Richard Nisley

Review: "Pygmalion" a.k.a. "My Fair Lady"
History - American Released - Jul 31, 2020
"Pygmalion" is a play by George Bernard Shaw, that concerns the proper way to speak English. The main character is Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics (who Shaw based on the real-life phonetician Henry Sweet). In England, if you speak English properly, the doorway to opportunity is assured; speak it poorly, and people will despise you, and you'll be forever a prisoner of your station in life. Written in five acts, that's the premise of the play.

With at least two movies, one of them the musical "My Fair Lady", clearly "Pygmalion" is Shaw's most popular play. What follows is my summation of each act, plus selected dialogue.


The play begins at Covent Garden, London's flower district, and home to the Royal Opera House; it's here, by the Opera House columns, that Higgins encounters the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. She's from one of the poorer sections of London; while poor she's not stupid. To make a living, she sells flowers on the street. Her English is atrocious. Higgins admonishes her: "Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible, and don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon." Her English does not so much offend him, as present a challenge. Higgins tells his new best friend, Colonel Pickering, "In three months, I could pass that girl off as a duchess at the ambassador's garden party. I could even get her a place as lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better English."


The story shifts to Higgins laboratory on Wimpole Street. It's the following day, and Eliza shows up seeking lessons, with the goal of improving her station in life. Her dream is to be "a lady working in a flower shop."

Higgins expresses little interest, until challenged by his house guest, Colonel Pickering. "What about the ambassador's garden party?" he reminds him. "I'll say you're the greatest teacher alive if you can make that good. I'll bet you all the expenses of the experiment you can't do it. And I'll pay for the lessons."

Higgins accepts the challenge, and vows: "I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe. . . . Yes: in six months–in three if she has a good ear and a quick tongue–I'll take her anywhere and pass her off as anything. We'll start today: now this moment!" Higgins decides it's best if she lives under his roof. While being given a bath by the housekeeper, Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, a dustman, shows up, seeking the whereabouts of his daughter. When he finds out she is to be Higgins' live-in student, he suspects the worst and demands five pounds in payment, which, after a brief debate, Higgins agrees to pay.


The story resumes in the home of Higgins' mother, where, after three months of lessons, he takes Eliza. This is the first test. Mrs. Higgins is a lady of high society and good breeding, and is having her high-brow friends over for tea. If Eliza can get past this critical group, without being detected, the next step will be the ambassador's ball. Higgins has not only taught her to speak flawless upperclass English, but he has taught her flawless upperclass etiquette. And, for his part, Colonel Pickering has bought her a stunning new gown, making the transformation complete. Eliza not only passes the first test, but attracts the affections of one of the guests: Freddy Eynsford Hill. Next stop: the ambassador's ball.


The story shifts back to Higgins' residence, where Henry and the Colonel, having returned from the ambassador's ball, congratulate each other on Eliza's smashing success.

Pickering: " . . . you've won your bet, Higgins. Eliza did the trick, and something to spare, eh?"

Higgins: "Thank God it's over!"

Eliza is there too, of whom they take no notice. She is not happy, and sits off by herself, feeling alone and ignored.

Pickering asks Higgins: "Were you nervous at the garden party? I was. Eliza didn't seem a bit nervous."

Higgins: "Oh, she wasn't nervous. I knew she'd be all right. No, it's the strain of putting the job through all these months that has told on me. It was interesting at first, while we were at the phonetics; but after that I got deadly sick of it. If I hadn't backed myself to do it I should have chucked the whole thing up two months ago. It was a silly notion: the whole thing has been a bore."

With that, the two of them, still ignoring Eliza, head off to bed. She feels hurt because she is no longer the object of Higgins' attention. While he has been demanding and rude, she has grown attracted to him, but senses her feelings are not reciprocated. She is also worried about what will become of her, now that the phonetic lessons are over, and the bet won. Downcast, hurt, and becoming angry, she walks across the room and flings herself on the floor.

Higgins returns and, still ignoring her, asks: "What the devil have I done with my slippers?"

Eliza snatches up the slippers and flings them at him.

"Anything wrong?" he asks.

Eliza: "Nothing wrong–with YOU. I've won your bet for you, haven't I? That's enough for you. I don't matter, I suppose."

Higgins: "YOU won my bet? You! Presumptuous insect. I won it. What did you throw those slippers at me for?"

Eliza: "Because I wanted to smash your face. I'd like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn't you leave me where you picked me out of–in the gutter? You thank God it's all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you?"

Higgins: "The creature IS nervous, after all."

Eliza: "What's to become of me? What am I to do?"

Higgins offers a few suggestions. She could open a flower shop, and Colonel Pickering would be her benefactor. "He has lots of money," says Higgins. Or she could get married; his mother could arrange a suitable partner. "You see, Eliza, all men are not not confirmed old bachelors like me and the Colonel. Most men are the marrying sort; and you're not bad-looking; it's quite a pleasure to look at you sometimes . . . you're what I would call attractive. That is, to the people in the marrying line, you understand."

Eliza understands: Professor Higgins has absolutely no intention of ever getting married; not to her, nor to anyone. Sobered, Eliza goes to bed, but rises early, packs her things and, without notice, leaves.


