As far I remember, Pygmalion is the first play I’ve ever read. I’ve been tempted by Oscar Wilde, but Pygmalion was also at the top of the Ugly-Duckling – Makeover Stories list, so it got the honor. It’s a short play and it works well in audiobook because you get to listen to all the accents and the story is all about the accents.
Phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets he can teach Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle to pass for a duchess at an upcoming ambassador’s party. His theory is that an impeccable diction is the most important thing about being perceived as gentility.
Although being packaged as a romantic comedy (Shaw himself called it “A Romance”), he actually seemed to go for anti-romance. All readers expect Eliza to fall in love with Higgins and she does, but then she begins seeing him for the hyper-rational, egomaniac he really is. And all readers are expecting Higgins to fall in love with Eliza, but we’re never sure if he ever does.
I found Higgins a surprising and unexpectedly feminist character. Although he has the tact of a door nail, the man is at least honest and consistent! Eliza starts out as a strong character, pro-actively deciding to take lessons and improve herself, but then becomes completely dependent on Higgins’s approval. Bad idea.
Here’s Higgins at his best (after Eliza leaves his house):
HIGGINS: (…) If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.
LIZA: That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.
HIGGINS: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.
… and another after Eliza asks for a bit of kindness on his part:
LIZA: Don’t sneer at me. It’s mean to sneer at me.
HIGGINS: I have never sneered in my life. Sneering doesn’t become either the human face or the human soul. I am expressing my righteous contempt for Commercialism. I don’t and won’t trade in affection. You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles. You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face. No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave? If you come back, come back for the sake of good fellowship; for you’ll get nothing else. You’ve had a thousand times as much out of me as I have out of you; and if you dare to set up your little dog’s tricks of fetching and carrying slippers against my creation of a Duchess Eliza, I’ll slam the door in your silly face.
It’s also only when Higgins’ manages to rouse Eliza’s temper that she returns to her old vigorous self and shows her claws. She threatens to set up her own diction business… Higgins congratulates her!
(after Eliza makes her threat)
HIGGINS: [wondering at her] You damned impudent slut, you! But it’s better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? [Rising] By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.
LIZA: Yes: you turn round and make up to me now that I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you.
HIGGINS: Of course I do, you little fool. Five minutes ago you were like a millstone round my neck. Now you’re a tower of strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl.
Higgins’ a insensitive rascal, but no one can accuse him of dishonesty. What you see is what you get.
Pygmalion was the basis for the 1964 movie My Fair Lady and I’ve also re-watched it for the “Read the book, See the movie” challenge. It seems a remake is in the works with Daniel Day Lewis and Keira Knightley – still not sure how I feel about it. No matter how much I try to avoid it, KK always seems to pop up in the book adaptations I really want to see: P&P, Atonement, Silk…
MFL is almost a word-by-word like the play, except of course, for the musical bits. As expected, it was “Hollywoodized” to satisfy people’s hunger for an unmistakable happy-ending (it’s open to debate in the play). Because of this we see Higgins walking home after the final confrontation has an epiphany (wasn’t there something similar in Gigi?). Small side note: isn’t it incredible after almost 50 years, Eliza’s ball dress is still gorgeous and fashionable? I wantssss it!
One of my favorite scenes in the movie – it’s great visually, love the irony in the lyrics and the dialogues are hilarious: