Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
About George Bernard Shaw • George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was the third and youngest child (and only son) of George Carr Shaw and Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly Shaw. • Technically, he belonged to the Protestant “ascendancy”—the landed Irish gentry—but his impractical father was first a sinecured civil servant and then an unsuccessful grain merchant, and George Bernard grew up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty, which to him was more humiliating than being merely poor.
Another historical point that may have some importance is that in 1872 his mother left her husband and took her two daughters to London, following her music teacher, George John Vandeleur Lee, who from 1866 had shared households in Dublin with the Shaws. Whatever we may feel about this, it shows him close to an exceptionally independent woman
In 1876 Shaw resolved to become a writer, and he joined his mother and elder sister (the younger one having died) in London. Shaw in his 20s suffered continuous frustration and poverty. • He depended upon his mother's pound a week from her husband and her earnings as a music teacher. • He spent his afternoons in the British Museum reading • room, writing novels and reading what he had missed at school, and his evenings in search of additional self- education in the lectures and debates that characterized contemporary middle-class London intellectual activities. • His fiction failed utterly. The semiautobiographical and aptly titled Immaturity (1879; published 1930) repelled every publisher in London.
His next four novels were similarly refused, as were most of the articles he submitted to the press for a decade. • Shaw's initial literary work earned him less than 10 shillings a year. A fragment posthumously published as An Unfinished Novel in 1958 (but written 1887–88) was his final false start in fiction. • Despite his failure as a novelist in the 1880s, Shaw found himself during this decade. He became a vegetarian, a socialist, a spellbinding orator, a polemicist, and tentatively a playwright
Before long, Shaw had become one of the most sought-after public speakers in England. He argued in his pamphlets in favor of equality of income and advocated the equitable division of land and capital. He believed that property was "theft" and felt, like Karl Marx, that capitalism was deeply flawed and was unlikely to last. • Unlike Marx, however, Shaw favored gradual reform over revolution. And there we see Alfred Doolittle, common dustman. In one pamphlet written in 1897, he predicted that socialism "will come by prosaic installments of public regulation and public administration enacted by ordinary parliaments, vestries, municipalities, parish councils, school boards, etc."
In 1892, Shaw wrote his first play, Widowers' Houses, about the evils of slumlords. The play was attacked savagely by people who opposed his politics. • It was then that Shaw knew he was a good playwright--he must have been to have upset so many people with his social commentary. • He went on to revolutionize the English theater by concentrating his writing on various social issues at a time when most other playwrights were writing "sentimental pap."
The Myth Behind the Play • There is never any overt reference in the play to Pygmalion; Shaw assumes a classical understanding. • According to the Mythology Guide online “Pygmalion saw so much to blame in women that he came at last to abhor the sex, and resolved to live unmarried. He was a sculptor, and had made with wonderful skill a statue of ivory, so beautiful that no living woman could be compared to it in beauty. • It was indeed the perfect sem-blance of a maiden that seemed to be alive, and only prevented from moving by modesty. His art was so perfect that it concealed itself, and its product looked like theworkmanship of nature. Anne-Louis Girodet-TriosonPygmalion et Galatée, 1819
Pygmalion admired his own work, and at last fell in love with the counter-feit creation. Oftentimes he laid his hand upon it, as if to assure himself whether it were living or not, and could not even then believe that it was only ivory. • The festival of Venus was at hand, a festival celebrated withgreat pomp at Cyprus. Victims were offered, the altars smoked,and the odor of incense filled the air. When Pygmalion hadperformed his part in the solemnities, he stood before the altarand timidly said, "Ye gods, who can do all things, give me, Ipray you, for my wife" he dared not say "my ivory virgin," butsaid instead "one like my ivory virgin." Venus, who waspresent at the festival, heard him Burne-Jones, Edward “Pygmalion and the Image Series: The Soul Attains” 1878
While he stands astonished and glad, thoughdoubting, and fears he may be mistaken, again and again with a lover's ardor he touches the object of his hopes. It was indeedalive! The veins when pressed yielded to the finger and thenresumed their roundness. Then at last the votary of Venus found words to thank the goddess, and pressed his lips upon lips as real as his own. • Click here to read the entire narrative.
The Play Itself • One of the most popular plays of Bernard Shaw, first performed in 1913 in Vienna and published and performed in London in 1916. Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the American Airlines Theater.
Major Conflicts • The nature of class structure • Upper Class: Higgins, Col. Pickering, Mrs. Higgins, Mers. Clair and Freddy Eynsford Hill. • Middle Class: Mrs. Pierce She does not, however, represent “middle-class morality” alone. In many ways that is also a quality of Higgins’ and Col. Pickering’s class. • Lower Working Class: Eliza, Alfred Doolittle and his never seen but often heard about “wife.” and Eliza’s step-mother. • The relationship between genders: • “No, no, no, you two infinitely stupid male creatures!” • Self Perception: Eliza’s sense of worth • She is infected with the lie.
Person vs. Cultural Environment • Class Structure: A vast gulf between the poor and even the lower upper class. • Higgins’ “cast-off” change is a fortune to Eliza who assumes later that he must have been drunk. • Eliza’s belief that riding in a taxi is the ultimate badge of upper class quality of life. • Eliza’s Struggle: • To work at a flower-shop • She is infected by social snobbery herself. • Discovers that a rise in culture means a loss of independence (as does her step-mother). • Eventually achieves independence. Probably the most Important conflict in the play: the class system is Eliza’s primary antagonist
“What we believe influences how we behave. Likewise, how we behave impacts what people think about us. In turn, this affects how others behave towards us. Ultimately, how they behave towards us reinforces what we believed about ourselves in the first place.” http://www.meghanwilliams.com/ugb.html Meg Williams
Gender Differences • Neither Col. Pickering nor Henry Higgins have a clue about the situation they are putting Eliza or themselves into. • Mrs. Pierce recognizes that Higgins is immorally using the power granted him by his patriarchal culture to pressure Eliza, a presser which if she gives in could lead her to a life of wickedness.
Eliza learns that women in the upper classes in fact do not have the independence that women of the lower classes do. They must be connected to a man in some way to be respectable within “middle-class morality.” • Eliza rejects being a “gold-digger” and Higgins rejects female “puppy-dog” tricks. • Only a working skill frees Eliza.
Self Perception • Eliza has a powerful sense of her value: “I’m a good girl I am!” Therefore she will never become a “kept woman.” • She has ambition willing to give up two thirds of her daily income to improve herself. • But she is infected with class-prejudice • Put the girls in their place just a bit • You’re going to allow yourself to marry that low born woman?
Is it a Romance? • Shaw says “NO!” • The Text says “Yes!”
Sites Cited • "George Bernard Shaw" It Happened In Historyhttp://amsaw.org/amsaw-ithappenedinhistory-072603-shaw.html 8 July 2008 • Heilpern, John. “We’ve Grown Accustomed to the Musical: Pygmalion, With the Shaw a Little Out of Whack” The New York Observerhttp://www.observer.com/2007/we-ve-grown-accustomed-musical-pygmalion-shaw-little-out-whack 30 Oct. 2007. • “Pygmalion” Mythology Guide. http://www.online-mythology.com/pygmalion/ 8 July 2008. • Weintraub, Stanley and John Stewart "Shaw, George Bernard." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Apr. 2006 http://search.eb.com/eb/article-6607 • Williams, Meg. “The Pygmalion Effect” http://www.meghanwilliams.com/ugb.html 11 July 2008