Are you a fan of The Princess Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada? Have you watched Pretty Woman enough times to know some of Julia Roberts’ lines verbatim? And did you fall in love with Miss Congeniality when she yelled through her waxing session? If you’re grinning and blushing while nodding your head, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll fall in love with George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion as well. But what is the common streak among these? Well, just like these modern comedies, Pygmalion is a makeover tale. Taking you from the street to an Embassy ball, it is one of the most original of all makeover stories.
Playing with the character of King Pygmalion from Greek mythology, Shaw creates a unique and complex relationship between one Professor Henry Higgins and a flower girl named Eliza Doolittle. The former is a ‘professor of phonetics’ modelled on Pygmalion, the king who sculpted his ‘ideal woman’ out of ivory and married her after Aphrodite transformed her into a real woman. The latter is a poor but “good girl” who merely wants to sell flowers. With the Professor hailing from upper society and Eliza crawling out of a tiny room between two stores, it is plain to see how Pygmalion grows into a makeover tale. But, what kind of makeover is it and do the pair marry like King Pygmalion and his Galatea? I can answer the first but will allow you to find the answer to the last because, well… spoiler.
It all begins when Higgins, Eliza and a bunch of others are stuck under a church portico due to a heavy shower. Hearing Eliza’s uniquely low accent, Higgins takes down her words to study the same phonetically later on. However, Eliza mistakes him for a cop and then ensues a real din as Higgins makes a show of his phonetic abilities and Eliza dramatically plays victim. However, the true trouble commences when the professor remarks to the gentle Colonel Pickering that he could transform Eliza into a duchess in “three months.” The very next day, the flower girl shows up at Higgins’ home, asking for classes in English so she may get a decent job as “a lady in a flower shop”.
From here begins the funny makeover as Eliza learns upper class dress, manners and language in mere months in order to go from a flower girl on the street to an actual lady. However, although the play seems light, it raises some major questions – the main one being that of feminism. Few texts in its time can boast of tackling the issue as Pygmalion does when Higgins and Pickering manage to transform Eliza into the swan they planned but instead of giving her due credit, Higgins casts her aside ungratefully, ‘manfully’ taking all the credit for the project’s labours. However, Miss Doolittle holds her own as she flings Higgins’ slippers at him and the play takes an interesting turn.
The ‘interesting turn’ is far too entertaining to ruin with spoilers in a review. But, this much can be said of Shaw’s play – the less-than-200-page piece is a fun read for anyone who likes well thought out characters and a didactic ending. Even if you’re not pedantic enough to enjoy the phonetics of it all, Eliza’s ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oos will make you smile and Higgins’ pride will have you rolling your eyes.
The cleverly-written Pygmalion isn’t a page-turner but when you’ve read it, you’ll see why this ‘Romance in Five Acts’ was loved enough to spark the 1964 Audrey Hepburn-starrer My Fair Lady. And as for Shaw, all I can say is not every playwright can so endearingly show us that “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”
“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”
Recommended Age Group: Anyone who can read!
Final verdict: 📚📚📚📚📚 – Because… that final act! So go buy a hardback and show it off in your bookshelf! And then wait for a signed anniversary edition and buy that too.
You can buy the book here.