George Bernard Shaw and the Fight for Pygmalion

Charlie Murphy as Eliza Dolittle in The Abbey Theatre's recent production

“Don’t talk to me of romances; I was sent into the world to dance on them with thick boots–to shatter, stab, and murder them.” — George Bernard Shaw.  (His Collected Letters)

The basic facts are these: George Bernard Shaw wrote the play on which the musical My Fair Lady is based  99 years ago, in 1912.   According to Wikipedia’s entry on Pygmalion (and the footnotes on this look pretty good), the idea for Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts first came to Shaw in 1897, and the play was written specifically for one of the leading actresses of the time.  The production history of Pygmalion, oddly enough, began with a German language production in 1913, followed by a New York production the following spring.  The London production opened then a month later, in April of 1914.

What is clear is that Shaw had no intention of allowing Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle to finish Pygmalion or My Fair Lady as lovers.  At the end of the play (and Shaw wrote several endings over the years trying to keep this as clear as possible), Eliza declares her independence from Higgins, and leaves him.   What is equally as clear is that from the beginning, audiences have fought him over it.   According to a very recent thesis written by New Zealand PhD Candidate Derek John McGovern (I’m still making my way through it, but it’s pretty interesting stuff…you can find it here), the process of audiences and actors colluding to get Higgins and Eliza  together began as early as the first London production, in which lines were ad-libbed that would move the characters toward the affair that everyone seemed to hope they would have.   In a moment I would have love to have watched, Shaw went back to the 100th performance of Pygmalion and was horrified to see that the producer/director, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, had “sweetened” the ending, something about Higgins tossing Eliza a bouquet from a window.  He told Tree, “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot.”

Shaw fought the idea of a Higgins/Eliza marriage for the rest of his life.   Part of the problem, according to McGovern, was Shaw’s use of the word “romance” in the title.  He was referring to something other than romantic love.  In Shaw’s famous prose “sequel” to the play entitled “What Happened Afterwards”, Shaw clarifies what he meant by “romance”:  “Now, the history of Eliza Doolittle, though called a romance because of the transfiguration it records seems exceedingly improbable…”  The idea here is tied to the ideals of Romanticism, which is something different than was is popularly conceived of as “romance.”   As the quote above demonstrates clearly, Shaw hated “romances.”   (Thanks to McGovern for pointing out that quote.)

In Shaw’s “sequel,” Eliza marries Freddie, but maintains a strong relationship with Higgins as a major force in her life, which strikes me as realistic, strong, and exactly right.  According to McGovern, Pygmalion is “one of the great English Comedies of the twentieth century–notable not only for its brilliantly drawn characters, wit, satire, and subversiveness, but also for its underlying concerns of socialism, feminism and gender.”   Shaw wrote and rewrote not only the stage versions, but also created several screenplays in which he attempted to contractually tie directors to his intentions, but the film versions of Pygmalion (apparently, I haven’t seen them–though I’d love to) all keep the romantic love alive.

No wonder the ending of My Fair Lady is now so uncomfortable.   As an audience, we still get sucked into wishing Higgins would change his ways so he and Eliza might make some sense together, but we don’t stay there.   We’ve caught up with Shaw, and can finally see what he was getting at.   We celebrate Eliza’s triumph, yet we also see that the price to her has been enormous.  For her to stand up to him and declare her independence seems exactly right to us, and for her to return to a romantic relationship with Higgins seems absurd after being treated as she’s been, especially when his own “conversion” or “awakening” is nothing more than the fact that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.”  Does Higgins’ behavior change?  Not one bit, nor did Shaw want it to.  But it also makes sense to me that she does not throw Higgins out of her life completely, but remains (by choice) tied to this huge personality who has been a mentor, teacher, and in his own strange way, a friend.

I like this quote from the McGovern paper in which he cites a critic who observed that Pygmalion is “an Ibsen-inspired tale of a woman’s escape from class and gender oppression to a position of economic and personal freedom.”

I’d like to see that production.

I’d like to direct it…


Here’s a link to the play, for those who’d like to read it.  Pygmalion at Project Gutenberg.

6 Replies to “George Bernard Shaw and the Fight for Pygmalion”

  1. This reminds me of “Same Kind of Different as Me”, which glosses over a lot of things w/o explicitly resolving them for the audience. Fascinating the need of audiences for a man and woman to *couple* regardless of the context. No?

  2. What a pleasant surprise to find someone else interested in this topic! I had no idea my thesis was even available online. Thanks for the kind comments, and, like Julie, I hope you do direct a truly Shavian version of the play!

  3. Fascinating stuff – I recently discovered Derek McGovern’s thesis and, although still working through it, find it absolutely fascinating. Thank you – both!

  4. The relationship between Higgins and Eliza was never a love story, but instead a battle of wills and ideas between two equally string and proud competitors. It was only when they discovered this key that Lerner and Loewe were finally able to overcome the writer’s block that had made all their contemporaries conclude it was impossible to adapt “Pygmalion” into a musical.

    Many people believe the character of Henry Higgins is Shaw’s alter-ego, meaning that the Pygmalion of the title was actually Shaw himself, and Eliza his work of art who took on a life of her own, with unexpected complications. I think perhaps the most telling line in the play is the lament Shaw gave to Eliza:–

    “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

    I believe Shaw had a lot of admiration and respect for his Eliza, enough to realize at some point that he had created for her the same dilemma that left so many other intelligent, well-educated women of his time frustrated and miserable. For once Higgins’s education freed Eliza’s mind and improved her manners, the expectations of polite society would inevitably leave a woman of her education and moral caliber without any of the independence she formerly had when selling flowers on the steps of Covent Garden, but by then it would be totally impossible for her to return to her old life. In freeing her from one prison, Pygmalion would inevitably lock her into another one even more distasteful to her. Shaw knew far too well to even suggest Higgins would ever marry anyone, so Eliza must marry Freddy, but as staunchly as Show defended that ending, I don’t believe even he was ever fully satisfied with it.

    I suspect Shaw knew that Freddy might be capable of becoming a devoted husband and father, but he would never be able to satisfy Eliza’s intellectual needs. I think he recognized that both Higgins and Eliza were intellectual equals who needed the challenge of striking sparks off a worthy opponent’s mind, finding a measure of satisfaction, even enjoyment, in the intellectual battles they fought with one another. Of course, Shaw could have solved Eliza’s dilemma by creating a character for Eliza to marry whose intellect matched her own, but he didn’t. Was it only because to do so would have spoiled his social commentary, or was Pygmalion perhaps simply unable to bear the thought of setting his creation truly free?

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