How a Happy Ending Ruined Pygmalion

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Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard in the 1938 film version of <em>Pygamalion</em>
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People love a makeover. So when George Bernard Shaw decided to write a play filled with feminist ideas, he borrowed from the myth of Pygmalion, the ultimate makeover story. In the story told by 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,” says Ellen Dolgin, vice-president of the International Shaw Society. “What [they thought] of as absolutely innate — social placement — is not. It can be learned. And it can be fudged.”

But that’s where Pygmalion starts to get interesting. Once Doolittle has had her makeover, she’s stuck between two worlds. Unable to return to selling flowers in the street, she also doesn’t belong in the high society she has learned to mimic. She rejects Higgins’ paternalism and strikes out on her own. “She has become both Pygmalion and Galatea, because she has chosen to fashion herself,” Dolgin says.

In the play, that’s the end of her relationship with Higgins. “The stage direction for Eliza is ‘She sweeps out,’” says Leonard Conolly, who taught the play at Ontario’s Trent University. “It’s a sweeping clean of her relationship with Higgins and to a brighter, better future for her.” What that future is, Shaw didn’t tell us.

But a funny thing happened in the play’s original production: the actor who played Higgins managed to suggest with body language — without altering a line — that Higgins and Doolittle were obviously in love, and would end up together. The interpretation infuriated Shaw, but won over audiences, who tend to like happy endings more than playwrights. The 1938 film version made the romantic ending explicit, and by the time My Fair Lady came around, women’s independence and the class structure were just cute devices in a love story. Pygmalion’s feminist manifesto had become a chick flick.

Even Shaw’s greatest defenders have mixed feelings about the My Fair Lady treatment of Eliza Doolittle — her desire for chocolates, a comfy chair, someone’s ‘ead resting on her knee. “I don’t like it,” Dolgin protests, then reconsiders. “No, I do,” she sighs.

Music Playlist

  1. Dialogue and scoring from the 1938 film Pygmalion

  2. Wouldn’t It Be Loverly

    Artist: Julie Andrews
    Album: My Fair Lady (Original 1956 Cast Broadway Cast Recording)
  3. Sur une lanterne

    Artist: Erik Satie
    Album: Socrate – Messe Des Pauvre
    Label: El Records