The story of the Broadway musical My Fair Lady is familiar to people with knowledge of musical theater. And somesavvy theatergoers know that it was based on the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw.
But few people know this story: When the play first opened, it was not performed as Shaw intended. For years, the ending of the play was misinterpreted and altered in a way Shaw loathed. And when it was turned into a musical ... well, by then, Shaw was likely spinning in his grave.
When Pygmalion premiered in April, 1914 — just months before the start of World War I — women still did not have the right to vote. Shaw intended his play to change people’s minds about that.
He borrowed from the myth of Pygmalion. In the story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, a sculptor falls in love with his sculpture, Galatea, and prays for her to come to life. With the help of Aphrodite, his wish comes true.
But Shaw didn’t set out to write a frothy, romantic confection. He wanted to advocate for women’s suffrage and the end of Britain’s class system. In the play, stuffy professor Henry Higgins sets himself a challenge: to pass off Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller, as a duchess.
“The play is really about language, and the idea that, through language, one can raise one’s social status, which is something really important for that era,” says Ellen Dolgin, vice-president of the International Shaw Society. Dolgin says Shaw wanted to get rid of the whole class system and thought the play would prove his point.“What [they thought] of as absolutely innate — social placement — is not," Dolgin says. "It can be learned — and it can be fudged.”
This is where the play gets interesting. Once Higgins wins his bet and completes Eliza’s transformation, she is stuck between two worlds. She can’t to go back to selling flowers and she doesn’t want to be Higgins’ secretary — or worse, his wife. At the end of the play, after an enormous battle of wills, Eliza decides to strike out on her own. “If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence,” she declares.
Then, according to Shaw’s final stage directions, Eliza "sweeps out."
Leonard Conolly, who taught Shaw at Trent University in Ontario, sees this as “sweeping clean her relationship with Higgins and heading off to a better, brighter future.” Shaw purposely left unclear what happens next. Higgins hasn’t changed — he is still a pompous ass. The ending is unresolved, and that's just how George Bernard Shaw wanted it.
But when the play debuted, Shaw was in for a shock. At the end of the play, after Eliza "sweeps out," the actor playing Henry Higgins created a moment for himself — a moment Shaw never wrote and clearly didn’t want. As Eliza was leaving, Higgins watched her go, and then gave her a look. He didn’t change any lines, but he gave the audience exactly what they wanted to see: that Eliza and Higgins had been in love all along and that after the curtain fell, they’d be together.
“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” Leonard Connoly exclaims. “That is the absolute antithesis of what Shaw had in mind.”
Apparently, there was nothing Shaw could do to rein this actor in. By the hundredth performance, the actor was throwing flowers after Eliza.
When the play came to the United States, a critic wrote:"If you're looking for a happy ending with the hero and heroine joined joyfully together, you will get it in Pygmalion — if you use your imagination a little."
It kept getting worse. Shaw wrote the screenplay for a movie version in 1938, but the producer secretly filmed his own happy ending. Shaw won an Oscar for a movie he hated.
Not surprisingly, Shaw refused to grant the rights for a musical version. But after he died, in cameJulie Andrews.
At the end of My Fair Lady, Higgins repents and Eliza returns. Now the final stage directions read: "There are tears in Eliza's eyes. She understands."
And that is how Pygmalion went from feminist manifesto to "chick flick."
In a postscript, Shaw wrote about what really happened to Eliza. After leaving Higgins, she opened a flower shop. She married a nice man. They struggled some, but ultimately did all right. She even dropped in on Higgins from time to time, but she never, ever loved him.
Shaw wrote:"Galatea, the woman who comes to life in the myth, never does quite like Pygmalion. His relation to her is too God-like to be altogether agreeable."
This article is based on a storythat aired on PRI's Studio 360, a weekly show about pop culture, the arts and design.
How Pygmalion went from feminist manifesto to chick flick? ›
At the end of My Fair Lady, Higgins repents and Eliza returns. Now the final stage directions read: "There are tears in Eliza's eyes. She understands." And that is how Pygmalion went from feminist manifesto to "chick flick."How is feminism shown in Pygmalion? ›
Feminism element in the text
In this poem, Pygmalion ridicules all the women and chose to spend his life unmarried, without any companion. He then creates a woman's statue that is perfect of all the women and falls in love with her. He named that statue Galatea. The statue later came into life as a woman.
