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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Context


Great Britain Emerges from Victorianism

Pygmalion was written and produced as Great Britain was emerging from the Victorian era. Spanning the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), this period was marked by peace and prosperity; medical, scientific, and technological advances; and the expansion of the British Empire. Notions of what it meant to be English or an Englishman—standards and codes of conduct—became idealized, and the concept of the perfect woman—the subservient wife and "domestic angel"—was advanced. A heightened sense of social responsibility dictated Victorian social behavior. Likewise, a sense of order and stability stemming from British confidence in commonly held social values, social identity, and meaningful religious faith characterized English society.

However, sharp divides existed between the upper, middle, working, and lower classes of society. Women felt these social barriers more keenly than men. Their social, political, and economic rights and options were far more limited. As the Victorian era wore on, artists and writers began to confront these idealized notions of proper behavior and social stereotypes. They took aim at the conventions of the Victorian era; in particular, a woman's perceived place in society. Their efforts were in line with another challenge to these conventions: the socialist movement.

British Socialism and Modern Realistic Drama

Various organized groups built on socialist ideas emerged in Britain in the 1880s, growing out of intense dislike of the social effects of the Industrial Revolution. Among their goals were social reform, enfranchisement of women, and improvement of living conditions for the working class. Their ideas found expression in late Victorian literature.

In the theater, Realism replaced Romanticism, a style of drama marked by exotic locations and larger-than-life heroes. This new realistic drama featured ordinary people in believable situations and examined the harsh truths hidden beneath the bland surface details of their lives. Rather than offering entertaining escapism, realistic drama attempted to thoughtfully explore contemporary issues and expose social evils.

Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen introduced realistic drama to the European stage in the second half of the 19th century. Audiences expecting traditional theater were dismayed and sometimes scandalized by the dark topics of Ibsen's plays and their lack of happy endings. Yet, his plays continued to be produced by progressive theaters across Europe, including England. His works were disturbing. They pushed his audience to candidly scrutinize the foundations of their morality and social conscience. Considered the father of modern theater, Ibsen has also been called the father of Realism.

One outspoken advocate of socialism and the new theater of Ibsen was George Bernard Shaw. In 1884, he joined the recently established Fabian Society. The society was not radical but aimed to peacefully implement social reforms through existing institutions and Parliament. Believing that all major social problems could be solved if socialism were implemented, Shaw became one of the Fabian Society's leading members and its spokesperson. His concerns and beliefs, as well as his admiration for Ibsen's "theatre of ideas," inspired his first play, Widowers' House (1892). They were likewise the thematic basis for subsequent works, including Pygmalion.

The Problem Play and Pygmalion

Dramas that dealt realistically with controversial social issues were known as "problem plays" or "discussion plays." They strove to make the audience think and discuss the issues. Henrik Ibsen demonstrated the potential of the problem play, but Shaw brought this type of drama to its intellectual peak. He used polished wit and clever language to transform the English theater into a marketplace of ideas. Scenes of ugliness or suffering are rare in Shaw's plays. Unlike the somber Ibsen, he preferred to keep his audience laughing while confronting serious issues.

In Pygmalion, Shaw tackled the idea of language as a class barrier, showing how speech and manners can dictate a person's place in society. Written during the tumultuous days of the suffragette movement in Britain, it also addressed the role of women in society.

Text Variations and Optional Scenes

Pygmalion earned Shaw a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Since its German-language translation production in 1913, the play has undergone some changes. One impulse for change came from Shaw's desire to clarify the play's ambiguous ending and the future relationship between Eliza and Higgins. In 1916 Shaw wrote the sequel to the play—a lengthy explanation in which he established that Eliza marries Freddy, not Higgins. Nevertheless, to Shaw's frustration, audiences persisted in believing that Eliza marries Higgins.

A 1938 film version of the play further cemented this idea of a happy ending in the audience's mind. It also inspired some additions to Shaw's original play, incorporating into the text changes made for the film. In 1941, Shaw wrote a "definitive text," which included the additional scenes. A line of asterisks separates these scenes from the earlier theatrical script. While some critics feel that the original text, without the film scenes, is superior, the 1941 text was authorized by Shaw and widely distributed. However, Shaw was aware of the difficulty and expense of staging these additional scenes and noted that they could be omitted.

A Note about Punctuation and Spelling

Some texts of the play preserve Shaw's distinctive punctuation and spelling practices. He preferred to use the apostrophe only when absolutely necessary and removed it whenever he could, as in Ive, thats, werent, and wont. However, he retained the apostrophe where its omission might cause confusion, as in I'll, it's, and he'll. Shaw also preferred to use the archaic spelling of shew for show.

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