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How does Shaw draw the audience’s attention to issues of social class in Act II of ‘Pygmalion’

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In the early 20th century, social class was a very big part of everyday life. The class system was divided into the upper class, the middle class and the working class. Being born into a certain class meant that you stayed in that social class for the rest of your life. It would also limit an individual to what they would be able to do for a living, where they lived etc. Pygmalion squashes people’s beliefs about the class system and shows the audience that you can be whoever or whatever you want to be.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw got the name Pygmalion from an ancient Greek myth called ‘Metamorphoses’ in which there was a sculptor who went by the same name. The statues he created were his biggest love in the world and he tended to spend most of his time with then as he disliked company, especially that of women of his village, Amathus. These women were called Propoetides and had no sense of shame because Aphrodite, who was the Greek goddess of love, had punished them for denying her divinity. Pygmalion however, was a devotee of Aphrodite and prayed to her to breathe life into one of his most exquisite statues- Galatea.

Aphrodite granted Pygmalion’s wish and Galatea transformed into a beautiful woman and married Pygmalion. G. B. Shaw brings the Greek myth into the play through his characters, as Professor Higgins resembles Pygmalion and Eliza Doolittle shares similarities with Galatea. Shaw does this to show us that it is possible to ‘create’ your own social class and change yourself. He also wanted the audience to believe that an individual’s social class shouldn’t prevent them from getting the same opportunities as someone from a higher class , as nobody gets to choose their social class.

Furthermore, the play Pygmalion relates back to ‘Metamorphoses’, which means to change into a different form or appearance, by using the idea that Higgins created Eliza and gave her a different from as well as life. Another way in which Professor Higgins and Eliza resemble the characters of Pygmalion and Galatea is the subtle romance and slight spark between the two of them and many readers expect the two characters to get together. Bernard Shaw’s political beliefs are strongly represented in the play.

Shaw was one of the first members of the Fabian Society, a socialist party which believed in equality and social justice. Bernard Shaw described the Fabian Society as seeking “-to establish equality as the universal relation between citizens without distinction of sex, colour, occupation, age, talent, character, hereditary or what not… ” which was the same message he put out to the world via Pygmalion. Bernard Shaw was a realist and really wanted us to think about the issues of social class by dropping in a lot of philosophical sayings.

I think the society at the time in which the play was written, greatly influenced Shaw because things were just starting to change in terms of socialism and feminism was particularly strong in the UK. In 1914, life was incredibly dissimilar to how it is today, specifically for women. The Suffragettes were a women’s union who were fighting for women’s right to vote. At this period of time, women were considered to be considerably lower than men, in the eyes of society as well as the law.

Being of the female sex meant that your education would be different from that of men and your destiny would be to get married and look after a family. The women fighting for suffrage did all they could to give women the rights they deserved. They threw eggs, set fire to pillar boxes, chained themselves to railings, went on hunger strike and some were even imprisoned. However, even though they had political support such as that of the Fabian Society’s they did not achieve their goals until the end of the First World War.

In my opinion, the Suffragettes were what inspired Shaw to write the play Pygmalion. Act II focuses on the difference between the working class and the upper class. This act introduces the idea of trying to change one’s identity and also draws the audience’s attentions to the types of beliefs that one would have if they belonged to either the working or upper class. Shaw uses several different techniques to convey his ideas about social class and equality.

The humour in the play and Act II in particular really draws the audience attention to matters of social class especially an audience in this day and age. The bathroom scene is most probably one of the most renowned scenes in the whole play and adds an amusing element to the play whilst at the same time addressing a social issue by making Eliza afraid to have a bath. The audience find it quite comical and rather astounding when Eliza announces “I’ve never had a bath in my life” and then goes on to say “I’ve never took all my clothes off before.

It’s not right: it’s not decent”. These sentences not only shock the audience but also make them realise that Eliza hasn’t ever washed herself properly because she is of the working class and they cannot even afford to have a bath in their home let alone different outfits, which is why they never take their clothes off. Moreover, in one of his stage directions Shaw includes the fact that “Eliza’s screams are heartrending”. The word “screams” indicates that Eliza and the working class as a whole are actually terrified of having a bath.

On the other hand Shaw also mentions that “Mr Higgins has the gentlemen’s bathroom downstairs, and he has a bath every morning, in cold water”. This tells the audience that the upper class are quite used to having baths and find it perfectly normal whereas the lower classes think of having a bath as a completely alien concept. In addition to the bathroom scene, Bernard Shaw also uses humour in other parts of the play, for example in the at-home scene. In this scene, Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins decide to try out an experiment and invite Liza to Mrs Higgins at-home to see if they could pass her off as a real lady.

