Pygmalion is een toneelstuk in vijf akten van de Iers-Britse schrijver George Bernard Shaw. Shaw schreef het stuk in 1913 en het ging op 16 oktober van dat jaar in een door Shaw verzorgde Duitse versie in première in het Hofburg Theater in Wenen. De eerste opvoering in Engeland vond plaats op 11 april 1914 in His Majesty’s Theatre, met Mrs. Patrick Campbell in de hoofdrol, een talentvolle, dominante, maar ietwat materialistische actrice, waarmee Shaw een korte maar hevige romance had. Tot aan haar dood in 1940 zouden ze echter een boeiende correspondentie blijven voeren.
De titel is ontleend aan de Griekse mythologie: Pygmalion was a king of Cyprus, who fell in love with a statue made by himself; Aphrodite changed the statue in a woman.
Didactic purpose: written to inform the people about the phonetic problems of the English language. The main person, Henry “Pygmalion” Higgins is based on a real phonetic Harry Sweet (1845-1912), the inventor of the Current Shorthand (in his book “Primer of Phonetics”, 1890), which is not applied and therefore he is very angry. The same applies for his “Handbook of phonetics” which propagates a spelling reform in the sense that there must be more similarities between spelling and pronunciation. A precursor of Sweet was Alexander Melville Bell (1819-1905) who published his “visible speech” in 1867.
While he is taking notes of the pronunciation of Liza, a flower girl, prof.Higgins meets Colonel Pickering, who is also interested in linguistics.
Liza asks Higgins to teach her how to speak more decently. Higgins agrees because he considers it as a bet: he wants to introduce her at the ambassador’s ball in six months’ time as a duchess. Pickering will pay for the lessons. We also meet mrs.Pearce, the house-keeper, and Mr.Doolittle, Liza’s father, who asks some money to spend on alcohol. Higgins is pleased to give it to him because he thinks that this man has the most extraordinary views on morals.
A few months later Liza is tried out on the occasion of the homeday of mrs.Higgins (Henry’s mother). Besides Higgins and Pickering Mrs.Eynsford Hill, her daughter Clara and her son Freddy are present. Freddy is fond of Liza, but she doesn’t succeed in passing as a lady, though she speaks properly and is dressed well. However, the subjects of her conversation and certain words she uses cause great sensation. Still some time later at the ambassador’s ball however, with the help of Nepponsmuck, an Hungarian pupil of Higgins, she manages to convince those present that she is an Hungarian princess.
Liza leaves Higgins’ house after scolding him because of his selfishness. In the street she meets Freddy. They confess their love for each other.
Doolittle turns up to tell Higgins that an American millionnaire offered him enough money to live without having to work, just for giving lectures in morals. He’s now able to marry Liza’s stepmother. Liza shows up again and in a long dialogue the morality of the play is clearly revealed: Higgins treats everyone on the same (rather low) level (in contrast with Pickering) and Liza wants to receive some respect from him. Higgins replies that it was her own fault: she still acted like a flower-girl, so he couldn’t see the progress she had made. At the end we don’t know for certain if Eliza is going to leave Higgins again to marry Freddy, but it is assumed that it will happen this way.
This is indeed explained in a postscript by Shaw himself: Higgins had such an ideal mother that no woman could beat her in getting affections from him. Besides, his love for phonetics was an impediment for his sexual love. Shaw also reveals the rest of the story: after a honeymoon (payed by Pickering) Liza and Freddy open a flower-shop. Freddy’s mother doesn’t object, because even her daughter Clara is working! Both have to go to school however, because they can’t count very well and Higgins has to teach Liza how to write. Their quarrels go on forever, but in her dreams Liza imagines him while making love to her.
Ronny De Schepper
(*) His prefaces are always very important. The preface of “Androcles and the Lion” is on christianity for instance.