Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw; Penguin Paperback 300; 1946 edition
I knew that Pygmalion was adapted into the movie/musical My Fair Lady, but I was unaware that the characters and dialogue were all from Bernard Shaw, it was only the music and dance numbers that were added. And that was a thrill and a disappointment because although apart from the catchy (infective, really) tunes and general jolliness, it is a fundamentally misogynistic story.
First, a word needs to be said about the actual Penguin Paperback edition of the play, which, however you feel about the story itself, is certainly a joy to experience. It is a slim volume, but it has a preface and a lengthy epilogue by the author, as well as over 100 illustrations of the story, peppered on just about every page. It also contains the scenes that Bernard Shaw himself wrote for the original movie that was first adapted from his play. It was intended as a very special edition in celebration of Penguin’s Tri-Centenery of publications.
The title references the Ancient Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor whose skill is so great that he falls in love with a sculpture that he creates. Apart from the Bernard Shaw play, which not only spawned My Fair Lady, but also Educating Rita, She’s All That, and others, the Pygmalion story itself has inspired movies like Mannequin and Lars And The Real Woman. It is a fundamentally perverse story — a cautionary tale, more than anything. However, translated by Bernard Shaw we have a story in which a man moulds a woman into a particular shape, that is where it becomes misogyny. Where once she is coarse and ignorant, she is now elegant and graceful, and that is all thanks to him (or the other male lead, Colonel Pickering). The play ends by dwelling on the question of who she can marry, not on what she is able now to do.
Illustrations by Feliks Topolski
All this said, the story itself displays ambiguity in these developments. For instance, Higgins is shown to be comically rude and awkward in society. Higgins’ mother is a strong female character, and the young Freddy can be adequately described as a bimbo.
Which would all be fine except for Shaw’s preface and epilogue in this edition. In the former he describes his admiration for (the amittedly very impressive) Professor Henry Sweet (who I am also a big fan of, for different reasons), and by describes Higgins as being a character with no flaws. And by revealing Higgins’ his social awkwardness, Shaw does not intend to display feet of clay, but rather Higgins’ personal freedom. This revelation carries over into the epilogue as well where Shaw twice, favourably, cites Nietzche and dwells for a bizarrely long amount of time on H. G. Wells (the novels and the man) for a very trivial plot point. Shaw calls this epilogue a ‘sequel’, to the story, and it is. It tells us the story of Liza Doolittle, her marriage to Freddy, her difficulty in starting a flowershop business — which, uncharacteristically, she is not able to learn the business side of in the same fairly easy way that she learnt a different way of speaking. Shaw’s expressed reason for writing this ‘sequel’ is because he was incensed at the stage productions of his work which hinted at Higgins and Doolittle falling in love and marrying each other. He wrote this to set the record straight because, in his words
Galatea [Doolittle] never does quite like Pygmalion [Higgins]: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.
So, in conclusion, man is the shaper, the creator; woman is the raw material to be changed and imposed on. That hardly makes me want to break into song.
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