The story resumes at Mrs. Higgins' drawing room, where Higgins and the Colonel have come seeking Eliza. First, they call the police; no help there; and then join Mrs. Higgins in her parlor, little realizing that Eliza arrived earlier that day, and is waiting upstairs.

"Eliza has bolted," Higgins announces as he enters.

Mrs. Higgins: "You must have frightened her."

Higgins: "What am I to do?"

Mrs. Higgins: "Do without, I'm afraid, Henry. The girl has a perfect right to leave if she chooses."

At this point, Alfred Doolittle is admitted to the drawing room, dressed in top hat and tails. He's to be married that afternoon, and comes blaming Henry Higgins for making him a respectable middle-class gentleman.

Flustered by the accusation, Higgins blurts: "You're raving. You're drunk. You're mad. I gave you five pounds."

Doolittle: "Oh! Drunk! am I? Mad! am I? Tell me this. Did you or did you not write a letter to an old blighter in America that the most original moralist at present in England, to the best of your knowledge, was Alfred Doolittle, a common dustman?"

Higgins: "What! Ezra D. Wannafeller? He's dead."

Doolittle: "Yes: he's dead; and I'm done for . . . he leaves me a share in his Pre-digested Cheese Trust worth three thousand a year on condition that I lecture for his Wannafeller Moral Reform World League as often as they ask me up to six times a year."

Higgins: "The devil he does! Whew! What a lark!"

Doolittle: "It ain't the lecturing I mind . . . It's making a gentleman of me that I object to . . . I was happy and free . . . A year ago I hadn't a relative in the world . . . Now I've fifty . . . I have to live for others and not for myself: that's middle class morality . . . I have to learn to speak middle class language from you, instead of speaking proper English . . ."

Mrs. Higgins sees a solution in Alfred Doolittle's recent wealth. She says: "This solves the problem of Eliza's future. You can provide for her now."

Doolittle: "Yes ma'am; I'm expected to provide for everyone now, out of three thousand a year."

Higgins: "Nonsense! he can't provide for her. He shan't provide for her. She doesn't belong to him. I paid five pounds for her."

In the midst of this conversation, Eliza appears, and discovers to her amazement that her father is not only cleaned up and dressed as a gentleman, but is going to marry her mother that afternoon.

Mrs Higgins announces she has decided to attend the wedding, and orders her carriage; Eliza declines, and the conversation shifts to what is to become of her.

Eliza: "I can teach. I'll teach phonetics."

Higgins: "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Eliza: "I'll offer myself to Professor Nepean."

Higgins: "What! That impostor! that humbug! that toadying ignoramus! Teach him my methods! my discoveries! You take one step in his direction and I'll wring your neck."

Eliza is not intimated; not anymore. "Wring away!" she says. When Higgins does nothing, she continues: "Aha! Now I know how to deal with you. What a fool I was for not to think of it before! You can't take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can. Aha! That's done you, Henry Higgins, it has. Now I don't care about your bullying and your big talk. I'll advertise it in the papers that your duchess is only a flower girl that you taught, and that she'll teach anybody to be a duchess just the same in six months for a thousand guineas. Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my fingers to be as good as you, I could buck myself."

The carriage arrives, and Higgins bids his mother goodbye. He's about to kiss her, when he recollects something. "Oh, by the way, Eliza, order me a ham and Stilton cheese will you? And buy me a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights, and a tie to match that new suit of mine, at Eale & Binman's. You can choose the color.'

Defiant, Eliza says: "Buy them yourself" (turns and departs).

Mrs. Higgins: "I'm afraid you've spoiled that girl, Henry. But never mind, dear: I'll buy you the tie and gloves."

Higgins: "Oh, don't bother. She'll buy 'em all right enough. Good-bye." Mrs. Higgins leaves, and the play ends.


If you're wondering what became of the scene at the ambassador's ball, where Eliza's English passes the scrutiny of the oily professor, Count Aristid Karpathy, as shown in the movie; it was not part of the original play, but written later by Shaw for the movie adaption. Alluded to earlier, Professor Nepean (whom Higgins called, "That impostor! that humbug! that toadying ignoramus"), in the movie his character was named Count Aristid Karpathy.

What the movie doesn't show is the story told in the Epilogue, where Shaw reveals what became of Eliza. Realizing Higgins and Colonel Pickering would remain confirmed bachelors for life, and that while they would welcome her company; in their eyes, Eliza would always be the flower girl in Covent Garden, therefore, she elects to marry Freddy Eynsford Hill (introduced in Act II). And while the Eynsford family has enough money to maintain appearances, it has no money for Eliza and Freddy to continue their life in High Society. The one option of earning money is to fulfill Eliza's dream of opening a flower shop, which they do, thanks to the financial support of Colonel Pickering.

Shaw's play is based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, who falls in love with his own creation; a marble statue named Galatea, whose captivating beauty is such that he prays to the gods to have her come to life: they comply, and Galatea comes to life. Comments Shaw: "Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable." In that sense, Galatea's feelings match those of Eliza's; she prefers Freddy, because he is not godlike at all; but decidedly human. Freddy finds Eliza amusing, and proposes marriage, which she accepts.

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