A tale as old as time, a social outcast is taught to become a social elite just in time for a big event. We see this in ‘She’s All That’, ‘Pretty Woman’ and countless other 90s RomCom classics. But where did this tale begin? Pygmalion (also known and made famous as ‘My Fair Lady’ after the hit musical starring Audrey Hepburn). It is not a long play so this review may be shorter than others.
The play begins when a common flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) mistakes a Note Taker (Henry Higgins) for a police officer and causes a commotion saying she is innocent. Higgins reveals he is not a police officer, rather a linguist, which is why he was taking notes. He believes he can work out the exact town you are from just from your accent.
Henry and another linguist, Pickering, are sitting in his laboratory when Eliza comes in and demands speech lessons. Higgins bets Pickering he can turn Eliza into someone who can speak English like a Duchess.
Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, comes in and demands money from Higgins for the right to teach his daughter. This is absurd, but he is a smooth talker and soon gets his money.
A few months later Higgins receives an invite to a party, and decides the bet has to be completed by then. Eliza’s speech is flawless, but her grammar is not. Higgins’ mum warns Higgins of treating a woman like a language robot, but he does not listen.
A few more months pass and Eliza, Higgins and Pickering get back from the party. It apparently went off without a hitch. Eliza is the perfect vision of a lady and people were fooled into thinking she is a Duchess. However, Higgins and Pickering are too busy congratulating each other that they forget to praise Eliza. Higgins and Eliza get into a fight and Higgins nearly hits Eliza.
Eliza goes missing and Higgins rushes to his mother’s house to tell her. Mrs Higgins suggests that Higgins forget about Eliza and let her go as he has finished his experiment with her. Also, she says that Alfred Doolittle has come into a lot of wealth since we last saw him and can now look after Eliza. Eliza comes downstairs (she was upstairs listening the whole time) and argues again with Higgins. She tells Higgins she does not want to be his little experiment anymore. Higgins gets so angry he tries to strangle her, and the two part ways, Eliza swearing never to see him again.
“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”
“If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you best teach it to dance.”
“If women were particular about men’s characters, they would never get married at all.”
This is such a clever and iconic story, retold again and again and never loses its relevance. The name of the play ‘Pygmalion’ comes from Greek mythology where a man named Pygmalion creates a statue called Galatea. Originally the statue is just a stone, but he carves away at her and spends so much time paying attention to detail that when the statue is finished, she is the most Godly and beautiful statue ever created. Shaw took this piece of mythology and retold it in the setting of Victorian England. He also took away the awe and magic of mythology and replaced it with the mundane trivialities of life; such as getting a taxi in the rain, and how to pronounce “cow”. This clever retelling of the story of Pygmalion is what aids to make it so accessible for a (then) contemporary time. Another change is that Galatea is no longer a statue, she is a real woman. This change allows the audience to see what it feels like to be an object of experimentation. To be dehumanised to nothing more than a project for a man.
Thank you for reading this review, I hope you enjoyed. Let me know what you think in the comments below and also let me know if you have any books you would like me to summarise and review!
Lots of love, Evie x