Wouldn't It Be Mannerly?

     Attitudes in society concerning proper etiquette change like the tide. What was once an accepted display of behavior, in present time could be considered archaic. At the same time, acceptable behavior in the present day is often scoffed at by "the old school" of the population.

     The 1913 play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, deals with proper etiquette that would have been used in the time period of the play. Shaw depicts a young Cockney flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) that is rather ambitious but has no vehicle in life to take her where she would like to go. At a chance meeting with a phonetics professor (Henry Higgins), the flower girl's life is changed forever as he declares that he could make a lady of her by simply teaching her how to pronounce her words in a more aristocratic way. Along with her speech, in order to fool the upper class, she dresses in fine clothes and does an overhaul of her mannerisms, thus conforming to the proper etiquette of the time for ladies.

     The main problem that Eliza must conquer is her speech. Her Lisson Grove dialect of the English language is not desirable in the social circles of England, and it is the first thing that Higgins takes on for her transformation. Although speaking properly is in good taste and in proper etiquette, more of an emphasis was placed on it in the time of Pygmalion as opposed to today. Whereas Eliza's complete form of speech has to be changed due to her dialect, English speakers in modern times need only speak the language without too many grammatical errors to be impressive. Accent is less important to most members of high society.

     Once her speech is transformed into that of a lady, her mannerisms are Higgins' next task. He teaches her to move like a lady and to carry on lady-like conversations. In George Cukor's 1964 adaptation of Shaw's play, My Fair Lady, one of the most memorable scenes is Eliza's (Audrey Hepburn) first outing as an almost completed work. She is paraded around Ascot by Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) and his cohort, Col. Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White), in order to meet Higgins' mother (Gladys Cooper) so that the newly transformed lady can test her abilities on a natural lady and high society as a whole. Higgins limits Eliza to two topics for conversation, health and the weather. The crowd is appalled as Eliza states that she believes her aunt was "done in" by those taking care of her. Higgins covers her mistake by explaining that Eliza's phrase is the new small talk and that she is merely ahead of everyone else in speech. In today's world, terms for murder are so commonplace that it is nothing to here all of them in casual or formal conversation.

     Mannerisms change rapidly from accepted to not. It is not certain who makes up the rules of right or wrong; however, one certainty is that we will always have a code of etiquette to live by.

Rachel Dixon

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