Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, an illiterate flower girl in London's Covent Garden. Taken under the wing of Professor Henry Higgins, an expert of linguistics and phonetics, she becomes the object of a wager as to whether or not it is possible to make a lower-class woman passable as a sophisticated lady.

Perhaps best known today for the 1956 musical reincarnation as My Fair Lady and the subsequent 1964 film version starring Audrey Hepburn, Pygmalion is a classic work of 20th-century theater. Beyond the play's witty comedy and romantic intrigue, Pygmalion offers a critique of the rigid class system of turn-of-the-century Britain, as well as the potential for feminist critique through the development of Eliza's character and her conflicted relationships with the men attempting to control her.

1. Henry Higgins was based on an equally irritable real-life professor.

Henry Sweet was a professor of phonetics and language at Oxford University in the early 20th century. His infamously cantankerous personality was the basis for Henry Higgins, as Shaw states in his preface.

2. Shaw is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.

Shaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 for his long list of literary works, which included Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Man and Superman, and Heartbreak House. In 1938 he won the Academy Award for his screenplay for the film version of Pygmalion.

3. Shaw despised the idea of Eliza marrying Higgins.

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, owner of His Majesty's Theatre, wanted to modify the conclusion of Pygmalion so that Higgins and Eliza wed, making a happier ending and, supposedly, generating more sales for the show. Shaw was completely opposed to this plot change, telling Tree, "Your ending is damnable: You ought to be shot."

4. The world premiere of Pygmalion was actually in Vienna—and in German.

Siegfried Trebitsch, Shaw's literary agent, acquired a German translation of the play, which premiered at the Burgtheater in the Austrian capital in October 1913, half a year before the April 1914 premiere in London. It was popular with both Austrian critics and audiences. Shaw's plays were generally well received in Vienna and were frequently performed.

5. Shaw wrote Pygmalion as a gift for a woman he loved.

Shaw was "violently and exquisitely" in love with his muse, an English actress known as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for whom he wrote the role of Eliza in the 1914 London opening production. It was an odd casting choice on Shaw's part, as the 49-year-old Campbell was 30 years older than the character of Eliza.

Although their relationship was described as a "platonic love affair," Shaw was left stunned when Campbell ran off to get married in secret right before the dress rehearsal, causing great confusion and intriguing the press. It was only a small hitch, however. Campbell went on to captivate audiences as Eliza, eventually taking the role on tour. She even played Eliza in a 1920 London revival.

6. The musical film adaptation also cast an older actress to play Eliza.

British actress Audrey Hepburn, who starred in the 1964 musical film adaptation My Fair Lady, was 35 when she appeared as Eliza Doolittle, even though the character was supposed to be 19. Producers then cast Jeremy Brett—an actor in his 30s—to play 20-year-old Freddy. The filmmakers wanted to cast an older actor so that the age difference between the two leads wouldn't be as apparent to viewers.

7. A Game of Thrones actress has played two roles in Pygmalion.

British actress Diana Rigg, who plays Olenna Tyrell in HBO's series Game of Thrones, first played Eliza Doolittle in a 1974 West End production. Rigg was pleased that the director stayed true to Shaw's original intent with the play and that Eliza transformed into an independent woman instead of falling in love with Higgins.

No intelligent woman today would accept that ending—not Eliza going back to being a doormat and being insulted.

In 2011—some 37 years after her original performance—Rigg returned to another stage production of Pygmalion, this time playing Professor Higgins's mother.

8. The Three Stooges released an adaptation of Pygmalion.

In their 1935 short film Hoi Polloi the Stooges play garbage men who are taken in by a professor in an attempt to make gentlemen out of them. The film features a great deal more slapstick comedy than Shaw's version.

9. A strange bit of profanity caused a scandal in Pygmalion.

At the play's opening one of Eliza's lines was "Walk! Not bloody likely." At the time bloody was still considered one of the strongest expletives in British English, and it was said that actress Stella Patrick Campbell "probably risked her career by uttering it."

10. A programmer named an artificial intelligence platform after Eliza.

The computer program, with the same name as Shaw's character, was written by computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum from 1964–65 while he was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The program was designed to emulate human conversational patterns in an attempt to create true artificial intelligence. Eliza was described in a 1966 technical paper as being able to respond to a wide variety of English phrases and engage in relatively believable conversation with researchers.

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