Pygmalion is an amazing play for the ages written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw. The play is about human relationships in a social world. The successful 1956 musical play My Fair Lady by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, filmed in 1964 by George Cukor, was based on this Shaw classic. Shaw has a brilliant and searing humor. He also has a deep concern for social reforms that are seen in his plays.
All versions of Shaw's play open in London with heavy summer rain and cabs driving frantically in all directions. Pedestrians are running for shelter, among them a lady and her daughter in evening dress. All are peering out gloomily at the rain, except one man with his back turned to the rest, completely preoccupied with a notebook in which he is writing. With the movie My Fair Lady, thanks to the art decoration and costumes of Cecil Beaton, the viewer can see the old fashioned England of the late nineteenth century/early twentieth-century where women were fashion conscious and very ladylike.
Pygmalion begins the story of Henry Higgins, phonetics professor, and Eliza Doolittle, London flower girl, offering no prior information or flashbacks. Pygmalion's whole theme is that the male fashions a woman out of raw material into a worthy partner for himself, indirectly in Higgins' case. Shaw does not allow the male to fall in love with his creation, however, down to the last act. Pygmalion is a story within a story in the sense that, it deals with many different aspects to form one complete play. There is the story of Liza becoming a duchess, Higgins and Pickering's bet on making a flower into a duchess in six months, the actual Pygmalionism of Liza and Higgins, and Liza's father's influence in her life.
The major characters in Pygmalion play significant roles in the development of one another and the evolvement of the play. Professor Henry Higgins is a professor of phonetics, who is the "Pygmalion," to Eliza Doolittle. He is an unconventional man, who goes in the opposite direction from the rest of society in most cases. Higgins is impatient with high society, forgetful of his public graces, and poorly considerate of people's feeling and the only reason the world has not turned against him is because he is at heart a good, harmless being and his biggest fault is that he can be a bully to almost everyone. Eliza Doolittle is not at all a romantic figure at the beginning of the play or the movie. She seems to defy any normal ideals that are perceived about a romantic heroine.
When she is transformed from a saucy, smart-mouthed flower girl with distasteful English, to a person fit to intermix with nobility, she comes across as being much more instrumental than fundamental. With her appearance at the ball, which is splendidly depicted in the movie My Fair Lady, she, as played by the elegant Audrey Hepburn, becomes, not a duchess, but an independent woman; and this explains why Higgins, as depicted by Rex Harrison, begins to see Eliza not as a piece of work but as a creature worthy of his admiration and devotion. In the musical, Eliza eventually responds to this admiration after the setback of the post-ball scene and returns to him.
Shaw thought that all living things, human or animal, were equals and should always be treated with equal respect. In his world all humans, men and women, rich and poor, were all equal; and all have the right to bring out the best in themselves, no matter what class they were born into. Pygmalion has stood the test of time because it is a unique story that can compel anyone.