***WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS***
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
In today’s installment of Literary Rants I’ve been reading George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion. It’s a story arc that has its roots in Greek mythology (from which it gets its name) that has been told again and again in pop-culture. Most faithfully retold in the movie My Fair Lady, but appears in numerous genres and variations from The Kingsmen to Pretty Woman.
Luke and Victoria have also been reading it and you can listen in to our discussion here:
The first thing that struck me about this classic work is that GBS is clearly over compensating for the lack of stage direction in Shakespeare by providing copious amounts of detail. As it turns out, after getting to the end of the play and doing a little research
revealed that the reason for the copious detail was, in fact, because directors have an annoying habit of changing things quite drastically from how they are written.
Pygmalion as GBS wrote it intended the rags-to-riches character Eliza to fall in love and marry Freddie, one of the upperclass gentlemen she met at the ball, leaving Mr Higgins, the linguist and elocutionist who taught her how to be a duchess out in the cold. Mr Higgins is a special kind of a jerk who used Eliza to make a point about his expertise and skill via a bet with a friend. I DID not feel too sorry for him, but apparently, Edwardian audiences disagreed with me, and the ending was changed to have Eliza fall in love with Mr Higgins, marry him and live happily ever after.
GBS was so upset with the altered ending he said very rude things to the director who directed the production. The ending, however has stuck around much to GBS’s dismay and much to mine to. Higgins is a jerk and he doesn’t deserve to get the girl, but for some perverse reason, that’s what the audience wanted to see. Higgins used Eliza, a poor peasant cockney girl for a cynical game that only upper-class Victorian/Edwardian elites find amusing at her expense. Freddy, on the other hand, is a decent man who is intrigued by Eliza as a duchess and as more of herself. He deserves the girl.
Changing the ending turns the whole comment that GBS was trying to make upside down. It’s not okay to use the lower classes for the amusement of elites. Also something about language, how its used and how it defines and redefines us that I have little expertise to unpack properly.
This play doesn’t have a saccharin, Hollywood ending that people think they want. That is why I like this play. The ending is no less satisfying than that, but sees each character reaping what they have sown. Eliza finds a new place in a society and Higgins gets left in the cold for being a jerk to Eliza. Why that ending was not satisfactory enough says a lot about us.
Image Credit: George Luks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons