Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw: Book Cover


Book: Pygmalion

Author: George Bernard Shaw

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Adult Publishing Group, reissued in 2005

ISBN-13: 9781416500407

ISBN-10: 1416500405

Language level: 3 (some cursing)

Reading level: 16 and up

Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

For more information e-mail homeschoolbookreview@gmail.com

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion (written in 1912; published in 1913). George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was an Irish playwright. Although his first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote 63 plays. Nearly all his writings deal sternly with prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy to make their stark themes more palatable. Shaw examined education, marriage, religion, government, health care and class privilege. Born in Dublin, Shaw briefly attended the Wesleyan Connexional School before moving to a private school near Dalkey and then transferring to Dublin’s Central Model School. He ended his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. Shaw wrote five unsuccessful novels at the start of his career between 1879 and 1883. Eventually all were published. He became a critic of the arts when, sponsored by William Archer, he joined the reviewing staff of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Also, he began working on his first play destined for production, Widowers’ Houses, in 1885. In 1898 he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress. Shaw’s plays were first performed in the 1890s. By the end of the decade he was an established playwright. Such works, including Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), display Shaw’s matured views. He wrote plays for the rest of his life, but very few of them are as notable—or as often revived—as his earlier work.

In Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts (1913), Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a comment on women’s independence, packaged as a romantic comedy. Act One takes place in Covent Garden where most of the characters, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, her daughter Clara and son, the flower girl, Eliza, Colonel Pickering, and Henry Higgins. Act Two removes to Higgins’ home the next day where Higgins demonstrates his phonetics to Pickering, and Eliza shows up for lessons so she can talk like a lady in a flower shop. Act Three occurs in Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room when Higgins bursts in and tells his mother and the Eynsford-Hills that he has picked up a “common flower girl” whom he has been teaching. Act Four is back at Higgins’ home at midnight, as Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza have returned from the ball. A tired Eliza sits unnoticed, brooding and silent, while Pickering congratulates Higgins on winning the bet. Higgins scoffs and declares the evening a “silly tomfoolery,” so Eliza leaves. Act Five is set in Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room, the next morning. Higgins and Pickering are perturbed by the discovery that Eliza has walked out on them. Eliza returns, but another confrontation between Higgins and Eliza she replies that she just wants a little kindness, and that since he will never stoop to show her this, she will not come back, but will marry Freddy. Higgins laughs to himself at the idea of Eliza marrying Freddy as the play ends.

Drawn from an idea found in Greek myth, this play was one of our assignments for English Literature class in my senior year of high school. It is the quintessential example of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. While I enjoy the famous, award-winning musical My Fair Lady by Lerner and Lowe of 1956 that is based on this play based, I actually like Shaw’s original ending better. Shaw is considered one of the greatest playwrights of the English language. There is some immorality—Eliza’s parents have never been married, and Mr. Dolittle chafes at the prospect of doing so.

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