Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Pygmalion Watch-a-thon: The Pygmalion of Ovid and Shaw

Welcome readers to the first installment of the Pygmalion Watch-a-thon series, where I break down adaptions and interpretations of George Bernard Shaw's famous play, Pygmalion. In past versions of this series, I didn't give much introduction to the works of literature themselves, which makes the assumption that you have either read the work in question or have at least heard of it. Here, I want us to start on almost the same playing field, or as close as possible.

That means before we can start watching some movies and tv shows related to Pygmalion, we need to talk about two topics: Ovid's "Pygmalion" and Shaw's Pygmalion. Since we must start at the beginning of all this, that means breaking out my copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses (a book I've referred to, but never read all the way through. Shame on me!). Here is one of the first prominent narrative iterations of the Pygmalion mythology.

In the narrative poem, Pygmalion is a sculptor disgusted with the "shameful lives" and "vices" present in all of the women around him. Basically, none of them meet his standards of behavior, so he chooses not to have any sort of involvement with women. Instead, he devotes himself to his art and makes "...an ivory statue,/As white as snow, and gave it greater beauty/Than any girl could have...The image seemed/That of a virgin, truly..." (Ovid's Metamorphoses. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Page 242).

Pygmalion and Galatea II: The Hand Refrains by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones 
You've probably noticed with words like "ivory," "white." and "virgin," Pygmalion's ideal version of beauty involves the purity he finds lacking in the flesh and blood women. Naturally, he falls in love with his own creation and treats the statue as if it were a real woman. He lavishes gifts and attention on the statue, but, of course, it's still just an ivory statue.

When a festival for Venus/Aphrodite arrives, Pygmalion makes an offering to the goddess and wishes that his future wife be like his statue. The goddess recognizes that Pygmalion's true wish is to have the statue as his wife. When Pygmalion returns, his touches and caresses appear to bring the statue to life, whose "...eyes open/At once on lover and heaven..." Notice how the two of those seem to exist on the same plane.
Pygmalion et Galatée by Jean-Léon Gérôme
The two conceive a daughter named Paphos and that's all Ovid writes. Later iterations of the myth give the statue/woman a name: Galatea. It's important to note that she doesn't have a name, or really any identity except in the eyes of her sculptor/lover. She doesn't just magically come to life all at once; it takes the attentions and ministrations of her creator to turn hard stone into yielding skin.

Shall we talk about George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion?


Many people are only familiar with Shaw's play through the lens of the Broadway play or the movie, My Fair Lady. In fact, the two are quite different. Summary time!! In Act I of the play, we are introduced to a rainy scene where all types of Londoners are gathered under a portico to seek shelter from the downpour. Amid the crowd are a mother and daughter waiting for the son to get them a taxi. In his rush, he collides with a flower girl, who berates "Freddy," about not watching where he's headed. Turns out the son's actual name is Freddy and the mother pays the Flower Girl to tell her how she knows her son's name. She doesn't know the son because Freddy is just a slang term for a man. It's important to note the slovenly appearance of the Flower Girl as well as her Cockney English.

Meanwhile, a gentleman arrives and the Flower Girl tries to get him to buy some of her wares, but a bystander tells everyone to be careful because there is a man writing down what everyone says. The Flower Girl freaks out thinking the man is a policeman and that she is under suspicion. Turns out "The Note Taker" is just interested in phonetics and places everyone's hometowns based on their speech. The Note Taker makes an outlandish claim that he could pass the Flower Girl off as a duchess under his phonetics expertise. The Gentleman and the Note Taker share this interest in the art of speech and decide to spend supper together, but not before the Note Taker gives the Flower Girl some of the coins from his pocket.

Around this point our cast of characters are better identified. The Gentleman is Colonel Pickering, The Note Taker is Professor Henry Higgins, and The Flower Girl is Eliza Doolittle. 

In Act II, the play intros with Higgins and Pickering, who are interrupted with Eliza's arrival. She has come to request lessons from Higgins because she hopes speaking in a more genteel manner will help her establish a flower shop rather than selling on street corners. At first, they seem resistant to the idea until Higgins and Pickering place a bet with each other that they can pass her off as a duchess at the Ambassador's upcoming party. This exchange is peppered with a number of insults lobbed at Eliza by Higgins, whereas Pickering treats "Miss Doolittle" with a modicum of respect. After a bit of hesitancy, Eliza agrees and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza upstairs for a bath and a change of clothes. 

