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes (Teresa Ramsby, Indiana University)

Also available :
    -DVD : Pygmalion (1939)
    -DVD : My Fair Lady (1964)