Pygmalion Versus Its Big Screen Successors

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George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion both delighted and scandalized its first audiences in 1914 (Woodbridge 5). A brilliantly witty reworking of the Ovid tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his perfect female statue, it is also a barbed attack on the British class system and a statement of Shaw's feminist views (McCarter). In Shaw's hands, the phoneticist Henry Higgins is the Pygmalion figure who believes he can transform Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl, into a duchess at ease in polite society (Yuchan). The one thing he overlooks is that his 'creation' has a mind of her own (McCarter). Pygmalion nevertheless probes important questions about social class, human behavior, and relations between the sexes .

Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion has been reworked many times. The story says that Pygmalion saw so much to blame in women that he came at last to abhor the sex, and resolved to live unmarried (McCarter). He was a sculptor, and had made with wonderful skill a statue of ivory, so beautiful that no living woman came anywhere near it. Pygmalion admired his own work, and at last fell in love with the counterfeit creation. The statue was a representation of his ideal woman (McCarter). When Pygmalion had performed his part in the solemnities at a festival at Cyprus, he stood before the altar and timidly said, "Ye gods, who can do all things, give me, I pray you, for my wife" - he dared not say "my ivory virgin," but said instead - "one like my ivory virgin." Aphrodite, who was present at the festival, heard him and knew the thought he would have uttered. After the celebration, Pygmalion returned home to see his statue, and once he touched the ivory porcelain it turned to life. Aphrodite had granted his wish and transformed his ideal statue into a real-life woman (McCarter). Pygmalion named his ideal woman Galatea and they soon married. Galatea and Pygmalion were so grateful to Aphrodite for what she did that they left gifts in her temple as a sign of thanks and in return the Goddess blessed them with happiness (McCarter).

Shaw’s play was tremendously successful in Germany, London and the U.S.A. Shaw was always reluctant to have his plays filmed because he would not tolerate any tampering with his dialogue, but he was persuaded by Gabriel Pascal to allow a film version of Pygmalion (McCarter). Writing the screenplay for the film version of 1938 helped Shaw to become the first and only man ever to win both the Nobel Prize for literature and an Academy Award (McCarter).

The 1913 play, “Pygmalion”, is the basis for a number of adaptations that made it to the silver screen. The two films that are most often discussed are the 1938 comedic retelling of “Pygmalion”, and the 1964 musical, “My Fair Lady”. Each of the adaptations compares to the original in plot, tone and theme but contrasts to the original work primarily in the areas of characterization and their conclusions. Although Shaw’s characters differ in the way they talk and dress, he demonstrates what the social classes were exposed to and the expectations of both men and women during this time (McCarter).

History shows that women started to fight for their freedom in the late eighteen hundreds and managed to receive their right to vote in nineteen twenty with the passing of the nineteenth amendment. Some women were killed and others were injured during their fight. They would petition outside of the White House and lead marches of thousands of women. At this time men believed that “most women really didn't want the vote, and they were probably not qualified to exercise it anyway” which only shows how ignorant they were (Lewis). Women continued to fight for equality even after they received the right to vote. Jane Mansbridge, author of “Why We Lost the ERA” explains that the Equal Rights Amendment was a way to change the relationship between American men and women. It would have made a “significant change in gender roles whether at work, at home, or in society at large”, however it was not ratified in 1982, which left women still fighting for change (Mansbridge 1). This law was never passed because society was dominated by men that were intimidated by change and they feared losing their power over the weaker sex. For years women were defined by men; they were identified by the men in their lives such as their father or husband. Women could not maintain a job considering that was the man’s duty. Higher class women were supposed to stay at home and maintain their status by throwing parties and socializing with the other women in their class. If an upper class woman was single she would spend all her time and effort looking for a husband, and if she was married her main responsibility was to please her husband. Working class women were left to defend themselves, and many worked in factories or on the streets (Blanchard 64-70).

In both the movie “My Fair Lady” and Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” Eliza Doolittle’s character is an accurate representation of a working class woman during the twentieth century. In both versions of the story, Eliza is a poor commoner that makes a living selling flowers on the street. The flower girls of London were girls and women of the lower class who earned their living by selling flowers in the open markets, restaurants, or door to door at London homes (McCarter). Girls as young as six years old sold small bunches of violets or single roses; once out of childhood, flower sellers sold bouquets, corsages, boutonnieres, and potted flowers. A flower seller like Eliza Doolittle would have made about 38 pounds per year, while a lady in a shop could earn up to 300 pounds per year (McCarter).

In each version of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady the audience is first introduced to Eliza as she is begging for money from upper class individuals waiting for the rain to subside. It is obvious that Eliza has had a minimal education considering her language is skewed and she does not know how to present herself properly. From the moment Henry Higgins meets Eliza he treats her like an experiment instead of a person with feelings. He uses her to win a bet and he really does not seem concerned with her well-being at all.

