This is the last book I will finish in 2012 as there are only 6 hours remaining in my day. It is certainly a fitting book (or rather play inside a book) to end the year on. For Pygmalion
is a story about new beginnings and about transformation. What better book to symbolise the changing of the year, I say!
The classic musical My Fair Lady
is perhaps my favourite musical film that I have seen. The acting is superb, the plotting excellent and all the music serves to add to the humorous feel of the film. If you've seen My Fair Lady
the plot of Pygmalion
will not be too unfamiliar to you. It is the tale of one professor of phonetics by the name of Henry Higgins who makes a bet that he can transform a girl from the street, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman of breeding - a lady - simply by changing her vocabulary and language. Of course if you have seen the musical I must add that the ending in Pygmalion
is different, in a way that suits the differences apparent in the play.
The author of this play, George Bernard Shaw, is an interesting character. A man credited with wanting to use the intricacies of the English language to spell 'fish' as 'ghoti'. Which makes indefinitely more sense, who wouldn't want to catch a ghoti? I say 'credited' because various references indicate he likely did not come up with the idea in the first place. Bernard Shaw also won an oscar for the screenplay for My Fair Lady
, which makes the differences between the two very interesting to observe. However it is clear as to why Bernard Shaw, with his obsession with language, chose to write a play with a phonetician as its protagonist, something not often done in literature.
The two notable themes I observed in this play are the presence and power of language as it connects to everyday life and also the idea of responsibility for that which we create. This second idea is apparent in connection particularly to the various mythological and literary references visible in Pygmalion
Language, I have always believed, is power. It is the power to shape the world and change lives. If you've seen the incredible Dead Poets Society
you may remember (apart from 'carpe diem') the line about how language was made to 'woo women'. I believe language is far more than about romance or emotion however, though the idea in that line when expanded holds true: that language can influence people. Why else do we have the Biblical creation story where 'And God said "let there be light", and there was light.' (Genesis 1:3)? Why else do we have countless fairytales and fantasy stories where magic is produced through speaking language? Why do we find that the great leaders of all time were also great writers, thinkers and orators? Think of Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler, a man who manipulated people with words! It is because words, language, has power. Power to affect our thinking processes, those parts of us connected to language and which control us. Language is what truly separates us from animals in many ways.
language is shown in its transformative ability. The language of Liza Doolittle to begin with is atrocious and as such she belongs to the streets, selling flowers. Later she becomes a lady, largely thanks to the change of her vocabulary. It must also be noted, particularly in the garden party scene, how language among the upper classes is a thing of both culture and triviality. When Liza for a moment slips back into her street language the upper class gentry she is among think she is speaking with a new form of popular slang and though taken aback by her cursing something as 'bloody' consider this language progressive. Another instance of transformation is shown in Liza's father who has an eloquence with his tongue in regards to politics to begin with but later becomes a gentlemen because of this language ability.Literary ReferencesPygmalion
is full of references to literature. In particular John Milton's brilliant [b:Paradise Lost|15997|Paradise Lost|John Milton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309202847s/15997.jpg|1031493] (a must read for all literature lovers by the way), [b:Frankenstein|18490|Frankenstein|Mary Shelley|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1311647465s/18490.jpg|4836639] and the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. According to this myth Pygmalion was a sculptor who created the most beautiful and lifelike sculpture of a woman, having vowed he never would marry. He did however fall in love with this sculpture thanks to Venus (or Aphrodite depending on the version I suppose), who then conveniently transformed the statue into a real woman for Pygmalion to marry. Each of these stories have the main theme of the responsibility of the creator to the created. Paradise Lost
observes the relationship between God and his creations in Satan, Adam and Eve; Frankenstein
observes the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his creature; and the mythology of Pygmalion hints at the idea that it was Pygmalion's duty to look after Galatea (the statue) as a wife.
George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion
could be seen as a subtle subversion of the Pygmalion myth in how in the end Liza rejects her 'creator' though he has clearly fallen in love with her. It further suggests that there is a moral obligation for a creator to care for the thing he has created, in Henry Higgins' case he had a duty to Liza and one which in the play he fails at.ConclusionPygmalion
is a deep literary play which has fascinating themes about language and moral obligation. It is also a social critique (as the best plays, poems and novels are) challenging the way we live our lives. Though it is humorous and witty the most powerful aspect of this play is in how it reflects on our true reality, leading the audience to ultimately question 'who in the end is at fault?'