Drama Study: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

FRom the pRL / originally written in english / C20TH / Europe / england

Shifting from daring social critique to old-fashioned romance to keen character study, the play is acutely mindful of the way life is inextricably political.

LA Times Review of the Old Globe production of Pygmalion, 2013.


When George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925, he was praised for turning “his weapons against everything that he conceives of as prejudice.” This is clearly true of Pygmalion, which was premiered in German in Vienna in 1913. The play is a modern interpretation of an ancient myth, the tale of Pygmalion and Galatea. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion, an artist, falls in love with Galatea, a statue of an ideal woman that he created. Pygmalion is a man disgusted with real-life women, so chooses celibacy and the pursuit of an ideal woman whom he carves out of ivory. Wishing the statue were real, he makes a sacrifice to Venus, the goddess of love, who brings the statue to life. By the late Renaissance, poets and dramatists began to contemplate the thoughts and feelings of this woman, who woke full-grown in the arms of a lover. Shaw’s central character—the flower girl Liza Doolittle—expresses articulately how her transformation has made her feel, and he adds the additional twist that Liza turns on her “creator” in the end by leaving him.

In Shaw’s rendition, Higgins, a teacher, “creates” Eliza, his pupil, by teaching her to speak like a duchess—a transformation that allows Shaw to attack the superficial class prejudices of his time. Shaw’s version discards the romantic element, and transposes the Pygmalion myth into pre-war England, a period in which rigid social class structures were being challenged and gender roles were undergoing profound transformations. In Pygmalion, received ideas on the roles of men and women, teacher and student, and upper and working classes are turned on their heads, and Shaw’s essential humanity, feminism, and egalitarianism shine through. Since its initial English staging in 1914 and its first English publication in 1916, the play has been adapted and updated several times, most prominently in the Broadway musical and later film, My Fair Lady. In addition, Shaw attached to the play a “Sequel,” in which he discusses what took place for the characters after the play proper. The rags to (relative) riches aspect of Shaw’s witty and spirited social commentary have helped contribute to its success.

IB Learner Profile: Balanced

We understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives – intellectual, physical, and emotional – to achieve well-being for ourselves and others. We recognize our interdependence with other people and with the world in which we live.

IB Learner Profile

Your understanding of the literary works you study will be assessed in two ways: Paper 2 (at the end of the course) and in an oral examination called the Individual Oral. You are allowed to choose the literary text(s) that you want to prepare for the Individual Oral. Pygmalion is a great text for you to think about using, as it contains many passages that connect to concepts you will have studied in other parts of the course. Some students enjoy this activity as it does not require spending lots of time writing essays, and allows you space to work on other aspects of the IB; this is called having intellectual balance in the learner profile. Other students find the Individual Oral stressful and even a little nerve-wracking (affecting what the learner profile calls emotional balance). The important thing to do is to remain balanced: if you gather your thoughts regularly throughout the course and record them in your Learner Portfolio, and hone preparation techniques that work for you, you’ll find this is a great way to boost your internal assessment score.

Lang and Lit Concept: Transformation

Transformation is a central theme of Shaw’s play: Pygmalion‘s all about turning a poor girl into a duchess! Eliza’s metamorphosis is indeed stunning. You could even go so far as to call it a ‘Cinderella story.’ But remember: Cinderella turned back into a poor girl before she finally found her prince. Pay attention and you’ll notice that not all the attempts at transformation here are successful. There are plenty of false starts and false endings. By play’s end, Shaw’s made one thing very clear: be careful what you wish for.

Cinderella may be the most well-known, but it’s not the only source Shaw may have drawn on or transformed. In addition to the importance of the original Pygmalion myth to Shaw’s play, critics have pointed out the possible influence of other works, such as Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (which similarly involves a gentleman attempting to make a fine lady out of a “coarse” working girl), and a number of plays, including W.S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. Shaw denied borrowing the story directly from any of these sources, but there are traces of them in his play, and shades of the famous stories of other somewhat vain “creators” whose experiments have unforeseen implications: Faust, Dr. Frankenstein, Svengali. While you read and study Pygmalion you might like to consider how the meaning of Shaw’s text is bound to one or more of these ‘sources’ and how Shaw transformed them into his own original work.

Areas of Exploration Conceptual Guiding Question

Michael Caine discusses his Cockney accent.