Meanwhile, Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle makes an appearance. He sees an opportunity here to make some money and requests 5 pounds from the men for his cooperation in their bet. Alfred makes it a point to note that he isn't looking to use the money to better his social position. He just wants it to spend aimlessly on food and alcohol. Higgins is immensely intrigued by the man's rhetoric and gives him the money. Eliza returns downstairs after her bath and her father doesn't even recognize her. Shaw ends the Act with a small scene revealing the type of training that Eliza receives under Higgins' tutelage. That is to say Higgins' impatience and rude demeanor make it difficult and tear-filled for 
Eliza.

In Act III, Higgins decides to have a test run with the newly trained Eliza at his mother's "At-Home Day." Mrs. Higgins rejects this idea because Professor Higgins always seems to upset her guests with his poor manners, not to mention she has some qualms about this bet. At this point, Mrs, Miss, and Mr Eynsford Hill arrive effectively silencing Mrs. Higgins. The three of them are identified as the same family from Act I and Eliza engages them in conversation. Despite having near perfect pronunciation, Eliza tells a rather uncouth story about how her Aunt died of influenza, but the family circulates rumors that she may have been killed. In this moment of hilarity, it's revealed that Eliza needs a bit more training, but Freddy is inexplicably enamored by her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Higgins again voices her reservations about the men treating Eliza like their "living doll" and inquires what should happen to Eliza after this experiment is over.  

Next we fast forward to the party, where the bet is won or lost. The trio run into one of Higgins' old pupils, Nepommuck, who uses his phonetics knowledge for his own gain by blackmailing those who wish to keep their backgrounds a secret. Eliza seems to impress everyone and the hostess tasks Nepommuck to find out who Eliza is. He insists she speaks English too perfectly to be an Englishwoman and proclaims that she is a Hungarian Princess. With this triumph, the trio leaves the party.

On to Act IV! When the three return, the two men pride themselves on their success and talk about how relieved they are that the experiment is over. They give no praise or attention to Eliza and she silently gets more upset as the conversation continues. The two retire leaving a very hurt Eliza behind. When Higgins returns looking for his slippers, she flings them at his face. The two get into an argument where Eliza reveals that she's worried about her uncertain future. Now she is no longer fit to run a flower shop and has no place now that the bet is finished. She almost regrets the whole endevour. After Eliza asks if the clothes are her's to keep, Higgins returns upstairs for the night, angry and upset. Eliza collects her belongings and leaves, but, in the process, she runs into Freddy, who reveals his feelings for her. The two leave together in a taxi.

Now time to finish everything up in Act V. Higgins and Pickering return to Mrs. Higgins' residence upset at the realization that Eliza went missing/ran away in the middle of the night. The group is interrupted with the arrival of Alfred Doolittle, who is a changed man thanks to the casual word of Higgins. Turns out Higgins mentioned Alfred to a millionaire trying to form moralist reform societies, calling Doolittle, "the original moralist." As a result, the man left Doolittle a living with the stipulation that he give lectures. Now family have come out of the wood-works after Doolittle's money and he will shortly be getting married, much to his displeasure. 

It turns out that Eliza has been at Mrs. Higgins' all along. She reveals herself to the men and thanks Pickering for the respect he has shown her throughout the experience. She and Higgins subsequently get into another argument. He wants her to return and live with him, but she refuses. She points out that he's consistently rude and doesn't treat her with any respect. Instead, she prefers the kindness and respect that a life with Freddy might offer her. After Eliza stands up to Higgins, they all leave to attend Alfred's wedding and the play ends with Higgins telling Eliza to pick up some items before she returns. Then he laughs over the thought of Eliza marrying Freddy. The play ends ambiguously with no outright indication whether Eliza will marry Freddy or return to Higgins.

Whoa! I think it's time for a break after that.


Now that I've had a mental break and some snacks, it's time to tackle some important themes as well as talk about how Shaw's play re-imagines the Pygmalion myth. Right from the beginning of Act I, you can tell that Shaw's play has a social critique built right into it. Our characters are not immediately identified by their names, but by their social positions. Not to mention that society places you in your social class based on wealth, behavior, and, most importantly here, appearance. 

