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Pygmalion: the Play and Higgins

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Pygmalion is a primarily Shavian reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with undertones of Cinderella. Romance and satire dominate both the play’s plot as well as style. Shaw takes a strong central situation–the transformation of a common flower girl into a lady–and surrounds it with superficial trimmings. There is technical innovation in the plot structure since Shaw, under the influence of Ibsen, replaces the stock Victorian formula of exposition, situation and unraveling with exposition, situation and discussion. The plot thus has three distinct stages of development. In the first stage Professor Henry Higgins, who is an expert in phonetics, transforms a common flower girl into an artificial replica of a lady by teaching her how to speak correctly. Prior to this Eliza’s life has been miserable. As a poor flower girl she coaxes money out of prospective customers and is thrilled when she suddenly receives a handful of coins that Higgins throws into her basket. She lacks the capacity to express her feelings articulately and an indiscriminate sound of vowels “Ah – ah – ow – ow – oo” serves to connote a multitude of emotions ranging from pain, wonder, and fear to delight.

However she is not entirely depraved and is at least self-reliant enough to earn her own livelihood by selling flowers. In Act Two Eliza arrives at Higgins’ laboratory at Wimpole Street and haughtily demands that Higgins teach her to speak correctly so that she can become a lady in a flower shop. This desire for financial security and social respectability constitutes a step forward in her larger quest for self- realization. For Higgins Eliza is simply a phonetic experiment, a view that dehumanizes her and results in the creation of an artificial automaton-like replica of a lady. In the second stage of the play the audience encounters an Eliza who has become an artificial duchess. She is no longer a flower girl but is not quite a lady. During Mrs. Higgins’ at-home she proceeds to deliver Lisson Grove gossip with an upper class accent. She is nothing more than a live doll and there is an element of crudity in her parrot-like conversation. The mask of gentility that she wears only partially hides her low class background. Shaw demonstrates here that having fine clothes and the right accent are not enough to make a lady. The fact that the Eynsford-Hills fail to see through her façade implies that they too do not possess true gentility.

By the time that Eliza returns after her triumphant society appearance at the Ambassador’s ball, she no longer exhibits this element of crudity. She has benefited from Higgins’s lessons in achieving social poise and has acquired the ability to articulate her thoughts and feelings. She has begun to think for herself and is capable of manipulating any situation to her advantage. The play enters into the third phase of development in Act Four. Eliza now encounters the great moment of truth and reality of her situation. Her education has created in her an intense dissatisfaction with the old way of life and she is not exactly pleased about the avenues open to her as a lady. She realizes that her social acquisitions do not enable her to fulfill her aspirations or even earn a living. She becomes aware of the wide disparity between her desires and the inadequacy of the means for fulfilling them.

She repudiates Higgins’ suggestion that she could marry a wealthy husband and wryly comments that earlier “I sold flowers, I didn’t sell myself” while now that she has been made a lady she isn’t fit to sell anything. She has thrown away her mask and reveals a newfound maturity. She throws Higgins’ slippers at him and thereby breaks free from a life of subjugation and dependence. Critics feel that at this point the play enters into a period of calm and the main impetus of the action dissipates. Eliza’s society appearance has been a tremendous success and after the climatic encounter between Higgins and Eliza in Act Four the dramatic tension disappears. Eliza runs away to Mrs.Higgins and the only issue left is the resolution of her relationship with Higgins. The readers have to agree that the main impetus of the action has disappeared since all the preceding acts had been gearing up for the crucial moment of Eliza’s test. Now Alfred Doolittle’s strategic second appearance performs a resuscitating act for the play in its dying stage. Doolittle’s transformation from a dustman to a gentleman also provides an ironic comment on Eliza’s metamorphosis.

After this brief spirit of energy the action returns to the issue at hand – the relationship between Eliza and Higgins. Eliza has developed into a self-sufficient woman and has become a perfect match for Higgins. She has garnered the requisite strength of character and maturity of thought to face life courageously. Gentility has become an integral aspect of her personality. No longer afraid of Higgins, she treats him as an equal. She negates his role in her transformation and insists that it was the Colonel’s generosity and courteous behavior, which truly made her a lady. She rejects Higgins’ proposal that he, she and Pickering live together like old bachelor friends and astounds him by announcing that she will marry Freddy instead and support him by offering herself as an assistant to Nepommuck. Higgins, although hurt at Eliza’s suggestion of assisting the detestable Nepommuck, is nevertheless happy that Eliza is no longer a whining helpless creature but a tower of strength and a woman at last. The play concludes on an uncertain note and the readers do not know whether she might indeed marry Higgins. This reflects Shaw’s inherent distaste for finality.

In the majority of his plays the issues and conflicts they deal with are never quite resolved and the audience is left wondering about what will happen after the curtain falls. However Shaw realizing the importance of an ending does provide a resolution in the epilogue. The dramalies neither in the conflict, nor in the discussion or the exposition. The conflict itself arises over the issue of the resolution of the problem. Unless there is a resolution, there is no drama, for the action remains incomplete. Action always has to be completed either comically or tragically. Hence in the epilogue, Shaw resolves the issue by making Eliza marry Freddy Hill. It was typical of Shaw to have provided such an anti-romantic conclusion to the play. Many commentators accuse Shaw of deliberately twisting the natural end of Pygmalion merely to make the play unromantic. But critics would do well to remember that the actual point of ending is not the issue of Eliza’s marriage but her achievement of liberty. While throughout the play Higgins boasts of having transformed a common flower girl into a duchess, after Eliza’s climactic assertion of independence from his domination he remarks, “I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have.” In this perspective the original ambiguous ending seems preferable to the neat resolution given in the epilogue.

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