“Pygmalion” is a play written by George Bernard Shaw and published in 1913. It is story built on top of Greek myth about a king and a sculptor Pygmalion and his feelings to the statue of his own creation.
The Pygmalion play tells us about a genius phonetics professor Henry Higgins, his comrade Colonel Pickering, a common flowergirl Eliza Doolittle and the bet made by Mr. Higgins with Pickering that in six months he will be able to teach Eliza the phonetics and manners good enough to pass her off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.
A first clear observation about the play, which is also one of the most important aspects of it, is the way how Higgins’ treats Eliza. One might argue that in Pygmalion, Professor Higgins treats Eliza like a property or a dog
“Eliza returns with a pair of large down-at-heel slippers. She places them on the carpet before Higgins, and sits as before without a word.
Pygmalion, 12th line of Act IV”
While Higgins treats Eliza in a way that one that some might call “less than”, unlike Pickering, it is a part of Higgins’ character. His lack of empathy, poor caring about other people’s feelings and ease on the use of explicit language build the prototype for Higgins’ character, Eliza is not the only one who is poorly treated by him. Mr. Higgins insults random strangers on the street (Act I), “makes faces” at his housekeeper when she tells him off for bad manners behind the breakfast table (Act II) and rushes in his own mother’s room (Act V). He does not think of Eliza as “less than”, he took her on as an experiment, built “a statue” out of her and thinks of her of an equal to him:
“HIGGINS: Of course I do, you little fool. Five minutes ago you were like a millstone round my neck. Now youre a tower of strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl.
Pygmalion, End of Act V”
Higgins does not want Eliza to fetch him slippers, nor he wants to fetch her slippers, he wants her to be equal to him.
A second observation about the Pygmalion is not as clear shown in the film version as in the written play. One of the main points that the play tries to show is the change that Higgins has caused to other people, Eliza, and her father. In the Act I, Eliza was presented as a common girl trying to sell flowers and speaking non-clear accent. Her father was an alcoholic dustman, looking and talking accordingly, asking for money from Mr. Higgins and Colonel Pickering. In 6 months (which are shown by the film, but not by the play, which is the reason the change is more noticeable in the written play), Eliza is accompanied by Mr. Higgins and Colonel Pickering to the palace where she passes off as a lady, making Higgins win the bet. Her father return in the Act V as well, showing that he now was a middle-class man, thanks to Mr. Higgins. Yet, both are unhappy about the changes in their life:
“DOOLITTLE: Done to me! Ruined me. Destroyed my happiness. Tied me up and delivered me into the hands of middle class morality.
Pygmalion, 55th line of Act V”
The unhappiness of Eliza and her father raises questions about the “middle class morality”. These people did not ask for a change, they lived their lives without money or education happily and did not complain, but now they are unhappy, so the change, which is seen for better by the “middle class man” Higgins, is not for the better for them? Do these people actually need a change like this? Are poorer people – happier? If they are – why are they happier? Do they have more freedom? What if they do not understand the privileges that they gain? What if it does not matter to them?
The film script repeats the original play word-per-word, except for some phrases removed and a slight reorder of actions, for instance, in Act III, in the written play Mr. Higgins and Pickering talk to Mrs. Higgins about Eliza after everyone leaves the party, not before Eliza comes in:
“HIGGINS [speaking together] You know, she has the most extraordinary quickness of ear: PICKERING.I assure you, my dear Mrs. Higgins, that girl HIGGINS just like a parrot. I’ve tried her with ever PICKERING.is a genius. She can play the piano quite beautifully. HIGGINS possible sort of sound that a human being can make—PICKERING We have taken her to classical concerts and to music HIGGINS Continental dialects, African dialects, Hottentot PICKERING halls; and its all the same to her: she plays everything…
Pygmalion, End of Act III”
One (two) key differences between the play and the film is the addition of scenes where Higgins teaches Eliza throughout the 6 months that he has, the bathing scene where Eliza is forced to take a bath and the party in the palace, where Higgins passes Eliza off as a lady. These scenes play a crucial part in the perception of the change happening to Eliza and struggles that she has to live though.
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Another important difference is the end. In the written play Higgins asks Eliza to order cheese and buy him a tie in his mother’s house, Eliza denies, but Higgins knows that she still will do it. In the film version, Eliza drives off in a car to her father’s wedding, while Higgins runs out and then goes back to his house in a mood, where he meets Eliza. This is a clearer ending for the viewer, as the original play ending is harder to understand in the rapid pace of the film
Just like “A Doll’s House” the main storyline revolves around a woman and a man, Mrs. Doolittle and Mr. Higgins in the case of “Pygmalion”. However, while in A Doll’s House Nora was treated like a property by her husband, but where Nora was endorsing it at first and realized the immorality in the end, in Pygmalion Eliza feels treated poorly from the start, when she comes to Higgins’ house:
“LIZA [rising and squaring herself determinedly]: I’m going away. He’s off his chump, he is. I dont want no balmies teaching me.
Pygmalion, middle of Act II”
Unlike Nora who leaves Torvald, her children and the house, Eliza gets on terms with Higgins and continues to live there with him as an equal to him. She did not change him, she changed herself and by that she achieved respect from Higgins.
In conclusion, while some might argue about Higgins’ bad treatment of Eliza, his way of treating everyone suggests making Eliza not less, but equal to him. Eliza builds up her own character and gain self-worth but does not blame anyone. The play also raises questions important to this day, questioning the happiness of people, neediness of change and their position in society. The script is mostly unchanged relatively to the original play, however it has some scenes added, such as the teaching process through which Eliza goes and the reception by the King and Queen of England. Eliza, as one of the protagonists, may resemble Nora from A Doll’s House, however she does not propagate feminist ideas and shows how she earned the self-respect without blaming the man.