From the get go Shaw makes sure you know that the unnamed Flower Girl's clothes and hair are dirty and that she is in bad need of a dentist. Mrs. Eynsford Hill is quick to give Eliza money after she uses her son's name because she's worried that her son might be associating with the lower classes of society. Such an association would damage her position as well. That same social critique continues when you learn that Mrs. Eynsford Hill keeps up the appearance of a wealthy existence, but behind that facade, the family is actually not that wealthy anymore.

Alfred Doolittle's transformation illustrates how all of those factors that make up social class are intertwined. As a member of the lower classes, Doolittle relishes the freedom that a poor life gives him. His behavior is relatively ungoverned and the money that he obtains is his to waste. Once he finds himself a moderately wealthy man, now he must act in an appropriate manner befitting that wealth.

The problem with Eliza is that her appearance and manners have been molded to suit an upper class existence. While she had eyes on a middle class living as a lady running a flower shop, she has the comportment of a Princess or a Duchess. Her worry is well founded near the end of the play because this new physical transformation leaves her without a solid place in society. 

The question is how does Ovid's Pygmalion factor into all of this? I mean it is the title of the play. In simplistic terms, Professor Henry Higgins is our Pygmalion equivalent and Eliza is his Galatea. As with great works of literature, nothing is ever that simple. 

Shaw's work seems to hint that his version of Pygmalion, and even to an extent the mythical Pygmalion is flawed. When Higgins is introduced, it isn't a positive portrayal. He's described as an unfeeling and uncaring scientific type and even like a "very impetuous baby." He's a man with a rampant ego and no consideration for others. His phonetics study/art consumes his life. Like our original Pygmalion, Higgins does not have any involvement with women. At one point, the play mentions that any woman he would be involved with could never compare with the paragon that is his mother, Mrs. Higgins. Higgins doesn't treat women as his equals, particularly Eliza. 

While Ovid's Pygmalion doesn't outright claim ownership over Galatea, her very existence is wrapped up in his desire and her position as the object of affection to his devoted lover. Here Eliza is her own independent person and therefore not completely governable by Higgins. He sees her complete identity as a manifestation of his work and tries to claim ownership of her. At one point he argues that he put all the ideas in her head and the words in her mouth. 

In contrast, Shaw shows us that while Higgins may be the Pygmalion figure, he is not the sole creator of his Galatea. First, there is the unquestionable fact that Eliza already has her own established identity before Higgins. Her transformation changes how other people perceive her and was originally intended for her own gain. Let us not overlook the fact that Higgins isn't her only agent of transformation. Mrs. Peace is actually our first Pygmalion figure. She's the one to enact the initial physical transformation by taking Eliza up for a bath and she's the one who attempts to keep Higgins' civility towards Eliza in check. Our other Pygmalion figure can be found in Colonel Pickering, whose money funds this transformation, but also whose courteousness and kindness makes Eliza realize she deserves to be treated with respect. At one point, even Mrs. Higgins points out that part of Higgins' triumph is due to his dressmakers. 

At the end of the play, Shaw's decision to make Eliza's future ambiguous signals that his Galatea has recognized her freedom to choose her future. She doesn't have an obligation to be tied down with her supposed creator. I have a real appreciation for this ending, but it turns out that not many other people who chose to adapt the play did. Here Shaw denies the mythical Pygmalion ending as well as the cliched romantic ending that people come to expect and be comforted by.

In fact, Shaw became so annoyed that his ending was warped to have Eliza end up with Higgins that he wrote an afterward to the play clearing up Eliza's future. So much for that nice ending. There he makes it completely known that it never made sense for Eliza to return to a life with Higgins. Instead, she does decide to marry Freddy and they agree to open a shop together. Turns out all that phonetics training didn't prepare Eliza for the reality of running a business and her and Freddy end up taking business classes. 

Eliza may have ended up trapping herself in a different marriage, but at least it's a life she's chosen for herself. As Shaw puts it most eloquently: "Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable." What a contrast to Ovid's Galatea, who sees both her lover and the heavens as equal.  

  
After all that, we are finally done!! Everyone still with me?? I hope this rather laborious post gave you a better sense of Pygmalion and of Shaw's play. While this is in no way comprehensive, I think I've created a great starting point for my brand new Watch-a-thon series and it'll make my future posts much more accessible.You know what this means?! It's now time for me break out some popcorn, sit myself in front of the fan, and watch some movies. Now I have an excuse to tell myself when I want to stay inside and be a hermit. See you back here for the next installment in the series!