Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion and My Fair Lady (Signet Classics)Until a few days ago, it had been years since I watched My Fair Lady, but some of the songs from that musical are so memorable that they still popped in my head every so often. So I thought it would be interesting to read Pygmalion, the play upon which the musical is based, before watching the movie, and I'm so glad I did.

The play is slightly different than the musical/movie. For one, Eliza's tutoring is covered in just a page or two and there is no mention of "the rain in Spain" or "hurricanes hardly ever happen." There is no day at the races - Henry Higgins simply takes Eliza to his mother's house for tea. The ending is quite different, too: a bit more realistic and less romantic, but I won't give it away. Of course, the musical has it's own charm, and it is certainly easier to hear the Cockney accent than to read its transliteration.

I think the play conveys the social criticism that Shaw intended better than the musical, but perhaps that is simply because it is so easy to be carried away with the music and the romance of My Fair Lady instead of analyzing the message it's presenting. In an introduction, Richard H. Goldstone comments that "Shaw observes in Pygmalion that the right accent (together with the right clothes) could carry the day. His position in relation to class was not that society should eliminate the concept of ladies and gentlemen but that the status of lady or gentleman might be attained by anyone with intelligence and character who aspired to the part" (ix). Eliza Doolittle echoes these sentiments when she asks Colonel Pickering, "But do you know what began my real education?...Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimple Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me. (She resumes her stitching.) And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors...You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will" (93-94).

Now that it has been nearly one hundred years since Shaw published in 1913, these ideas can be applied in a different, though no less necessary context. We need to regain the concept of ladies and gentlemen, in the truest since of the words - men should not disdain chivalry and good manners or be afraid to offer it, and women should stop trying to prove our equality and graciously accept being cared for. I know it is hard to wait for someone to open a door, but that's what ladies should do, and gentlemen should be glad for the opportunity! I'm sure it would do much for improving our attitudes toward biblical manhood and womanhood if these simple actions were more a part of our daily routines.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

I haven't read this but have been very curious about it BECAUSE of My Fair Lady. It was fun to read your thoughts on this one!