Eliza tries to make small talk with other people from the upper class but makes a huge mistake, especially for those times, by saying the word “bloody”. The other characters reaction to this word is hilarious because they are so horrified she has said something so “inappropriate” and for an audience of 1914 this one scene became something worthy of front-page news. There is also a part in this scene, in which Eliza says “Did you tell him I come in a taxi? ” which implies that she believes it is a great privilege to ride in a taxi as she is from the working class and she is not accustomed to such luxuries.

In fact, Professor Higgins uses Eliza’s belief that riding in a taxi is such a fantastic honour, to persuade her to stay with him and learn to speak correct English. It is quite entertaining when Professor Higgins begins to tempt Eliza to stay just by mentioning taxis; “You have, Eliza; and in future you shall have as many taxis as you want. You shall go up and down and round the town in a taxi everyday”. We, as the modern audience are astounded that Eliza gets so easily excited about something as common as a taxi but it does show us the colossal difference between the upper and lower social classes.

Furthermore, by addressing this social issue through humour, Shaw makes sure that these ideas are memorable to the audience. One technique that Shaw uses a great deal of, and is probably what he is most famous for is his extensive and meticulous stage directions. Bernard Shaw wrote pages and pages of stage directions describing the character’s costumes, their expressions, the set, the way everything was positioned etc. in the most intricate detail. This technique gives the audience a very vivid picture of how different the social classes were, though in a very subtle way.

In Act II the stage direction mentions Higgins costume and describes him wearing a “professional-looking black frock-coat” whereas Eliza is described wearing a “shoddy coat”. The adjective “professional” suggests that Professor Higgins is of the upper class as he can afford expensive attire whereas the adjective “shoddy” suggests that Eliza is of working class because it appears that she only has one set of clothes and that she is not able to keep her belongings clean.

Further on in the play, Eliza is said to be wearing an “opera cloak, brilliant evening dress, and diamonds, with fan, flowers, and all accessories” when she attends an extravagant ball with Higgins and Pickering. The descriptions of each item of clothing immediately show the reader that the characters are at an upper class event because of their attire. These examples of stage directions also link in with the costume technique which Shaw uses to indicate his character’s social class.

Language is a very important theme in this play and Pygmalion revolves around language, grammar and accents. One thing in particular which draws the audience’s attention to language is Eliza’s use of the term “Ah-ah-ah-ow-oo-o”. This term suggests that Eliza is of a lower class than Mrs Pearce, Colonel Pickering or Professor Higgins because it is not very ladylike and it suggests that she is a lot beneath them because it is the sort of reaction one would have if they were being insulted or offended.

Moreover, Shaw uses phonetics to emphasise Eliza’s cockney accent such as in the word “y? -oo”. Eliza Doolittle’s grammar also suggests that she is uneducated and illiterate because she says things like “Don’t I tell you I’m bringing you business” instead of saying “Didn’t I tell you… “. This implies that she has not received a decent education because her parents couldn’t afford it so the audience immediately realise that Eliza is from a working class background.

However, nearing the end of the play after learning how to speak correctly from Higgins, Eliza’s grammar and accent improve immensely. Bernard Shaw did this to show his audience that even though things such as language tend to define a specific social class, we can all change and move out of our individual class. In conclusion, I personally enjoyed the play and thought it was quite interesting but I also found it quite boring in some places, especially the end because it was very unexpected and in my opinion, slightly disappointing.

I am sure that most people reading the play would have expected Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle to get married and live happily ever after, in order to tie up all the loose ends in the play, so when Eliza decides to marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill instead it comes as quite of a shock. Shaw’s desire for realism prevented Eliza and Higgins from having a relationship which was anything more than friendship because realistically two strong personalities and extreme difference would clash quite badly.

Professor Higgins is a very dominating man whereas Freddy is a romantic puppy-dog type character- lovable but quite dependant, therefore realistically would choose to marry Freddy because he would love her and appreciate her like she deserves while Higgins would most probably take her for granted. However, the film Pygmalion decided to please all the romantics and give the audience what they wanted by making Eliza and Higgins get together. I think my response to the play was a lot different to the type of response that a 1914 audience might have had.

Parts of the play which I found humorous would have been quite shocking and outrageous for an audience in 1914. For example when Eliza uses the word “bloody” I thought it was quite funny as she said it in a very elegant way even though she was swearing, but an audience of 1914 thought it shocking and this simple word made front-page headlines. I also thought that it was quite challenging for me to relate to Pygmalion and its character because of how strong the opinion on social class are.

Nowadays, there is a lot more social mobility and an individual’s social class isn’t necessarily what they were born into but what they choose to become. Nevertheless, there are still issues about social class, and those from working classes do not receive the same opportunities as people from the upper class. Also, men and women are not entirely seen as equal beings, but social class issues have improved a great deal. I think many people do still enjoy the play and can relate to it, and the musical “My Fair Lady” has kept the spirit of Pygmalion and made it even more world-famous and renowned than it originally was.

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