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by Bernard Shaw

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"Ever since Pygmalion opened in London in April 1914 it has proved a very controversial play, from the (then) shocking language, to arguments about its correct ending. Critical interpretations have been similarly disputatious, encompassing views of the transformation of the impoverished Eliza Doolittle by phonetics expert Henry Higgins as either a story of economic…  See more details below


"Ever since Pygmalion opened in London in April 1914 it has proved a very controversial play, from the (then) shocking language, to arguments about its correct ending. Critical interpretations have been similarly disputatious, encompassing views of the transformation of the impoverished Eliza Doolittle by phonetics expert Henry Higgins as either a story of economic and social liberation, or an example of the perpetuation of male control and self-interest." This new edition of Pygmalion includes George Bernard Shaw's definitive text, with both Preface and Sequel, and provides the most comprehensive scholarly treatment of the play to date.

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Galatea Talks Back

The original story of Pygmalion is drawn from Greek mythology. A sculptor who mistrusted the virtue of women, Pygmalion kept to himself, devoting himself to his art. One day he created a statue of a woman. She was so beautiful, and the sculptor so lonely, that he fell in love with his creation and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to give him a wife who resembled the statue. Instead, the goddess brought the statue itself to life. The ancient writer Apollodorus, telling his earlier version of the myth, called this statue-turned-woman Galatea.

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is a modern-day retelling of this myth that transforms Galatea from a silent statue to a vibrantly independent woman who talks back to the very teacher who criticizes her speech. Shaw's Galatea, Eliza Doolittle, is a spirited working girl who, in learning to speak like a duchess, displays a fierce intelligence and independence. But Shaw had another reason for writing Pygmalion, one that brought him much closer to its mythic origins: his unconsummated passion for the actress Mrs. Patrick (Stella) Campbell. He had seen Campbell play Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet fifteen years earlier, and had vowed, like Henry Higgins, to teach that "rapscallionly flower girl" something. It was with the vision of Stella Campbell before him — the infinitely moldable yet independent actress — that he created Eliza Doolittle. On an afternoon in June 1912, he read Pygmalion aloud to Mrs. Campbell, and by his own account fell in love with her. In a characteristically unsentimental touch, he confessedthat this mad love lasted for "very nearly 36 hours," but when the play opened in London in 1914, Stella Campbell played Eliza despite being thirty years older than the character.

Shaw's feelings for his two main characters were complicated. Henry Higgins is not unlike Shaw himself — brilliant, articulate, and more passionate about his work than anything else. Like Shaw, he is unusually close to his mother and largely uninterested in romance. He can be charming when he wants something, but when he doesn't get what he wants, he can be petulant, arrogant, and bullying. Though it's clear by the end of the play that Higgins is attached to Eliza, he absolutely refuses to make any declaration of love to her. Like Pygmalion, Higgins congratulates himself on "creating" a woman, but unlike the lovelorn sculptor, he refuses to treat her any better than he treats anyone else.

By the time Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912, he had already produced his incisive comedies Mrs. Warren's Profession and Major Barbara. Though they punctured pretension and exposed hypocrisy with typical Shavian wicked wit, high intellectual passion, and boundless energy, their initial reception by English critics was cool. Having observed that it was only after his plays became successes in Europe that the English came to appreciate them, Shaw produced Pygmalion in Vienna and Berlin in 1913 before trying it out in London. After its production there in 1914, it became one of Shaw's most popular and frequently produced plays. The 1938 film version gave the play a wider audience and won an Academy Award for its script (cowritten by Shaw). Today Shaw's play is probably best known as the basis for the musical My Fair Lady, a huge success on Broadway and, later, as a Hollywood film starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza. Had Shaw lived to see it, it is doubtful he would have approved of the musical and its sentimental romantic ending. To return to the original is slightly shocking. Despite the enormous changes in women's status and the conventions of romantic love, it remains stubbornly complex, teasing and troubling to us, even in the midst of our laughter.

The Life and Work of George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856. In 1872 his mother left his father and took their two daughters to London to live with her music teacher. Shaw stayed in Dublin and left school at fifteen to work as a junior clerk in an office. At twenty, Shaw joined his mother in London, where he lived in poverty for ten years and educated himself in the reading room of the British Museum. He wrote five unsuccessful novels and began to ghostwrite music criticism. He later calculated that during those years he made a grand total of £10 (about ฮ) from writing.

Finally, during the 1880s, he made a name for himself as a critic of music, art, and the theater. As a drama critic, Shaw attacked the fashionable plays of the time. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) he championed their shocking alternative: the work of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose plays critiqued the hypocrisy of middle-class life. Shaw's politics at the time were radical: he became a vegetarian, a socialist, and a supporter of women's rights. He was also an early member of the Fabian Society, a group of middle-class socialists who advocated peaceful change rather than revolution. Shaw became a powerful activist for this cause, in such volumes as Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889).

Influenced by Ibsen, Shaw produced his first play, Widowers' Houses, in 1892. His next play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, was a sharp comedy about a wealthy woman who had made her fortune as a prostitute; the play examined the hypocrisy of powerful men who condemn prostitutes but use their services. Written in 1893, the play was performed until 1902. In the meantime, Shaw began an extraordinary run of plays that wittily and unflinchingly dissected the fundamental assumptions of his time, including Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1895), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), and Major Barbara (1905), among many others. Shaw wrote over fifty plays during his long and prolific life. By the time he wrote Pygmalion, his twenty-eighth, he was the leading British playwright of his time.

Shaw's private life remains a puzzle to his critics and biographers. Devoted to his mother, his relationships with other women were at best ambiguous. He lost his virginity at age 29, when he was seduced by a widow fifteen years his senior, but he remained seemingly uninterested in sex. Though he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress, in 1898, their marriage was celibate. Over the years he carried on several intense platonic infatuations including those with the famous actresses Ellen Terry and Stella Campbell.

World War I started a few months after the opening of Pygmalion, and Shaw, a pacifist, devoted much of his energy to antiwar activities. His first major play after the war, Heartbreak House (1920), was highly critical of the generation that had led Britain into war. In 1920, inspired by the sainthood of Joan of Arc, he wrote Saint Joan (1923), which he considered his best play. He continued to write plays and deliver opinionated talks and screeds until his death. In 1928 he published The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, and in 1949, he published a puppet play, Shakes versus Shav, a humorous competition between himself and William Shakespeare. After the death of his wife in 1943, he moved to his country home at Ayot St. Lawrence, where he died at the age of 94 on November 2, 1950, after a fall in his garden.

Historical and Literary Context of Pygmalion

The Pygamalion Myth and Modern Theater

The Pygmalion story was well known to British audiences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It had been used in William Morris's poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870) and the comedy Pygmalion and Galatea (1871) by W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan). There were also a number of contemporary melodramas about the transformation of working-class girls into ladies, particularly Dion Boucicault's Grimaldi; or the Life of an Actress (first produced in London in 1862), about an old actor named Grimaldi who trains a Covent Garden flower girl to be an actress. These musical and melodramatic versions of the story were typical of late Victorian dramatic fare. Shaw's version of the story, however, was deeply influenced by the new theater of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the acknowledged father of modern drama, who rejected melodrama and sentimentality in favor of starkly realistic and often tragic stories of middle-class life. Shaw was a champion of Ibsen's work during its long climb out of censorship and scandal, and claimed that seeing an Ibsen play was the thing that made him realize he was meant to write plays. Thus did Shaw's Galatea become a modern working-class girl and his Pygmalion a snob who refuses to fall in love with the woman he claims to have created.

High Society

In Shaw's contemporary early twentieth-century London setting, rigid class distinctions were still observed: although rich young men might be educated for the professions, many still believed themselves superior to those who earned their living in business or "trade." Even in families such as the Eynsford-Hills in Pygmalion, whose inherited wealth had dwindled away, no one thought it necessary to train their children for gainful employment. Instead, they clung to privileges and activities they couldn't really afford, such as attending concerts, the theater, and any "at home" afternoons or formal dinners to which they could get invited. Rich women like Mrs. Higgins dressed in elaborate, expensive clothing and favored an overabundance of household decoration. There was little freedom and ease in social relations, and the upper classes showed little or no interest in considering the economics of life or in facing unpleasant facts. It was against this snobbery and willful ignorance that Shaw directed his satire. He set out to prove that high society, with its arbitrary standards of conduct, could be fooled into thinking Eliza a duchess merely because of her speech and appearance.

Language and Language Reform

Pygmalion is, in no small part, informed by the debates of Shaw's day regarding the uses and misuses of the English language. Eliza makes her living selling flowers on the street, largely, say Higgins and Shaw both, because of her Cockney accent. (A Cockney was originally someone from the East End of London, but over time the term has come to refer to any working-class resident of London.) Eliza is barred by her vulgar speech from securing a job in a flower shop, which would be a step up for her. In the Britain of 1912 her outburst in Act III — "Not bloody likely!" — was shockingly strong language, and certainly not acceptable in a fashionable Chelsea drawing room. For the first British audiences of the play, it was a jaw-dropper, one Shaw had to fight for with many arguments about dramatic impact and realism.

Shaw also used Pygmalion to pursue his lifelong interest in phonetics and the reform of spelling. Convinced that the alphabet of twenty-six letters did not accurately represent all the sounds of the language, he devised a New Alphabet, in which each letter stood for only one sound. He never succeeded in persuading anyone to adopt his plan, but he continued to air his opinions on language reform regularly throughout his long career.

The Working Class

Pygmalion reflects Shaw's interest as an activist in the welfare of the poor. By 1912, some of the worst exploitative practices of the Industrial Revolution were coming to a close and conditions for the working class had greatly improved, but they still had few advantages. Eliza's slum lodgings, for example, have no heat or hot water. When we first meet her she has never had a complete bath, and has never worn anything to bed other than her underwear. Like many girls of her class and circumstance, she was sent out to earn her own living as soon as she completed her meager nine years of compulsory schooling.