Women were viewed as objects to men. Furthermore, men believed that women did not have the brain capacity to understand the same information as themselves. Women did not have the same opportunities as men because males thought it would be a waste of knowledge to spend the time teaching them. Throughout the story, Higgins calls women “idiots” and he wonders “why women can’t be more like men” (Shaw). Higgins makes women look incompetent and stupid. In the play Higgins also says, “She’s [Eliza] incapable of understanding anything”, yet by the end of the story Eliza has worked hard enough to actually pass as a lady. This is the way most men thought about women since they were regarded at this time as the superior sex. Furthermore, Henry actually degrades Eliza, proving that she is weak and maintains a lower status than himself when he says, “Well, when I’ve done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter; and then it will be her own business again; so that’s all right” (Shaw). Eliza goes to the men for help but she is too naive to understand the consequences of being turned into a lady. The men are fully aware of the danger they are putting Eliza in but they do not care because it is an interesting task to undertake.

In addition to being viewed as an object, Eliza is treated with little respect by the men in her life. For instance, Eliza’s father sells her to Henry Higgins for five pounds, which is practically nothing. What’s even worse is he uses the money to go get drunk. Furthermore, throughout the story Henry constantly tells Eliza that she is a “fool” and she is “ungrateful”. After Higgins tells Eliza that she will get her head chopped of by the king if he finds out she is impersonating a Lady, his only response is “If you refuse this offer you will be a most ungrateful and wicked girl; and the angels will weep for you” (Shaw). Henry is not taking into account that Eliza could die from going through with the task, he is only concerned with his own victory. Also, it was not out of the ordinary for a man to hit a woman during this time period, and readers find that in Shaw’s adaptation, Higgins has to control himself on multiple occasions from going through with the act.

Additionally, the men never praise Eliza for all her hard work, instead they praise themselves. After Eliza passes as a lady at the ambassador’s ball, Pickering and Higgins are congratulating themselves on their success. However both men are oblivious to Eliza and her feelings, Higgins rudely says, “It was interesting enough at first, while we were at the phonetics; but after that I got deadly sick of it” (Shaw). Henry does not even seem aware that Eliza is sitting in the same room, let alone realize that she has just gone through a life-changing transformation. Once the men finish complaining about the “boring” task, Pickering says to Higgins “Still, it's been a great occasion: a triumph for you” (Shaw). Pickering is commemorating Henry on winning the bet and gives no credit to Eliza.

The 1964 movie version of “My Fair Lady” has actress Audrey Hepburn playing Eliza’s character. The movie does a good job of portraying Eliza just as she is in the play. Hepburn manages to capture audiences with her lower class accent and ruddy clothes, making her an exact replica of Shaw’s version of Eliza. However, in the movie Eliza comes across as more of a romantic, since the film is a musical she is always singing and dancing. Also, in the movie Eliza falls in love with Higgins and they end up together. This partnership shows that Eliza conforms to social norms by marrying a rich single bachelor, even though he treats her poorly and degrades her. It is the proper thing for her to do now that she is a woman of wealth and status. In contrast, the play illustrates Eliza as being a strong independent woman that does not stand for Henry’s abuse. At the end of the play Henry mocks Eliza and lists off several items that he wants her to buy for him, thoroughly convinced that she will come back to live with him. Eliza responds to his command by saying, “Buy them yourself”, and exits the scene (Shaw). Henry is so obsessed with having the power he does not know how to deal with Eliza’s new headstrong personality. In both works, Eliza is transformed into an elegant lady but how she uses her status and wealth to maintain happiness differs between the two adaptations.

One’s position on the social ladder determines their income, appearance, job opportunities and education. Lower class individuals such as Eliza and Mr. Doolittle have to find a way to support themselves or they would die. Both father and daughter talk with a lower class accent and they are forced to beg for money. In the opening scene of Shaw’s play, he immediately shows the class distinction between the only three characters introduced: Eliza, Mrs. Erynsford Hill and Miss Erynsford Hill. As the women are waiting out in the rain, the mother and daughter characters are clearly part of the upper class because the mother sends her son to retrieve a cab for them for fear of getting wet. As they wait a conversation sparks between Eliza and the mother- daughter pair. Eliza’s English is hard to understand showing that she is of lower status while the mother shows off her wealth by freely giving money to Eliza in exchange for information. The daughter shows her arrogant upper class nature by saying, “Do nothing of the sort, mother The idea!”, in regards to her mother associating with a peasant girl (Shaw). The daughter understands what is proper and she will not associate with lower class individuals since it may jeopardize her social status.

