George Bernard Shaw and Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland on July 26, 1856. He lived with his lower middle class parents as the first son of three children. His father owned a failing corn milling business and had a serious drinking problem. Shaw realized the effect of his father’s poor money management and alcohol addiction at an early age. (Mazer 1) Although the family claimed gentility their precarious money situations and Shaw’s poor education caused an ever growing tension in his family. (Ganz 6-9)

His schooling consisted of lower class boarding schools mostly of the Catholic denomination. At fifteen his education ended and he was taken on as a junior clerk at a well-known real estate company. Within a year he had been promoted to head cashier and received a good salary. (Ganz 11-12)

Shaw admired his industrious mother who became a professional singer as a pupil of her live-in music teacher Vandeleur Lee. This allowed Shaw to acquire a proficient understanding of music and eventually to teach himself the piano. During this time Shaw’s mother left the problematic marriage to pursue her career in London. His sister, Lucy, went with her and later became a successful singer as well. He was left behind in Dublin to continue his work at the agency until 1876, at age twenty, when he resigned and joined his mother in London. (Mazer 1)

Shaw lived with his mother until his marriage at age forty-three. While there he began his professional career as a novelist. His first novel was titled Immaturity and along with five others, was never published. He became avidly involved in progressive politics. Through writing pamphlets and speeches his writing style developed into the aggressive style that surfaced in all his of his later works. Together with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Shaw founded the Fabian Society, a socialist organization attempting to transform England into a socialist state. This group did not advocate revolution, but supported gradual legislation and persuasion of the common people to further their socialistic goals. Although Shaw rose steadily in the literary field he always remained diligent in his political activities. (Mazer 1)

Shaw also began work as an art, music, and later drama critic. His music knowledge came from his involvement as a child in his mother’s singing career due to the fact that he had never formally studied music. He wrote under the pseudonym Corno di Basseto which means French horn in Italian. He believed that the French horn was an undesirable instrument and was only played because of Mozart’s use of it in his famous piece Requim. Shaw was a very sarcastic, blunt critic that tactlessly assaulted music of many well-known composers of his day. Although he was hard to please, a compliment from him was greatly prized. He often encouraged composers to burn music he thought was bad. Finally, Shaw moved on to a career as a theater critic in 1895 and his fame throughout the general public grew. Soon his initials, GBS, in the Saturday Review became infamous.

Shaw wrote his first play, Widower’s Houses in 1891 for a fellow theater critic and a director of a new play society. Although he faithfully created many more plays in the next twelve years, most London Theaters rejected them. Most were only preformed in little known private theater societies.

Shaw resigned his job as theater critic in 1898 after a serious illness. He married an Irish woman named Charlotte Payne-Townsend and moved out of his mother’s house. Many people also speculate he had numerous outside affairs despite the fact that his own marriage was never consummated. Their marriage continued until 1943 when Charlotte died. (Mazer 2)

In 1904, Harley Granville Barker transformed an old theater company and reinvented it into a new society for progressive drama. Ten of Shaw’s plays were produced and directed through this new company. Most of Shaw’s plays for the next ten years came out of this particular company or one run by Barker’s friends. Pygamilion was the only one not to have been produced in this way. Along with the money he received through his marriage and the royalties of the plays, Shaw became very financially independent.

World War I broke out in 1914 and almost ruined Shaw’s literary career. On account of his strong socialist beliefs he believed the war was a result of the failure of capitalism. His opinions surfaced in an article he wrote in a series of newspapers entitled “Common Sense About the War.” Many of Shaw’s supporters saw this as a threat to patriotism and accused him of treason. During this time he wrote only one major play, Heartbreak House, that expressed his distress over politics and society.

Fortunately, this animosity toward Shaw did not last and his reputation was rebuilt after the war through his entertaining plays. His most interesting works at this time regarded “creative evolution” and consisted most notably of Back to Methuselah and Saint Joan. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him in 1925. He very graciously bestowed the prize money to further a project translating a Swedish playwright, August Strindberg’s work into English. Now several theater companies in the United States began performing his plays while many were revived in London.