Indeed, although the play remains as witty and entertaining as ever, many of the conditions it describes have changed. World War I had a cataclysmic effect on British culture and the British class system. Partly as a result of the sacrifice of millions of working-class men and women during the war, changes in British life improved the opportunities of the poor. After years of struggle (supported by Shaw, among many others), British women over thirty won the right to vote in 1918, the last year of the war. Ten years later the vote was extended to women over twenty-one. And the new Labour Party (which Shaw helped found in 1900) gave the working class a powerful political voice. Class distinctions remain important in Britain, but these days, a twenty-first-century woman of Eliza's drive and intelligence has fewer obstacles to her success, no matter what her background is. She might still accept the help of a Henry Higgins, and be grateful to him for it, but would a modern Eliza put up with his bullying and condescension and petulance? Not bloody likely.

Supplementary materials copyright © 2005 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Pygmalion 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 50 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In George Bernard Shaw¿s Pygmalion, the storyline centers around three main characters: Eliza Doolittle, Professor Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering. Eliza Doolittle is a flower girl who gives herself to the tutelage of Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering to learn proper grammar and phonetics. Eliza can be characterized as a very sensitive and emotional person she seeks to be treated like a duchess by men. Her personality clashes with the personality of Professor Higgins in an extreme way. Professor Higgins is an arrogant, work-obsessed expert in phonetics who views Eliza simply as an experiment. He is a bachelor who has never found a place for women in his life due to his obsession with language. Colonel Pickering is a gentleman from India who is also an expert in language. He is more genteel than Higgins and treats Eliza with respect while maintaining a professional interest in her similar to that of Higgins. These three comprise the main action of the novel as Eliza learns speech of the upper class from them. She manages to pass herself off as a Hungarian princess at a formal party. This achievement gives credence to the efforts of Higgins and Pickering. After experiencing life in the upper class, Eliza settles for a lower class life with a suitor who loves her for what she is. After petty disputes, Eliza and Higgins remain friends in the time after. Other memorable characters include Mrs. Higgins who maintains an authoritative figure over her grown son and Mr. Doolittle who rises from a dustman to become a well-respected speaker in the community. I think that this is a good book because it shows that happiness can be achieved without wealth and fame. I highly recommend it due to its emphasis on grammatical and phonetic correctness, a dying art in this time period.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found Pygmalion to be a charming novel full of wit and feeling. Eliza Doolittle becomes empowered through self-respect, not the love of a man. Though Professor Henry Higgins altered her mannerisms and speech, it was ultimately Eliza’s inner strength that made her a lady. Her realization that before the glamorous dresses and elaborate diction, she was the girl she wished to be inevitably gave her a new sense of independence and self-respect. “Pygmalion” is not merely a play about turning an impoverished flower girl into a duchess, but one about turning a defensive and insecure girl into a confident, strong, and independent woman, through means unforeseen until the very end. It was not the glamorous transformation, but the inner sense of self-worth that changed Eliza for the better. For once the heroine does not fall for the hero, and instead makes her own independent and love-filled ending. All in all, I found George Bernard Shaw's play to be enjoyable and meaningful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I was in second grade, one of my grandmother's friends gave this book to me as a birthday present. I read it that year and have been reading it ever since. I am obsessed. I have 5 versions of the play, an illustrated classic, the movie, and the soundtrack. ( My Fair Lady ) In am in fifth grade and Eliza Doolittle is one of my favorite characters of all time. The story has effected me in more ways that I can count. So loverly. There is one version that I have of the MUSICAL. have no idea how my mother found it, but it is the entire thing with the songs and the lyrics. It is one of my most prized posessions. My favorite songin the musical is... I Could Have Danced All Night. It is so beautiful. The enchanting Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison captured the role of Eliza and Professor Higgins beautifully. Then later, the fabulous Audrey Hepburn took the role of Eliza in the film version of brilliant Bernard's play. It's no wonder why Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn were chosen for the role of Mrs. Doolittle they are so talented and where absolutely perfect for the role.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just long enough for my taste in plays. Easy read. Last segment is windy, but necessary to conclude right.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Crisp copy that had everything you needed for the piece of work. It was an assignment, so not my personal favorite read, but the seller got it to me on time and in great condition. Thank you!
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likesgoodbooks More than 1 year ago
Is there a lot in this play! Great characters, nuances, commentary on the English and their class system... some funny comments and a lot more.
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I loved reading and devouring this book. At first, I saw the chance to read Pygmalion as a dull and monotone way of absorbing information during the two month summer. However, the book was easily read with addictive characters, inspiring feats, and unexcpected romance. I hope that people will look past the fact that they were assigned to read the book and enjoy it as much as I had cherished it. I would definitely recomend to readers with the love of English. Otherwise, they might find it dull.
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