In psychology, the word ‘identity’ is used to mean the characteristics that make you who ‘you’ are. You have a particular way of speaking (called your idiolect), acting, and seeing the world that makes you distinct from other people. Despite this, humans like to characterise, and social distinction is a convenient way to place people into certain ‘groups’. In this way, the language we use can be revealing – even if we don’t realise it – and our accent can reveal where we are from and our social class. Read through the following resource, which discusses the opening scene of Pygmalion, to explore the guiding conceptual question:

Act 1: Outside a London theatre in the rain

“Her features are no worse than theirs.”

G.B. Shaw
Wendy Hiller as Eliza, Pygmalion, 1938

The action begins at 11:15 p.m. in a heavy summer rainstorm. An after-theatre crowd takes shelter in the portico of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. A young girl, Clara Eynsford Hill, and her mother are wailing for Clara’s brother Freddy, who looks in vain for an available cab. Colliding into flower peddler Liza Doolittle, Freddy scatters her flowers. After he departs to continue looking for a cab, Liza convinces Mrs. Eynsford Hill to pay for the damaged flowers; she then cons three halfpence from Colonel Pickering. Liza is made aware of the presence of Henry Higgins, who has been writing down every word she has said. Thinking Higgins is a policeman who is going to arrest her for scamming people, Liza becomes hysterical, Higgins turns out, however, to be making a record of her speech for scientific ends. Higgins is an expert in phonetics who claims: “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” Upbraiding Liza for her speech, Higgins boasts that “in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.” Higgins and Pickering eventually trade names and realize they have long wanted to meet each other. They go off to dine together and discuss phonetics. Liza picks up the money Higgins had flung down upon exiting and for once treats herself to a taxi ride home.


Learner Portfolio

In Pygmalion, we observe a society divided, separated by language, education, and wealth. As Shaw portrays it, London society cannot simply be defined by two terms, “rich” and “poor.” Within each group there are smaller less obvious distinctions, and it is in the middle, in that gray area between wealth and poverty that many of the most interesting truths can be discovered. Additionally, Pygmalion allows us to observe a society in flux and understand the problems which crop up in an “age of upstarts.”

Write a one-two page journal entry in which you record your observations about the society introduced to you in Act 1. Who do we get to meet? What are their interactions like? Did anything surprise you about the speech and actions of people from different social classes? Can you find evidence of any social prejudice or discord in the scene?

Act 2: In Higgins’ laboratory

“Women upset everything. When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you’re driving at another.”

Henry Higgins
Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins, The Theatre Royal

The next morning at 11 a.m. in Higgins’s laboratory, which is full of instruments. Higgins and Pickering receive Liza, who has presented herself at the door. Higgins is taken aback by Liza’s request for lessons from him. She wants to learn to “talk more genteel” so she can be employed in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street. Liza can only offer to pay a shilling per lesson, but Pickering, intrigued by Higgins’s claims the previous night, offers to pay for Liza’s lessons and says of the experiment: “I’ll say you’re the greatest teacher alive if you make that good.” Higgins enthusiastically accepts the bet, though his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, pleads with him to consider what will become of Liza after the experiment. Liza agrees to move into Higgins’s home and goes upstairs for a bath. Meanwhile, Higgins and Pickering are visited by Liza’s father, Doolittle, “an elderly but vigorous dustman.” Rather than demanding to take Liza away, Doolittle instead offers to “let her go” for the sum of five pounds. Higgins is shocked by this offer at first, asking whether Doolittle has any morals, but he is persuaded by Doolittle’s response, that the latter is too poor to afford them. Exiting quickly with his booty, Doolittle does not at first recognize his daughter, who has re-entered, cleaned up and dressed in a Japanese kimono.


Learner Portfolio

Act 2 provides many opportunities to observe the way Higgins interacts with various people: Pickering; Mrs Pearce; Eliza; Mr. Doolittle. Despite his idiosyncrasies, Higgins is still a representative of the ‘privileged’ class. Examine the way he speaks to different people in this scene. What do these interactions tell you about his particular personality and about the attitudes of the class that he represents? Write up your ideas in a one-two page journal entry.

Act 3: Mrs Higgins’ at-home

“You silly boy, of course she’s not presentable. She’s a triumph of your art and of her dressmaker’s; but if you suppose for a moment that she doesn’t give herself away in every sentence she utters, you must be perfectly cracked about her.”

