I was thinking about George Bernard Shaw and his play “Pygmalion” one very late night and trying to explain to myself exactly why so many people, even from the first opening of the play, wanted to imagine an ending where Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are married (my more comprehensive review of the play can be found here). And I finally found the clue that I had been missing in the book The Making of My Fair Lady, by Keith Garebian. He was talking briefly about the sources of Shaw’s play. One was obviously the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but the other – and it’s so obvious, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it – is the fairytale, Cinderella.
This fairytale aspect of the story is thoroughly imbedded in the plot and infuses it with an enchanting quality – how Eliza is picked up from the gutter and taken to a ball, where she shines brightly, with Higgins as a sort of godmother, and she becomes something other than she was before – and people recognize this fairytale thread intuitively. And it is so ingrained in us to recognize fairytales, that it leads us to unconsciously expect the story to play out according to fairytale rules.
It’s like the melodic structure of a song. The leading-tone (the seventh note in a scale) almost always resolves up to the tonic (the first note in the scale, considered the “home” or base note of whatever key you are in). It happens so often and provides resolution to what we perceive as tension. Our ear expects it, whether we know it or not. Simply hearing a leading-tone leads us to anticipate what comes next in a song and we are surprised if the leading-tone goes somewhere else.
That is what Shaw’s play is like and deliberately so. So even though there are discordant notes (how arrogant Higgins is and how he assumes people have no feelings or individual souls), we still feel like we recognize the song and know how it ends. But “Pygmalion” is like a beautiful melody that ends on a leading-tone. Not only does it not resolve how we expect it to, but it doesn’t resolve at all. Eliza just leaves. What happens next? It’s up to each person…at least if you just see the play. Shaw wrote an afterwards to his play to prevent people from imagining a romantic end, but because it was written afterwards and is not part of the actual play, it cannot change the impressions created by the play itself; that overall sense that we just participated in a lovely dream without a proper ending…and I say this completely agreeing with Shaw that Eliza could never marry the Professor Higgins that found in the play. That’s part of Shaw’s genius.