Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Classics Challenge: February with George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw

This is the second round of the Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.  The theme this month is character and the prompt is to write about one that we find interesting.  I am going to take a more general approach in discussing the characters in this play.

I am very familiar with My Fair Lady, the musical that is of course based on Pygmalion.  Since I expect that most people are familiar with one or the other version, I won't summarize the plot.  My high school's drama department put on My Fair Lady one year (as always, I was in the chorus), and I have seen the film version with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn several times.  I have never read the play before, though, and I wanted to see how it compares with the musical.  Generally, I find that the book is always better, and Pygmalion is no exception.

One of the most interesting differences to me was in the characters.  In the play, the cast is much smaller, and they are quieter, without the heightened emotions of the songs.  At least to me they feel more grounded, more real.  Both Mrs Higgins and the housekeeper Mrs Pearce do more than just react to Henry or Eliza, they play a real part in the story.  Mrs Pearce is very straight-forward and out-spoken over her concern for Eliza and the effects of Higgins' scheme, and it is clear that she and Eliza talk things over between themselves, and that Eliza has taken her counsel to heart.  Colonel Pickering also plays a more active role, in part because in the play he and Higgins take Eliza on outings that they all enjoy, to concerts and museums.  He has a relationship with Eliza that is different than hers with Higgins, one that plays a crucial role in her decision to leave Higgins' home after the experiment ends.  In the musical, Pickering does not appear after the three return in triumph from the ball.  In the play, he comes with Higgins to look for Eliza, to convince her to come home again.  And as the play ends, he is setting off with the ladies to the wedding of Eliza's father, out of his natural kindness and good nature. 

Then there are the Eynsford Hills, the mother, her daughter Clara and son Freddy.  Eliza meets them at one of Mrs Higgins' at-homes, in her first social test, which she flunks just as she does at the musical's Ascot.  In the play, they are the only witnesses to Eliza's gaffes, apart from the Higginses and Colonel Pickering.  It is of course much more realistic that Higgins would start with a small test rather than one of the major social events of the season.  In the play, the Eynsford Hills are given a backstory of social position undermined by genteel poverty that makes them sympathetic characters, but also underscores the rashness of Freddy's impulsive non-proposal (he never asks, he just announces that they are engaged).

I think that the play and the musical versions of Higgins are the most closely aligned, except in the play he is about 40, much younger than Rex Harrison.  Shaw describes him as
"but for his years and size, rather like a very impetuous baby . . . His manner varies from genial bullying when he is in a good humor to stormy petulance when anything goes wrong; but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments."
I see the bullying, and the stormy petulance, and the frankness, but also malice as well, and I don't quite see the charm that Shaw wants me to.  I find it entirely fitting that the play ends with him left alone in his mother's house, while the rest of the company goes off to the wedding.  As Mrs Higgins says, they can't take him along because he can't behave himself in church.  Eliza's father, on the other hand, is charming, despite his "Nietzschean transcendence of good and evil."  I think he was also translated well into the musical version.

My feeling for the characters was definitely colored by Shaw's afterword, which carries the story several years into the future.  His explanation of Eliza's state of mind and heart, her conviction that she cannot marry Higgins, makes sense and feels right.  The musical gets it wrong and does her character a great disservice, after her declaration of independence, when she returns immediately to Higgins' home, ready to fetch his slippers again.  In the story Shaw tells in the afterword, she and Freddy are dependent for a long time on Colonel Pickering's generosity, which eventually enables them to open a flower shop (which almost fails due to their lack of business experience).  At the same time, Freddy's sister Clara discovers H.G. Wells, becomes a convert to socialism, finds friends in a circle of fellow Wellsians, and even takes a job, all of which gives her much more joy and satisfaction than her life of genteel poverty on the fringes of society.  I loved her transformation even more than Eliza's, and though Shaw gently pokes fun at her, he treats her with respect.

I am afraid that the musical version is ruined for me now, but I am curious to see the 1938 film version with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. I did wonder in reading it how on earth some of the scenes could be staged, such as when Mrs Pearce takes Eliza upstairs for a bath (and attacks her with a scrubbing brush).  In a Preface, Shaw answers that:
"A complete representation of the play as printed in this edition is technically possible only on the cinema screen or on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery. For ordinary theatrical use the scenes separated by rows of asterisks are to be omitted."
My Penguin edition lists the copyright in 1916 (renewed 1944), with additional material copyright 1942.  The "additional material" apparently includes scenes Shaw himself wrote for the 1938 film version.  I am going to keep an eye out for the original 1916 script, just out of curiosity.


  1. Whoa, the play sounds much different to the musical. I'm not a huge fan of the musical - it always seems so overblown and loud. I love the idea of having an afterword to the play - I've never seen that with a play before.

  2. It is very different, and I like it better! I think there would still be some loud elements, with Eliza and Higgins carrying on, but not like in the musical. From what I've been reading, there was pressure on Shaw to make the ending "happier," and the afterword was partly his response (though he did fiddle with the ending, but did not have Eliza end up with Higgins.

  3. The Audrey Hepburn / Rex Harrison film was on tv last week, and I found the music annoying this time around. Watched some of it with the mute button handy. Higgins does come across as a bully in that filmed version. - Fay

  4. Fay, I caught the last few minutes of it on Turner Classic Movies the other night, which is what nudged me to pick up the play for this month's challenge.

  5. I must read the play! I love the musical but I did always think it rather abrupt that she goes back to Higgins so quickly.
    Thank you for your post, Lisa!

  6. I have more Shaw on my TBR shelves, and I've been wanting to re-read Arms and the Man, so I may have him for another challenge. Thank you again for hosting this - I can't wait to see next month's prompt.

  7. I've always loved the musical and when I read the play forever ago I thought that the musical had actually captured it pretty well, except for the ending, as you pointed out.

    Interesting review and one that makes me want to reread the play again. Col Pickering has always been one of my favorite characters.

  8. The musical certainly follows the basic plot (except for the ending), and I do think it gets Higgins right - but it seems on a bigger scale than the play, and some of the nuances of the play were lost, in my view.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!