Mrs Higgins
Barbara Jefford as Mrs Pearce, The Old Vic, London

The setting is the flat of Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother. Henry bursts in with a flurry of excitement, much to the distress of his mother, who finds him lacking in social graces (she observes that her friends “stop coming whenever they meet you”). Henry explains that he has invited Liza, taking the opportunity for an early test of his progress with Liza’s speech. The Eynsford Hills, guests of Mrs. Higgins, arrive. The discussion is awkward and Henry, true to his mother’s observations, does appear very uncomfortable in company. Liza arrives and, while she speaks with perfect pronunciation and tone, she confuses the guests with many of her topics of conversation and peculiar turns of phrase. Higgins convinces the guests that these, including Liza’s famous exclamation “not bloody likely!” are the latest trend in small talk. After all the guests (including Liza) have left, Mrs. Higgins challenges Henry and Pickering regarding their plans; she is shocked that they have given no thought to Liza’s well-being, for after the conclusion of the experiment she will have no income, only “the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living.” Henry is characteristically flip, stating “there’s no good bothering now. The thing’s done.” Pickering is no more thoughtful than Higgins, and as the two men exit, Mrs. Higgins expresses her exasperation.

A following scene, the most important of the “optional” scenes Shaw wrote for the film version of Pygmalion —and included in later editions of the play—takes place at an Embassy party in London. Higgins is nervous that Nepommuck, a Hungarian interpreter and his former student, will discover his ruse and expose Liza as an aristocratic imposter. Nepommuck, ironically, accuses Liza not of faking her social class, but her nationality. He is convinced Liza must be Hungarian and of noble blood, for she speaks English “too perfectly,” and “only foreigners who have been taught to speak it speak it well.” Higgins is victorious, but finds little pleasure in having outwitted such foolish guests.


Learner Portfolio

Reading Pygmalion, we come to learn that communication is about more than words, and everything from clothing to accents to physical bearing can affect the way people interact with each other. We hear language in all its forms: everything from slang and “small talk,” to heartfelt pleas and big talk about soul and poverty. Depending on the situation, and depending on whom you ask, language can separate or connect people, degrade or elevate, transform or prevent transformation.

Look closely at Eliza’s use of language while she is at the at-home. Write a one-two page journal entry in which you examine the following: Why does she start speaking in her old manner when she gets emotional? What does this suggest about her training? Or about Higgins’s abilities as a teacher? Look too at Freddy and Clara’s reaction – they confuse her normal way of speaking for the new ‘small talk’. What does this tell us about language use in different contexts?

Act 4: After the ambassador’s party

“Anyhow, it was a great success: an immense success. I was quite frightened once or twice because Eliza was doing it so well. You see, lots of the real people can’t do it at all: they’re such fools that they think style comes by nature to people in their position; and so they never learn.”

Colonel Pickering
Peter Eyre as Colonel Pickering, The Garrick Theatre, London

Midnight, in Henry’s laboratory. Higgins, Pickering, and Liza return from the party. Higgins loudly bemoans the evening: “What a crew’ What a silly tomfoolery!” Liza grows more and more frustrated as he continues to complain (‘ Thank God it’s over!”), not paying attention to her or acknowledging her role in his triumph. Complaining about not being able to find his slippers, Higgins does not observe Liza retrieving them and placing them directly by him. She controls her anger as Higgins and Pickering exit, but when Higgins storms back in, still wrathfully looking for his slippers, Liza hurls them at him with all her might. She derides Higgins for his selfishness and demands of him, “What’s to become of me?” Higgins tries to convince her that her irritation is “only imagination,” that she should “go to bed like a good girl and sleep it off.” Higgins gradually understands Liza’s economic concern (that she cannot go back to selling flowers, but has no other future), but he can only awkwardly suggest marriage to a rich man as a solution. Liza criticizes the subjugation that Higgins’s suggestion implies: “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.” Liza infuriates Higgins by rejecting him, giving him back the rented jewels she wears, and a ring he had bought for her. He angrily throws the ring in the fireplace and storms out.

In the next important “optional scene,” Liza has left Higgins’s home and comes upon Freddy, who, infatuated with the former flower girl, has recently been spending most of his nights gazing up at Liza’s window. They fall into each other’s arms, but their passionate kisses are interrupted first by one constable, then another, and another. Liza suggests they jump in a taxi, “and drive about all night; and in the morning I’ll call on old Mrs Higgins and ask her what I ought to do.”


Learner Portfolio

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Pygmalion, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied.

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt from the resource handout for Act 4), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry. If you would like some idea of the kind of writing to aim for, you might like to read this brilliant response exploring why some characters do not conform to norms, written by a student preparing for Paper 2:

  1. Consider the ways in which literary works either embrace or reject popular culture. 
  2. Explore how women are represented as stronger than men in the works you have studied. 
  3. Consider why writers create characters who do not conform to norms in the literary works you have studied ?  

