The Ingenuity of Ambiguity

     Greek mythology tells the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, and how his annoyance with the female sex led to his creation of an ideal woman, Galatea. Of course, he fell in love with her, she was granted life, and they lived happily ever after. But, as the story goes nine times out of ten, Galatea was never completely happy with her "creator."

     There is a lesson the playwright George Bernard Shaw found in this ancient tale that he applied to his modern rendition, a 1913 play called, Pygmalion (1913). In the play, Henry Higgins is the "creator," and Eliza Doolittle is his "creation" by way of a teacher-student relation. Despite Shaw's insistence that the play is not a love story, one's attention is chiefly drawn to the romance unfolding between Henry and Eliza. During the process of "creating" Eliza, she falls in love with Henry, even though he continually treats her as a subordinate. Unfortunately, a relationship in which one person retains the role of a god- or father-like figure the other person is seldom able to feel like an equal and generally grows discontented and resentful. Unlike the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, however, Shaw cleverly leaves "Pygmalion" ambiguous. Readers are left to ponder whether or not Henry and Eliza end up together (and whether or not they should.)

     Since it was published, Pygmalion has been produced several times, including the 1938 film, also entitled, Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard) and the 1964 musical version called, My Fair Lady (George Cukor). Both of these productions used alternate endings, opting for a conclusion that is more conclusive and better suited to viewers' romantic sentimentalities. True, some people become frustrated with stories that end unresolved, but conventional endings do not make a great movie. All one has to do is consider the tremendous success of such movies as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942), where dramatic, unexpected endings leave audiences distraught, perplexed and cheering for more.

     Possibly the most irksome thing a writer or director can do is to create an explanatory sequel. It is unfortunate that Shaw wrote an afterward for Pygmalion in which he tediously explains that Eliza marries Freddy instead of Henry. Similarly, the follow-up to Gone with the Wind was a major flop. Shaw may have taught us that teacher-student relationships are destined to failure, but he failed to realize the brilliance of his own ambiguity.

Emily V. Williams

Table of Contents