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Theatre / Pygmalion

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Pygmalion (full title: Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts) is a 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw.

We open on a crowd sheltering from the rain in a church porch. Among them are an impoverished aristocratic mother and daughter, the Eynsford-Hills (who dispatch Freddy, the son of the house, to secure them a cab); Colonel Pickering, a student of Indian dialects; and Professor Henry Higgins, a professional linguist. These are joined by Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower-girl (nearly knocked over by the departing Freddy), whom Higgins repeatedly startles, first by taking down her speech in phonetic writing, then by declaring to Pickering (whom he has invited to his home) that he could teach her to speak proper English, and finally by presenting her with a great deal of money — which she uses to commandeer the taxi which the feckless Freddy has brought for his already departed family.

Eliza, inspired by Higgins' boast, comes to his house for lessons. Pickering makes a wager with Higgins, that the latter must in six months' time pass Eliza off as an aristocrat at an Embassy Ball. To effect this, Higgins bullies and wheedles Eliza into remaining at his home. Eliza's dustman father, Alfred Doolittle, gets wind of this and comes to extort money out of Higgins — which Higgins, delighted by Doolittle's charmingly amoral manner, gladly gives him. Eliza's lessons duly proceed.

Sometime later, Higgins brings Eliza to his mother's At Home day to try her out on Society; Mrs. Higgins's guests just happen to be the Eynsford-Hills. Eliza's conversation, though conducted in a properly aristocratic accent, is thoroughly low-class in grammar and content. Hilarity Ensues, as Eliza departs with a shocking vulgarism, leaving Freddy frankly in love with her and his sister determined to emulate Eliza's elegant "small talk." Higgins's mother remonstrates with him, to no avail.

Months later at the ball, Higgins and Pickering present Eliza to the scrutiny of the venal language expert, Nepomuck, who has been charged by the hostess with detecting any social frauds. Because of his language expertise, Pickering is certain that Eliza will be seen right through. Nepomuck thoroughly deceives himself, however, identifying Eliza not only as an aristocrat, but as a foreigner as well; even when Higgins himself identifies her as a Cockney commoner, his Cassandra Truth is not believed.

With the ball over — What now? Eliza's new character has unfitted her to be a flower-girl and left her financially unable to maintain her character as a lady. The rest you'll have to see yourself. (And even that might not answer your questions, so you may have to read the "Afterward" Shaw appended to the play after he first wrote it.)

A well-received film version was shot in 1938, directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Shaw adapted his own play and won Oscar for his script.

It created the modern Pygmalion Plot and directly inspired My Fair Lady.