Shaw died on November 2, 1950 at the age of 94. The cause was injuries he received when he fell off a ladder while trimming a tree. He left the play Why She Would Not unfinished. Most of his money was willed to a project that was supposed to perfect the English alphabet. This project failed and the money than went to his other beneficiaries such as the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Today, the royalties from the musical My Fair Lady, based on one of Shaw’s greatest works, Pygmalion, keeps these organizations alive.

Pygmalion is a humorous and captivating play set in the streets of London. This play embodies themes and subjects closely related to the author, George Bernard Shaw. In this work, he cleverly molds the plot into a comic dialogue presented by unforgettable characters. This play was written in 1914, one of the last produced by Shaw before his wartime slump in popularity. Today, many people enjoy this play in its original version and the adapted musical, My Fair Lady.

The characters of Pygmalion are unique and fascinating including the common favorite, Eliza Dolittle. Her background and mannerisms not only provide comedy, but a major aspect of the overall conflict. She is the primary protagonist that arrests the audience’s attention and sympathy. Her character is portrayed as diligent, hard-working, and inherently intelligent. She is a young woman thrust out into the working world by her equally unwealthy father. Although Eliza’s appearance and actions are quite rough at the beginning she does improve and allow her own natural beauty to shine through. This is evidenced when her father says after Higgins has taken her in, “I never thought she would clean up as good looking as that (Act II). Apparently, Eliza impressed the other characters with her transformations.

Eliza’s spirit is as much a part of her as her outward appearance. Instead of cowering under Higgins biting comments and fiery temper she matches his with one equally as caustic. Her intelligence also helps her survive in the world, both the aristocracy and the slums. She shows a true perseverance and loyalty to both her lessons and her teacher. Eliza most likely gains most of her emotional appeal by her unfailing innocence and thirst for knowledge.

The other remarkable character presented in the drama is the infamous Henry Higgins. This character is the direct protagonist of Eliza and yet the observer oftentimes can identify with him as well. He is brilliant in the study of phonetics, but awkward and rude in the area of social graces. Even his own mother comments undesirably when she says “You offend all my friends: they stop coming whenever they meet you.” (Act III) His eccentricities and brusque attitude are almost presented as comical. He is very unconcerned about other’s feelings and desires but that does not necessarily mean he is centered on himself. Rather he feels he is serving the human race at large and that anyone in the way of that is not worth his time.

The conflict of Pygmalion is basically the undertaking of teaching Eliza to rise in society. The motives held by each of the characters differ but the desired outcome is the same. This conflict is probably the most obvious humor in the play for two reasons. One, the audience can relate to the use of slang and improper English in their own speech causing Eliza’s mistakes to be funny. Secondly, is the use Eliza makes of her new found knowledge at Mrs. Higgins house. While there, Eliza is trained to stick to two topics, that of health and the weather. Although Eliza has mastered perfect enunciation by this point her subject matter and word choice isn’t exactly refined.

Shaw uses the conflict between Eliza and Higgins to express his own thoughts on the diversity of people. He likes to set these characters on two different sides of a spectrum and develop how they relate. Although the play has a resolution, it is not exactly a story book happy ending. Higgins and Eliza continue on their respective paths of complete opposites but not in the same way as before. Whereas previously, the thing separating them was social class, at the end of the drama, the largest gulf is primarily between their goals in life. Higgins’ intent is to better the world through himself, and Eliza’s purpose is to better herself through the world.

