Review: “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw

For the love of books

Not many modern readers are familiar with the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.  In a condensed, “modern” translation, Pygmalion is merely a talented sculptor who is looking for a serious relationship.  However, he is not satisfied with the temperament or physical features of any woman he meets.  He then decides to do something truly drastic: he will carve the most beautiful woman out of marble and pray that Venus, the goddess of love, will literally breathe life into his sculpted mistress, with whom he eventually falls in love.  It happens exactly the way Pygmalion plans, and he names his perfect partner “Galatea.”

First of all, the theme of this particular myth is obviously perfection.  Pygmalion is basically a proud bachelor who demands perfection not only in his art but also in his life, as shown by his desire for his only potential lover’s unconditional love.  The irony is that while both factors are nearly impossible requests from imperfect beings like humans, Pygmalion still expects perfection itself from divine Galatea when he himself is a weak man with extremely high standards.  A half-formed analogy can be made here in reference to the “relationship” between native speakers of the English language and their expectations of those who learn it as a second language.  Similarly, George Bernard Shaw wraps the many issues surrounding the entangled mess that is English into a combined presentation of the mentioned Greek myth and the noted analogy—his 1912 play, Pygmalion.  The content of Shaw’s play is certainly unexpected considering the biting title, but it is relevant in all respects.

Professor Henry Higgins is modern “transcription” of the character of Pygmalion, but this “artist” is a serious bachelor entirely devoted to one love—phonetics, not sculpture.  Moreover, this “Pygmalion” cannot take much credit for the creation of Eliza Doolittle, who has been born and raised beyond his intervention.  He can only be commended for his role as a teacher of his “Galatea,” who is talented, has a sharp mind of her own, and becomes a perfect lady through hard work (not an animated statue as in the myth).  When reading this idiosyncratic drama, one’s first thought is how the playwright’s opinions regarding English speakers (exclusively British in this case) have brutally abused their native language by their flagrant use of absurd slang, dialects, and phonetics.  Shaw has some of the best verbal jabs at modern English and its faulty perpetrators, especially his emphatic notion that foreign students (academic or otherwise) of English speak the language better than the natives because they have been taught correctly how.  Primary and secondary education in the twentieth century was very low-rated and crude, so Shaw was right to assume that native English speakers never master their own language but butcher it instead.  Furthermore, Pygmalion may be a short play, simply written and still filled with caustic wisdom, but it is not truly a romance.  It was certainly called so by its author, but that was more of a sarcastic joke. By the end of the last act, it was quite clear.  Never was there a couple like Higgins and Eliza more meant to not be married to each other, opposite leading characters or not.

The relationship between Higgins and Eliza is understandable amid its complexity, unlike that of Pygmalion and Galateas later choice of Freddy is not insincere but acceptable by all accounts.  The heart of Pygmalion is not any love triangle (real or imaginary) but Higgins’ “experimentation” with Eliza and his success at correcting her English so that she passes for a princess at an ambassador garden party.  This is seconded by the amusing speeches about morality by Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father and a self-proclaimed member of “the undeserving poor.”

Direct and comically diverse, Pygmalion is an unusual “comedy.”  The process that Eliza underwent in the plot is not impossible but only difficult—this is the soul of Pygmalion.  Among Shaw’s critiques of modern society, life, and romance, there is an underlying message: with the right instruction, some talent, and sufficient discipline, anyone can conquer his/her own language and speak it eloquently. It is only a matter of practice.

Original review: Part 1: Native English speakers get resounding slaps from Bernard Shaw; Part 2: Native English speakers get resounding slaps from Bernard Shaw; Part 3: Native English speakers get resounding slaps from Bernard Shaw, Examiner.com

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