Thoughts on Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and why it’s often romanticized

06 Apr

Cinderella_2_from_The_Blue_Fairy_Book_1889_author_Andrew_Lang[1]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.

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”

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.


Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books


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5 responses to “Thoughts on Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and why it’s often romanticized

  1. Andrea Lundgren

    April 8, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    If the story is another version of the Cinderella archetype, than it is missing a key character…the prince. I think that is why the audience tries so hard to find a likely substitute. They want to go back to the original Greek solution, from Pygmalion and Galatea, where the “fairy godmother” character is also “the prince,” the romantic character for whom the fairy godmother prepares Cinderella. Otherwise, you are left with a vague, perhaps socialistic idea, where Professor Higgins prepares Eliza for society, or the world, or some such thing…which is hardly as satisfactory as a real, material prince.

    If there was another character in the play who could step up and take over the role of the prince, I think audiences’ wouldn’t have fought Shaw’s original intention so much by trying to romanticize the play.


    • christinawehner

      April 9, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      That’s a great point about the absence of the prince role. I forgot about the prince. 🙂 I wonder if Shaw did that knowingly, to enhance his point that Higgins has brought Eliza out of the gutter, but left her sort of between social classes, without any really useful skills…where she tells him, in the play, that he’s not left her fit for anything except to marry. Perhaps he felt it would have diluted the affect of the social commentary in his play if there was a prince waiting for her.


  2. Silver Screenings

    April 9, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    I love your comparison to Higgins as a fairy godmother – very true! I hadn’t thought of the story in this way before, but you’re right. It is a fairy tale.

    For what it’s worth, I’m always disappointed by the last scene in “My Fair Lady” when Eliza returns to Higgins.


    • christinawehner

      April 9, 2014 at 10:42 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I know what you mean about the disappointment in “My Fair Lady”. I’ve always wondered if I would have minded less if Julie Andrews had been in the role instead of Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn seems too fragile to make me believe she can stand up to Rex Harrison’s Higgins; it seemed like she would be dominated by him…and maybe Julie Andrews could have given more a sense of holding her own, even when she did come back.



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