Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Act 1 | Summary

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Pygmalion is written in five acts. Unlike plays written with scenes that have multiple settings, the play has only three settings: Covent Garden, Henry Higgins's apartment, and Mrs. Higgins's apartment.

Summary

In Covent Garden, a district of London, a sudden torrent of rain sends people hurrying for shelter under the portico of St. Paul's Church. Among them are a finely dressed lady and her daughter, who have been to the theater and are now desperate to find a taxi to take them home. Another is a man with a notebook in which he is busily writing. The lady's son, Freddy, rushes in bearing the bad news that no cabs are available. Impatiently, his mother sends him back out to try again. As he sets off he runs into a dirty and disheveled girl selling flowers and sends her flower basket flying. With a swift apology he dashes out into the rain, leaving her to pick up her scattered flowers. Despite the objections of the lady's daughter, Clara, the lady pays the girl for two bunches of ruined violets.

Moments later, an elderly gentleman dressed in evening clothes hurries in out of the rain. He pauses near the flower girl, who tries to sell him some flowers. He hasn't enough loose change to pay for any but gives the girl three hapence, or half pennies, and walks off. A bystander warns the girl to give the gentleman a flower in exchange as there is another man eavesdropping and taking down her every word. He may be a detective. Panicked that she will be accused of soliciting for prostitution, the girl hysterically confronts the note taker, who dismisses her fear, saying, "Oh, shut up, shut up. Do I look like a policeman?" However, a general hubbub among the bystanders erupts in defense of the frightened girl. Things turn a bit hostile when the note taker begins identifying where various speakers come from, based on their speech. The people don't like the sense of being played with or patronized. The tension eases when the note taker turns his trick on the elderly gentleman, and then on the lady and her daughter. The note taker brags to the elderly gentleman that he could make a duchess of the flower girl by teaching her to speak properly. Meanwhile, the rain stops, and soon the bystanders, including the two ladies, have dispersed.

Only the elderly gentleman, note taker, and flower girl remain. It turns out the men share a common interest in language and have been intending to seek each other out. The elderly gentleman is Colonel Pickering, a student of Indian dialects and the author of Spoken Sanscrit. The gentleman is Professor Henry Higgins, author of Higgins's Universal Alphabet. Higgins invites Pickering around to his home at 27A Wimpole Street the next day, and the two men depart for a chat over some supper. At the pricking of his conscience, Higgins tosses a handful of coins in the flower girl's basket as he leaves. It's a fortune by her standards, and when poor Freddy pulls up in a taxi for his mother and sister (who have taken the bus), she takes it off his hands and goes home in style.

Analysis

Act 1 serves three main purposes: to introduce the play's three main characters, establish the central premise of the play, and provide social context for the events that will unfold.

The first main character introduced is the flower girl, later revealed to be Eliza Doolittle. Shaw's description of her and her first nearly unintelligible words to Freddy's mother paint the picture of a girl doomed to a life of struggle by her appearance, manners, and way of speaking. Translated, her statement to the mother that begins, "Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y'de-ooty bawmz a mather ..." means "Oh, he's your son, is he? Well, if you'd done your duty by him as a mother should, he'd know better than you to spoil a poor girl's flowers and then run away without paying. Will you pay me for them?" Her Cockney accent attracts the attention of the note taker (Professor Henry Higgins), and he writes down her exchange with the gentleman, later identified as Colonel Pickering. Pickering, of course, turns out to be a language expert like Higgins. In this way, language draws the three characters into a lasting relationship that is basic to the plot.

Language, in fact, is the unifying thread in a network of characters that emerge as the act progresses. Gathered beneath the portico of St. Paul's Church while sheltering from the rain, an array of London citizenry represent the different levels of Victorian society, from the high class of Higgins and Pickering to the low class of Eliza. The mother and daughter (Clara) represent the genteel poor—those born into wealth but who have fallen on hard times. The bystanders represent classes in between—those who work in service or at a trade and those who have the potential for upward mobility.

The origins of all the characters can all be identified by their patterns of speech. For example, Eliza's Cockney accent places her home in Lisson Grove, a former slum area in central London—not "fit for a pig to live in," according to Eliza—urbanized during the mid-19th century and remaining poor into the 20th century. Higgins identifies the bystander as coming from the seaside village of Selsey, and the sarcastic bystander's speech patterns place him in the trade and manufacturing center of Hoxton. Shaw uses the characters, especially Eliza, to establish the main premise of the play: the role of language in determining a person's place in society. Shaw asks, can an expert in speech teach a common girl speaking "kerbstone English" to pass as a member of the elite class?

Higgins specializes in helping people hide their places of origin by teaching them to speak properly. As he says, it "is an age of upstarts," and society is changing. Industrialization and capitalism have created the possibility of upward mobility. Yet, Victorian class standards still prevail, and speaking properly is key. As Higgins says, men who begin in Kentish Town—a working-class district of London—and end in upper-crust Park Lane "want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths." Just as he claims to help them, he says that he could pass Eliza off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party if given just three months with her. This plants the seed in Eliza's mind that leads her to Higgins's home in Act 2; it also foreshadows her later triumph at the ambassador's party.

Clothing is also an important feature in this act and throughout the play. Eliza's dirty, shabby clothes, worn boots, and soot-blackened hat are clear indications of her impoverished state. In contrast, the fine evening clothes of Pickering, Freddy, the mother, and Clara place them in the upper classes. When Higgins is first mistaken for a policeman or informer, the bystander points out, "It's all right: he's a gentleman: look at his boots." As the play progresses, Eliza's clothing will reflect various stages of her transformation into a lady.

In the 1941 published play, Shaw added scenes inspired by the film adaptation of Pygmalion, which starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. The first one appears at the end of Act 1 when Eliza takes a taxi to her lodgings. Shaw describes the damp, dreary room decorated with pictures torn from newspapers—a hint that Eliza dreams of something better for herself. When the light of the gas lamp goes out, she is torn between spending another penny for light or going to bed. At the time that Shaw wrote Pygmalion, people paid for the gas supply for a room or house as needed by depositing a coin in a meter. Eliza's "gnawing sense of the need for economy" wins and she crawls into bed, sleeping in her clothes to keep away the cold. In this scene, Shaw shows the deprivation that Eliza endures and will attempt to escape.

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