Act 5: In Mrs Higgins’ drawing room

“Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself.”

Eliza Doolittle
Diana Rigg as Mrs Higgins, My Fair Lady, New York

Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room, the next day. Henry and Pickering arrive and while they are downstairs phoning the police about Liza’s disappearance, Mrs. Higgins asks the chambermaid to warn Liza, taking shelter upstairs, not to come down. Mrs. Higgins scolds Henry and Pickering for their childishness and the careless manner in which they treated another human. The arrival of Alfred Doolittle is announced; he enters dressed fashionably as a bridegroom, but in an agitated state, casting accusations at Higgins. Doolittle explains at length how by a deed of Henry’s he has come into a regular pension. His lady companion will now marry him, but still he is miserable. Where he once could “put the touch” on anyone for drinking money, now everyone comes to him, demanding favors and monetary support. At this point, Mrs. Higgins reveals that Liza is upstairs, again criticizing Henry for his unthoughtf ul behavior towards the girl. Mrs. Higgins calls Liza down, asking Doolittle to step out for a moment to delay the shock of the news he brings. Liza enters, politely cool towards Henry. She thanks Pickering for all the respect he has shown her since their first meeting: calling her Miss Doolittle, removing his hat, opening doors. ‘ The difference,” Liza concludes, “between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.”

At this point, Doolittle returns. He and Liza are re-united, and all the characters (excepting Henry) prepare to leave to see Doolittle married. Liza and Higgins are left alone. Higgins argues that he didn’t treat Liza poorly because she was a flower girl but because he treats everyone the same. He defends his behavior by attacking traditional social graces as absurd: “You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers,” he says. Liza declares that since Higgins gave no thought to her future, she will marry Freddy and support herself by teaching phonetics, perhaps assisting Nepommuck. Higgins grows furious at Liza and “lays his hands on her.” He quickly regrets doing so and expresses appreciation of Liza’s newfound independence. At the play’s curtain he remains incorrigible, however, cheerfully assuming that Liza will continue to manage his household details as she had done during her days of instruction with him.


Learner Portfolio

Pygmalion is one of Shaw’s most popular plays and, in some ways, the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from flower-girl to duchess to real woman is a straightforward journey to follow. Yet the ending of Pygmalion has produced controversy, not least because Shaw himself rewrote it for the 1938 movie version. In his original post-script, Shaw explains at some length exactly why Eliza does not marry Higgins – years later he directly contradicts himself by having her marry him at the end of the film!

Here you will find two critical responses to this conundrum; one arguing why the original play has the more natural ending, the other supporting the changes made for the ending of the film. Read these two sources, then decide for yourself which ending you prefer. Write a one-two page journal entry explaining your choice and reasoning. Include some of the research you’ve come across in the course of your study.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length (20 marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

When Shaw wrote Pygmalion, women could not vote in the United Kingdom; in 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right, and it took another ten years for all women to be given a voice. Shaw’s depiction of women and attitudes toward them is impressively and sometimes confusingly varied. They are shown in conventional roles – as mothers and housekeepers – and as strong-willed and independent. The play pays special attention to the problem of women’s “place” in society (or lack thereof), and Shaw offers no easy answers to the tough questions that arise. If you would like to write your Higher Level essay on this topic, you could use one of the following suggestions as a starting point:

  • In what ways are Clara, Mrs Pearce and Mrs Higgins crucial to understanding a woman’s shifting place in the world at the time of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion?
  • How are women constrained in various ways throughout Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw?
  • In what ways is Pickering’s attitude towards women, as expressed through his dialogue and actions, revealing of wider social attitudes and expectations?
  • How does the conflict between Higgins and Eliza represent a wider social conflict between men and women in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw?
  • By what means does Shaw criticise the treatment of women in society in his play Pygmalion?
  • How do aspects of costume, props and setting suggest the extent by which women are controlled in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw?
  • How, and why, do men and women frequently conflict and contrast in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Pygmalion would be a good text to discuss in this oral assessment. The play explores a multiplicity of important themes connected to class, gender, aspiration, education, themes of family, the roles of men and women in society, fantasy versus reality, and more. Now you have finished studying Pygmalion, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

Written at a time of unprecedented social change, where scientific progress, industrialisation and education made class mobilisation possible, Pygmalion nevertheless depicts a stratified world where everybody knows their place – and knows everyone else’s place too. Despite the possibility of dreams coming true, Shaw is careful to show how class, money and rigid social hierarchies more often than not determine a person’s life, future and happiness.


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