Pygmalion; Myth to Script, to Stage, to Theater: A Tale of My Fair Lady

         Pygmalion derives its name from the famous story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion, disgusted by the loose and shameful lives of the women of his era, decides to live alone and unmarried. With wondrous art, he creates a beautiful statue more perfect than any living woman. The more he looks upon her, the more deeply he falls in love with her, until he wishes that she were more than a statue. This statue is Galatea. Lovesick, Pygmalion goes to the temple of the goddess Venus and prays that she give him a lover like his statue; Venus is touched by his love and brings Galatea to life. When Pygmalion returns from Venus' temple and kisses his statue, he is delighted to find that she is warm and soft to the touch--"The maiden felt the kisses, blushed and, lifting her timid eyes up to the light, saw the sky and her lover at the same time" (Frank Justus Miller, trans.)" (

         This is a tale that moved Bernard Shaw to produce a wonderful work called Pygmalion in 1913. The story is of a young lady that wants to do better in her life and who by chance hears a gentleman boasting that he can teach anyone to speak properly. Aspiring to become a 'genteel' lady in a flower shop, she visits the gentleman at his home to inquire about speech lessons; and this is where the fun begins.

         This particular script has been put on stage in two forms, the later being the musical My Fair Lady, which ran on Broadway from 1956 to 1962. In 1964 it was put on film by Warner Brothers, directed by George Cukor, as a musical staring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison as Eliza Doolittle and the professor, Henry Higgins. It is an excellent adaptation of Pygmalion and is a lasting tribute to Shaw.

         There are many reasons to see all three, the play Pygmalion, the musical play, My Fair Lady, and the movie My Fair Lady, as they each complement each other. Firstly, to hear or see Pygmalion portrayed by English actors and to hear the distinct differences in speech is a treat. To see the movie, with its wonderful settings of the flower courtyard and Professor Higgins' house, with all of its intricate woodwork, foyer, library and recording apparatus is truly a wondrous vision. But, my favorite has to be the live performance of the musical. The music is wonderful and dynamic and really tells a story.

         I hope some day, the music in the film adaptation can be as powerful as the live stage version, but any new version of My Fair Lady on film will never reproduce the beautiful staging of the original, and Audrey Hepburn will always be Eliza for me.

Ron Watkins

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