Tropes used in this work:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The play originally ended with Eliza going off to marry Freddy. The 1938 film adaptation implies Eliza and Higgins ending up together.
  • Adaptational Name Change: In the original play, Eliza and Higgins mention that Higgins has a rival named "Professor Nepean." When Shaw wrote a new scene for the film version featuring this character, his name was changed to "Nepomuck," but in the final film (and My Fair Lady) his name was changed again to "Karpathy," though his name remained Nepomuck in the published script.
  • Alliterative Name: Henry Higgins. Eliza, a Cockney girl, struggles with dropping H's and calls him 'Enry 'Iggins.
  • And Starring: Wendy Hiller receives an "introducing" credit for the 1938 film adaptation.
  • Bait-and-Switch Accusation: Nepomuck announces that he knows Eliza's secret. Higgins appears concerned but then it turns out Nepomuck believes Eliza is a Hungarian princess.
  • Beautiful All Along: Eliza.
  • The Bet: Colonel Pickering bets his friend Higgins that he can't make good on his boast that he could turn Cockney flower girl Eliza into a Duchess.
  • Boyfriend Bluff: Exaggerated. When a policeman takes offense to him and Eliza kissing, Freddy fends off any suspicions about propriety by claiming they're recently engaged. Eliza, who's quite familiar with the police's habit of hounding girls off the street, considers it a proper answer.
  • Boy Meets Girl: One of the plot threads is Freddy and Eliza's budding romance, which eventually ends in marriage off-stage.
  • Crash-Into Hello: Freddy and Eliza. They technically meet when Freddy nearly bowls her over on his way to hail a taxi.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Henry Higgins, and then some.
  • Deconstruction: The "Pygmalion Plot" was very common at the time of the play's release. The play's point is actually to show what's wrong with The Makeover.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Nice guy Freddy is madly in love with Eliza and courts her day in and day out, but the first real interest she shows (at least on-stage) is after Higgins has hurt her; Freddy is quite happy to tell her that of course she's not a "heartless guttersnipe". Eventually, however, they do end up together.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Nepomuck's reasoning why Eliza must be Hungarian.
  • Evil Counterpart: Nepomuck/Karpathy, Higgins's ex-pupil, who uses his knowledge of accents to blackmail anyone he catches trying to pass themselves off as something they aren't.
  • Failed Attempt at Drama: After the ball Higgins delivers an angry "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Eliza on the stairs but spoils it by (in the play) slamming the door or (in the 1938 movie) stumbles and almost falls while walking off to his room.
  • Funetik Aksent: Shaw's script initially renders Eliza's Cockney accent this way, but abandons it as unintelligible. (Throughout, however, he refuses to make use of standard English orthography, especially for contractions. He even uses the character 'ǝ' for "indefinite vowel")
    THE FLOWER GIRL. Ow, eez yǝ-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them?
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: The 1938 film version updated the clothes and some of the references to the (then) present day, giving this feel to the story. My Fair Lady chose to move the story back to the time when Shaw wrote it.
  • GPS Evidence: Henry Higgins can determine a Londoner's address down to the street name by his accent alone.
  • Grammar Nazi: Higgins is more of a diction Nazi, but An Aesop about judging people by the way they speak still applies.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Nepomuck is nicknamed "Hairy-Faced Dick."
  • High-Class Glass: Nepomuck wears a monocle.
  • Innocent Flower Girl: Averted. Eliza Doolittle may be a flower girl, but she's far from innocent.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: Henry Higgins, after being told by his maid not to swear in front of Eliza, retorts:
    I never swear. I detest this habit. What the devil do you mean?
  • Ironic Echo: "Oh, I'm only a squashed cabbage leaf!"
  • Ironic Name: The blackmailing language expert Nepomuck is named after a Bohemian saint famous for being martyred for refusing to divulge the secrets of the confessional.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Henry Higgins.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to his other plays. Shaw usually upheld the importance of An Aesop, but, by popular demand, Pygmalion has a relatively light and humorous tone compared to Mrs. Warren's Profession and Man And Superman, both of which can seem downright brutal in comparison.
  • Manchild: Higgins is portrayed as being very childish—mischievous, manipulative, candid, sulky, ill-mannered, selfish, tyrannical, thoughtless and a complete mamma's boy (much to the dismay of said mamma). He's even described as being like a baby or a child repeatedly by the play's direction, and occasionally by his own mother.
    • Pickering is also this to a lesser extent.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: In the movie, Higgins does this pose while delivering a speech about how he pulled Eliza out of the gutters.
  • Momma's Boy: Henry Higgins.
    Higgins (to his mother): "My idea of a lovable woman is something as like you as possible."
  • Moment Killer: The constables in the streets when Eliza and Freddy try to kiss towards the end of the film.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Eliza for Higgins, and vice versa, though very much of the vitriolic variety.
  • One-Liner, Name... One-Liner: Higgins to Nepomuck when the latter insists on Eliza being Hungarian.
    "Have it your own way, maestro. Have it your own way."
  • Penny Among Diamonds: Flower girl Eliza amongst the aristocrats at the ball.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Eliza and Henry Higgins, as George Bernard Shaw insisted.
    • Worth noting, people have been thinking GBS was full of it from day one—even the leads in the original production (who would take their bows posed side-by-side like a bride and groom).
    • Also worth noting, there is no real evidence to support this (indeed, a variety of Belligerent Sexual Tension seems far more likely) in the play itself. Shaw later attached an epilogue (that was really more of an essay) explaining why Eliza and Higgins would not be suited for each other, and how she should instead marry a man who is little more than a footnote in the play itself. Few agree.
  • Precision F-Strike: An accidental one, as Eliza doesn't realize how serious the word "bloody" is in the upper-class circles she's now inhabiting, but it has the same effect.
    Freddy: Excuse me, Miss Doolittle, would you be walking across the park, cause if so I—
    Eliza: Walk? Not bloody likely. I'm going in a taxi.
  • Princess for a Day: Eliza gets the chance to step into the shoes of a duchess for the duration of a ball.
  • Proper Lady: Higgins succeeds in turning Eliza into one.
  • Pygmalion Plot: The Trope Codifier, unintentionally. Shaw had intended to write a Pygmalion Snap Back story, but the original cast refused to play it any way but as a straightforward romance story due to the values of the time. The epilogue was an attempt at Ship Sinking to put an end to that, but even that didn't work.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, to a degree.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Henry Higgins is successfully (if secretly) passing off Eliza as a Duchess at a grand Ball; when he himself is asked his opinion of her, he says she's just a poor flower girl.
  • Self-Insert Fic: Higgins is based to some extent on Shaw himself, and his relationship to Eliza echoes Shaw's with the actress Sybil Thorndike.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Eliza at the ball.
  • Ship Sinking: The Afterword explains why Eliza/Higgins (the Fan-Preferred Pairing) wouldn't work well.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Eliza, after learning how to speak with perfectly correct English diction, still occasionally shifts into slang (Higgins has to explain her use of "done her in" as an example of "the new small talk") and profanity ("Walk! Not bloody likely").
  • Tantrum Throwing: After the ball, Eliza is upset and throws Higgins's slippers after him.
  • Training Montage: The 1938 film has two montages of Eliza being trained by Higgins.
  • T-Word Euphemism: Mrs. Pearce reprimands Professor Higgins for setting a bad example to Eliza:
    Mrs. Pearce: "...but there is a certain word I must ask you not to use. The girl has just used it herself because the bath was too hot. It begins with the same letter as bath. She knows no better: she learnt it at her mother's knee. But she must not hear it from your lips."
  • Unbuilt Trope: The show takes a much harsher view of the Pygmalion Plot trope it codified than many of its successors; in particular, Shaw insisted that Eliza shouldn't end up with Henry, and later wrote an extensive deconstruction about why as an afterward to the play.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Ezra D. Wannafeller Jr.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Downplayed; In the epilogue, when Eliza and Freddy decide to open their flower shop, they find out that having knowledge about flowers is not enough to run a business. They have to spend much time on various economics courses, and even these don't help very much.