She asserts her independence. And she asks herself “What is to become of me?” The underlying theme in Pygmalion discussed above is strong feminine awareness. Eliza turns herself from a poor flower girl into a daring and passionate woman. And we can conclude that Eliza has the feminist awareness or awakening.What is Pygmalion feminist quotes? ›
“I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. Women upset everything.”What is Pygmalion summary? ›
The play is a humane comedy about love and the English class system. Henry Higgins, a phonetician, accepts a bet that simply by changing the speech of a Cockney flower seller he will be able, in six months, to pass her off as a duchess.What transformation occurs in Pygmalion? ›
The play "Pygmalion" describes the process of the transformation of Eliza, who appears in three images in the story: Eliza begins as a flower girl, then she transforms into a lady with noble accent and in good manners, then an independent woman with self-respect and dignity.What is the theme of femininity in Pygmalion? ›
Pygmalion can thus be seen as showing how oppressive unrealistic ideals of femininity can be: to attain these ideals, Eliza has to be coached, disciplined, and taught. She has to pretend to be someone other than who she really is. The play further explores gender roles with its other female characters.What is women's role in Pygmalion? ›
Women began taking male roles such as leadership and vice versa. The challenge of being women was also shown in Shaw's Pygmalion where Eliza must rise against odds to become a better woman as demanded by the society. Given her poor background, she chose education as her way out.Can Eliza in Pygmalion be termed as feminist conclusion? ›
Answer and Explanation: Eliza can definitely be defined as a feminist. Her principal reason for seeking lessons from Henry Higgins is so that she can seek employment in a proper flower-shop. She has no interest in elevating her status into the upper class or for finding a husband (in either Freddy or Higgins).How does Eliza in Pygmalion represent Shaw's idea of the modern woman? ›
While Eliza does not represent the full scope of Shaw's vision for a society of equals, she displays some elements of it. In Acts 1 and 2, Eliza bravely stands up to Higgins's bullying to assert her worth and independence. She plots her own future as a lady in a flower shop and devises a way to achieve it.
Does Higgins love Eliza in Pygmalion? ›
Higgins still realizes he has feelings for Eliza, but these feelings aren't played in such a way that pushes him to change into a better man. He acknowledges that he's “grown accustomed” to having Eliza in his life, but he doesn't translate this realization into seeing Eliza as his true equal.What kind of girl is Eliza in Pygmalion? ›
She's smart, independent, and feisty. She's a chocoholic who throws slippers when angry. It should be said that a lot of the time Eliza functions as comic relief. Her howls, her indignation, her frequent exclamations of "Garn!" and "I'm a good girl, I am," and most notably her performance at Mrs.What is the main message of Pygmalion? ›
In the play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw gives the message that one needs to differentiate between reality and fabrication in the face of life's real problems.What was the overall message in Pygmalion? ›
Pygmalion explores how social identity is formed not only through patterns of speech, but also through one's general appearance. Much like speech, one's physical appearance signals social class.What are the gender issues in Pygmalion? ›
In this play, there is unequal relationship between man and woman where man is superior and woman is inferior. The language professor is an upper-class gentleman who transforms the lower-girl into a duchess. Here the flower girl is in the position of a child beingcorrected, educated and remade by man.What is the conclusion of Pygmalion? ›
The argument, which focuses on Eliza's future, ends after Eliza threatens to sell Higgins's trade secrets to support herself. Higgins nearly strangles her, before deciding that Eliza has finally established herself as his equal. He invites her come back and live with him and Pickering again.What is the moral lesson of the story Pygmalion and Galatea? ›
Key Themes and Symbols
The main theme of Pygmalion's myth is the artist's love of his own creation. Pygmalion becomes so infatuated with his work that he begins to treat it as if it were a real person. Another important theme, common in Greek mythology, is the equation of physical beauty with perfection.
