Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Unlike most children, I grew up reading books rather than watching movies or TV, to the extent that at the age of twelve, I'd never seen My Fair Lady...but I was a big fan of Pygmalion! We had an English Literature textbook from a homeschool supplier that believed in big shiny pictures, with only portions of the actual texts. At the time, I thought it was a dirty trick to include only the first canto of the first book of the Faerie Queene, or only the first five chapters of Pride and Prejudice. In retrospect, I still wonder at their methods, but I have to admit I'd probably never have touched Pride and Prejudice till years later if it hadn't been for those five chapters.

In with those maddening, delicious fragments of literature I came across a scene from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion--the one where Eliza comes to visit Higgins and Pickering to ask to be taught to speak like a lady. I thought it was hilarious. I spent years looking for a copy and eventually my brother and I found it on a CD-ROM of classic literature we'd been given and read the whole thing in ugly plaintext, together, shouting with laughter.

You know the plot, of course. Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle wants to be a real lady in a florist's shop, but blustering speech expert Henry Higgins and his new friend Colonel Pickering make a bet that they can teach her to speak so well they can pass her off as a duchess at a high society ball.

Shaw's play is witty and entertaining, and you'll recognise much of the dialogue from the movie. There are various changes; for example, the movie left out the hilarious moment where Alfred Doolittle, meeting his clean and respectable daughter for the first time, mistakes her for a Japanese lady (THE JAPANESE LADY: Garn!) and of course, in the play Eliza's introduction to Polite Society occurs at Mrs Higgins's at-home day, not at Royal Ascot.

Otherwise the plots of the musical and the original play are quite similar—until the end. (Spoiler warning!) In My Fair Lady, Eliza changes her mind about marrying Freddy, and returns to Higgins. I was suffused with glee when I saw this change in the movie, as it seemed to subvert the entire point of the original play. In Pygmalion, as in the myth, the heroine comes to independent life. But in the play, she breaks from the one who made her and goes off to marry Freddy. This may be a stirring pronunciation of women's lib, and an affirmation of the message of Shaw's other famous play Man and Superman in which he set out to show that women are the ones who take initiative and force men to marry; but it makes for a rotten story. In the romanticised endings, instead of Eliza ending up forced to work her fingers to the bone for the useless Freddy, Higgins has a change of heart and Eliza relents. It's not just a pleasanter ending—it's also, narratively speaking, better.

Although I think the musical version is a better story, I still highly recommend the play. It's wittier, it's funnier, and it has some extremely interesting philosophical undertones.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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