In analyzing the play Pygmalion, one cannot fully evaluate the characters and conflict without understanding the themes. The themes are based on the legend behind the play’s title and Shaw’s commentary on social status. The title is derived from an ancient Greek legend in which a famous sculptor, Pygmalion, can find no use for women and refuses to marry. However, this sculptor creates such a beautiful, perfect, ivory statue of a woman that he falls in love with it. He is so mesmerized by her unequaled beauty that he prays to Aphrodite, the goddess of love at a festival, a wish that his statue could come to life. Incredibly, when the sculptor returned home the statue had indeed been granted life. The overjoyed man married her and named her Galatea. (Cliffs 11-12)

This legend had many parallels with Shaw’s play. Professor Higgins is an expert in his field, just as the sculptor Pygmalion was in his. Higgins also holds the same view of women demonstrating this when he says “ I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a nuisance.” (Act II) The final analogy is that both men turned uncarved stone into something beautiful using their talents. Unfortunately, Shaw does not allow the happy ending of the legend to occur in his play as sentimental people would hope. Rather after Higgins has molded her into his special creation, she develops her own defiant self that is totally independent from her creator. This illustrates Shaw’s dislike of overdone romantic plays with unrealistic endings.

The other prominent theme is that of social class and its affect on the novel. Examples of this are presented in the poverty stricken characters of Eliza Dolittle, Mr. Dolittle, and the Eynsford Hills. They all have their own reaction to the circumstances of life. Eliza fiercely strives to better herself, while her father floats contentedly along in his lower class position. The Eynsford Hills represent the “in name only” upper class that have experienced poverty but still continue their snobbish attitudes. However, Shaw gently pokes fun at this hypocritical façade and inconspicuously praises the family’s son Freddy who refuses to carry on so needlessly when he can be happy without money.

The spiritual philosophy of Mr. Alfred Dolittle is one of the most remarkable yet comic beliefs presented in Shaw’s drama. Due to Shaw’s emphasis on social class as a prominent theme it seems appropriate that the most profound statements come from the most surprising source. Shaw enjoys weaving his own personal convictions throughout all of his work vicariously and wittily, Pygmalion being no exception. Through Mr. Dolittle, a lower class dustman, the observer can get a real glimpse into the thought behind the play.

According to Mr. Dolittle, arriving shortly after Eliza’s appearance on Wimpole Street, he is only a member of the undeserving poor, who is concerned about his daughter. Dolittle maintains that he is looking out for his daughter when in actuality, he is attempting to blackmail Professor Higgins. Naturally, Higgins sees through this ruse and listens as Dolittle continues, quite entertained. Dolittle then insinuates that unless he is compensated, he will make it known that his young unwed daughter is staying with Higgins. The professor is so amused with this tactic and Dolittle’s simulated interest in his daughter when it is apparent that his real motive is only money. He offers Dolittle more than the five pounds that he has requested. Eliza’s father, however, refuses this because as he states, it will give him the responsibility of “middle class morality.” (Act II) In answer to Higgins question “Have you no morals, man?” Dolittle replies “Can’t afford them. Neither could you if you were as poor as me” (Act II). Evidently, Dolittle feels that if he has only a small sum of money he is not required to be responsible for its investment, therefore making it possible for him to squander it on alcohol. Because he is not treated as the “deserving poor” who receive charity, he believes that he has no obligation to be wise with the small amount of money he does have. While some drunks or slothful impoverished people become bitter over this, Dolittle actually prefers this lifestyle as an excuse to be irresponsible and lazy.

The irony of this spiritual philosophy is seen in the actual outcome of Mr. Dolittle. At the conclusion of Pygmalion, Dolittle inherits a great amount of money. Although this upsets Dolittle’s lifestyle, he still holds to his interesting philosophy. As he asserts to his daughter and Higgins, “Middle class morality claims its victim” (Act V). Dolittle has denounced something most people crave when he resents wealth.

This drama comprises so many of George Bernard Shaw’s personal opinions, beliefs, personal background, and humor. It overflows with his sarcasm and bluntness, while appealing to the human quality in us all. Just as Eliza has a rough exterior and a beautiful interior this play contains critical facts coupled with endearing humor. The character, conflict, theme, and spiritual philosophies presented in Pygmalion have been wrapped admirably into a package that is truthful but acceptable.