The main conflict in Pygmalion revolves around the economic and social class structure of Victorian England.What lesson does Pygmalion teach? ›
And this is the famous "Pygmalion effect": believing in a person's ability to succeed in what they have undertaken increases their probability of success!What is the theme of change and transformation in Pygmalion? ›
Transformation. Shaw explores the theme of transformation by showing how a poor flower girl becomes a lovely, self-reliant lady, both superficially and at heart. Her metamorphosis begins with an idea planted by Higgins when he tells Pickering in Act I that he could teach "this creature" to speak like a duchess.
What is the climax of Pygmalion? ›
In Pygmalion, the climax comes when at a ball for the duke and duchess, Eliza passes the test and comes off as nobility.Who is the central female character in Pygmalion? ›
Eliza Doolittle is the main character in the story. She is first introduced as an unpolished, foul-mouthed flower girl but is transformed into a beautiful woman. Professor Higgins is a linguist who believes he can transform Eliza Doolittle into a duchess in six months.How is Pygmalion feminist critique? ›
George Bernard Shaw makes Pygmalion an excellent example of feminist criticism in a piece of literature. Throughout the play, we see male dominance over the females. He depicted how being a lady during the Victorian era changed how you were treated, and women were to act a certain way–the stereotypical lady-like way.What was the difference between a lady and a flower girl in Pygmalion? ›
The playwright's description of the flower girl suggests
The flower girl and the ladies share a family resemblance. The only difference between the ladies and the flower girl is wealth and opportunity.
Composer Frederick Loewe, left, and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, right, wrote My Fair Lady together. The new title, My Fair Lady, was taken from the last line of the nursery rhyme "London Bridge Is Falling Down" and appears nowhere in the musical.
Even though Eliza is in her early 20s, because of her lower class status, she is often treated as a “girl”. Her lack of proper upbringing makes the upper class people she encounters consider her as immature and not worthy of being called a “lady”.What do we learn about Eliza in Pygmalion? ›
While not formally well-educated, she is quick-witted and is a strong character, generally unafraid to stand up for herself. She is a quick learner, and under the teaching of Pickering and Higgins she easily learns to act like a lady and pass as a member of the upper class.What does Eliza explain as the difference between a lady and a flower girl? ›
What does Eliza explain as the difference between a lady and a flower girl? Eliza explains the difference between a flower girl and lady is not how she acts or behaves but, how she's treated. " the difference between a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated (Liza)".How has Eliza changed Pygmalion? ›
In both Acts IV and V, Eliza is seen as a completely transformed person, outwardly. She is poised, dignified, in control of her once spitfire temper, and she has rejected all of the old common vulgarity of her past life. She is no longer willing to be Higgins' creation; she now asserts her own independence.What is the message behind Pygmalion from a Marxist perspective? ›
Marxism in Pygmalion
With Doolittle's statement, author George Bernard Shaw further displays the effect of money and social hierarchy on the people. Doolittle feels as if too much money will confine him to a rigid world of "upper-class" life and he will be forced to comply with the morals this life has set.
What is the alternate ending of Pygmalion? ›
In the alternate ending to Pygmalion, Eliza does not marry, but she goes back to Professor Higgins. In the original play, Eliza is set to marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill. In some of the movie versions of the play, the ending was changed to a supposedly 'happy' ending, with Eliza coming back to Higgins.Can Eliza in Pygmalion be termed as feminist elaborate assignment? ›
Answer and Explanation: Eliza can definitely be defined as a feminist. Her principal reason for seeking lessons from Henry Higgins is so that she can seek employment in a proper flower-shop. She has no interest in elevating her status into the upper class or for finding a husband (in either Freddy or Higgins).Do Eliza and Higgins end up together? ›
Henry Higgins did remain in Eliza Doolittle's life, but Shaw was insistent on the fact that they were no match romantically, that they remained purely friends who saw each other as sparring partners in wit and cleverness.Is Pygmalion and Galatea's story a happy ending Why? ›
He embraces Galatea, and life comes into the cold marble. Their love blossoms and they exchange wedding vows. With the blessings of the goddess Aphrodite, they live happily ever after. The couple even has a son, Paphos, who later founded the city Paphos in Cyprus.