Dramatic Study: Pygmalion

by George Bernard Shaw


Pygmalion and Galatea; oil on canvas by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1890, now exhibited at The Met, New York

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 study of literature 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 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.

Areas of Exploration: Intertextuality

  • How can texts offer multiple perspectives of a single issue, topic or theme?
  • How do texts adhere to and deviate from conventions associated with literary forms or text types?

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. (20 marks)

The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length.††

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, as there are of the well-known story of Cinderella, and shades of the famous stories of other somewhat vain “creators” whose experiments have unforeseen implications: Faust, Dr. Frankenstein, Svengali. If you would like to write your HL Essay about this text, 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. This would address the Language and Literature concept of Transformation:

  • The concept of transformation is bound to the idea of intertextuality. Texts may be said to exist not as isolated unitary works, but rather as intertexts in which the meanings of any one text is always bound to other earlier texts. Such an understanding highlights the connections that exist between a text, other texts, and meaning. Texts may be said to appropriate and borrow from other texts, extending, changing, and challenging in creative and imaginative ways that which has gone before. 

Act 1: outside a London theatre in the rain

Wendy Hiller as Eliza, Pygmalion, 1938

“Her features are no worse than theirs.”

G.B. Shaw, Stage Direction, Pygmalion Act 1

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?

Act 2: in Higgins’ laboratory

Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins, The Theatre Royal

” I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. 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, Pygmalion Act 2

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, he 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

Barbara Jefford as Mrs Pearce, The Old Vic, London

“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, Pygmalion Act 3

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 party

Peter Eyre as Colonel Pickering, The Garrick Theatre, London

“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, Pygmalion Act 4

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

In Pygmalion, anything from a pair of boots to a bath to an expensive dress can tell us important stuff about a character, like their place in the world or their state of mind. They can reveal what might normally be hidden from view, or hide that which might normally be obvious. So appearances can be deceiving; Eliza manages to trick people by wearing more expensive, fashionable clothes. Write a one-two page journal entry about the power of appearance in the play so far.

Act 5: in Mrs Higgins’ drawing room

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

“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, Pygmalion Act 5

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.


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. (20 marks)

The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length.

The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length.††

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 HL Essay on this text, you could examine the presentation of women in the play. Try to find examples of dialogue (many of which are spoken by women) which address the question of a woman’s role in society. You could also research the play’s audience and how well the play was received when it was first performed and explain what this tells us about the values and beliefs of the context of production and reception (the London Theatre scene of Edwardian England). This would address the Language and Literature concept of Culture:

  • Culture is a notoriously complex concept. Its meaning is contested and has been used to meaning different things at different times and in different places. In the English A: Language and Literature course culture may refer to contexts of production and reception, and to the interplay of values and beliefs that exist in and may influence how texts are written and received.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s