Often times, Higgins will refer to Eliza as “it” and this just furthers the notion that she is not viewed as a woman to him but rather as something lower. Eliza knows that she is of inferior status to Henry, yet he constantly reminds her of what she really is: a poor flower girl. After the ball, Henry says to Eliza, “Y o u won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! I won it” (Shaw). By calling her an insect he is verbally degrading her, and one could insinuate he picked a bug because it is small, dirty and helpless just like Eliza was when he found her. The issue of class is pushed even further when Eliza says, “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 wish you’d left me where you found me” (Shaw). Now that Higgins has made Eliza proper the only thing she can do is look for a husband, if she plans on maintaining her status as a lady. She feels trapped knowing that she can never go back to her old trade. Eliza’s father is also affected by his sudden change is social status. Mr. Doolittle managed to come into some wealth, yet like Eliza he is upset that he can never go back to his old social position. At the end of the story, Doolittle presents himself as a gentlemen and he says to Higgins “Done to me! Ruined me. Destroyed my happiness. Tied me up and delivered me into the hands of middle class morality” (Shaw). Mr. Doolittle was happy begging for his wages because that was what he was used to, now that he has money he does not understand how to be happy.

Among the number of similarities readers will come across are the likenesses between the works in character interaction. For example, in both the play and the films, Professor Henry Higgins has an overbearing paternal mentality regarding Eliza Doolittle. In accordance with the dialogue that Higgins speaks in the films regarding Eliza’s filthy disposition, readers of Pygmalion discover practically the same words. In both the play and the movie adaptation Henry is a workaholic that has no time to romance a woman. He is obsessed with his gadgets and the idea of language that he can not have a conversation with someone without analyzing their accent. Furthermore, Henry is arrogant. He is only concerned with his own success that he is oblivious to the advice that the women in his life are giving him about Eliza. Both his maid and Mrs. Higgins recommend that Henry think about Eliza’s future but he is blind to everything but the task at hand. Mrs. Higgins yells at both Pickering and Higgins when she says, “No, you two infinitely stupid male creatures: the problem of what is to be done with her afterwards” (Shaw). She knows that the girl will have nowhere to go or to do once the men are through with her and she is trying to prepare them, but they will not listen. Also, although Henry is part of a higher class, the reader is told that he is lazy and somewhat uncivilized. Henry’s maid comes in to talk with him when she realizes Eliza is staying, and she says to Higgins, “Then might I ask you not to come down to breakfast in your dressing-gown, or at any rate not to use it as a napkin to the extent you do, sir. And if you would be so good as not to eat everything off the same plate, and to remember not to put the porridge saucepan out of your hand on the clean tablecloth, it would be a better example to the girl” (Shaw). It is hard to imagine a wealthy man educating a peasant on manners, when he possesses few himself.

In the play, unlike the musical, many of the scenes where Eliza is learning to speak or act properly are skipped, due to the fact that it is a play, and the practices should be understood to happen. Also, the play omits presenting Eliza at the Embassy’s ball. This scene has been built up all throughout the story as Eliza’s coming out to society as a lady and Shaw decides not to provide the reader with the details. However, the scene is shown in the movie “My Fair Lady” and audiences are dazzled with Hepburn’s appearance and personality that wins over all the guests at the Ball. Shaw is basically declining Eliza of her glory. Furthermore, since the movie is a musical many of the characters start randomly bursting out in song and many of the peasants and maids start participating in a dance. The play is more serious and it focuses on Eliza’s struggles as a woman and a lower class individual. Directors most likely made “My Fair Lady” a musical so that it would be more appealing for audiences to watch. Musicals are upbeat and grab the viewers’ attention. Furthermore, the musical was turned into a love story because audiences would not be satisfied with Shaw’s abrupt ending.

The musical leaves out the scene where Eliza sees her father after he has become a middle class man. In the play, Eliza and Higgins are talking and she says how she will never return to her old ways, and as soon as her father walks in, she lets out one of her old “ahhaaa-woooos” out of fear. This scene shows that the old Eliza is still somewhere within her but she has to be careful not to let her old habits define who she is.

As for the ending, it’s open ended. The viewers don’t really know if it’s happy or not. One can assume that in the movie Higgins and Eliza get married and are happy together, much like the mythological story of Pygmalion and Galetea. The musical was based off of their love for one another and it is only right to have them be together in the end. However, in the play, Shaw leaves the reader with an abrupt ending; Eliza walks out to attend her father’s wedding and Higgins laughs at the fact that she is going to marry Freddy. Readers can only be disappointed with this ending and that may be the reason the directors did not end the movie the same way. It’s up to each individual to decide.