Study Guide

Pygmalion

By George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion Introduction

Meet the star of Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle. She's a Cockney flower girl whose charming ways and thick accent lure in a pedantic professor—oh, wait. Hold up.

Meet the star of Pygmalion, Henry Higgins. He's a pedantic professor whose wordsmithing ways and penchant for lecturing are reminiscent of a certain Irish playwright—oh, wait. Hold up.

Meet the star of Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw. This guy wrote the dang play, filling it to the brim with commentary about everything he found interesting—class issues, socialism, the state of the English language—oh, wait. Hold up.

Meet the star of Pygmalion: the English language.

Pygmalion, like most of Shaw's plays, is super-didactic—it's meant to teach the audience. In this case, Shaw wants us to think about the problems caused by our "common" language, and how language can separate people from different places and classes, even different parts of the same town. (And, when you consider that Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912, at a time when the British Empire was still around and when people from all over the globe were expected and sometimes forced to communicate in English, the situation only becomes more complicated.)

In his preface to the play, entitled, "A Professor of Phonetics," he writes,

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. (Source)

Basically, Shaw's saying, captain from Cool Hand Luke-style: "What we've got here is failure to communicate!" Except, of course, he was a wildly intelligent bookish nerd instead of a prison guard, so he wrote Pygmalion to vent his anger about the state of English.

Here's what that venting looks like:

Henry Higgins, professor of phonetics, meets a young Cockney flower-seller and decides that he's going to expose the insane state of the English language in England by teaching her to elevate her speech patterns. He's going to turn her into a duchess...or at least make her speak like one.

And it works. Eliza-the-flower-seller becomes Eliza-the-BBC-accented-posh-lady. But that doesn't mean her troubles are over...or that England's convoluted relationship to class and language is any less insane. In fact, new issues (like gender and society) rear their ugly heads.

Given how whip-smart Shaw was and how many issues of the day he managed to cram into one (supremely witty) play, it's no surprise that Pygmalion was—and remains—extremely popular. Most people know the plot from My Fair Lady, the musical film adaptation of Shaw's play (sorry to say, there's no rain in Spain falling mainly on the plain in the original), and it's been parodied by everyone from The Three Stooges to The Simpsons and Family Guy. Shaw also wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1938 film version, making him the only person ever to win both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Pretty good for a play that combines the less-than-100%-sexy topics of "phonetics" and "the Edwardian flower economy," huh?

What is Pygmalion About and Why Should I Care?

There's a reason why Pygmalion's been turned into a movie, a musical, and a movie musical.

And it's not because Pygmalion is a Cinderella story. (The slippers in this play are thrown, not worn.)

Nor is it because it's a great romance featuring the always saucy teacher-student dynamic. (Henry Higgins realizes Eliza is his equal and then she...walks out the door.)

It's not even because this play is so insanely witty...although, honestly, that probably helped. (This is a play by the guy who said, "If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance" and "We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience." Zing.) (Source)

No; this play's so incredibly successful mostly because it confronts a truth universally acknowledged in the English-speaking world: even though English is a dynamic, changing language, there always seems to be only one (or maybe two) "acceptable" ways to speak it.

Approximately 375 million people speak English as their first language. Most of them are American, Indian, Nigerian, British, Filipino, Canadian, and Australian—and they're all learning different versions of the same language.

Have you ever heard of the term "to borrow leg"? Thought not. That's Nigerian slang for "to flee," as in, "When I saw that dog coming for me I had to borrow leg." Or the mysterious contraction "s'arvo"? That's Australian for "this afternoon."

This is only the tip of the iceberg, though: at least another half a billion people speak English as a second language, and more are learning everyday. Knowledge of English can mean the difference between poverty and employment, and, just like Eliza, thousands if not millions of people are held back because they don't speak English as well as they could.

And, even today, characters with "funny accents"—whether they be from Brooklyn or India—can be seen on television and in movies. And while there's nothing wrong with making light of communication difficulties (see above for the Australian abbreviation of "this afternoon") too often these "funny accents" hint at some uncomfortable realities.

Because here's the ugly truth: the accents that are usually framed as "funny" hint at socioeconomic inequality. TV shows don't usually portray a posh British accent as "funny," for example. (Stuffy, yes; funny, no.) But give an average TV show a chance to come up with a "funny" Southern character, and you can bet that he/she has a thick accent that is meant to register as "uneducated."

And that's messed up.

And what's even more messed up is that Shaw wrote this play in 1912. More than a century later, the ability to speak a narrowly definition of "proper English" still has a huge impact on people's lives...and people continued to be judged by their accents.

Pygmalion Resources

Websites

Nobel Foundation
Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. Check out the Nobel Foundation's website for a biography of Shaw and some video clips.

Shaw's Corner
Shaw's home is now a National Trust site in the UK. Follow this link for more information on Shaw's Corner, images of his home, and some great biographical information.

Movie or TV Productions

Pygmalion, 1938
This is the movie adaptation for which Shaw won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

My Fair Lady, 1964
This is the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical, starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins.

Audio

Shaw Interviews
A collection of interview clips from the BBC. Shaw, who has a rather nice accent, talks about his life and education.

Shaw on Theater
A recording of Shaw talking about theater and being a playwright.

Images

George Bernard Shaw
Here's Shaw in all his bearded glory.

Pygmalion and Galatea
This is the French painter Jean-Léon Gêrome's take on the climactic scene in the Pygmalion myth. Just in case you had a hard time picturing a man kissing a living statue.

Documents

Full Text of Pygmalion
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