Friday, May 10, 2013

Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw

“Art should never be anything else”

Pygmalion, the timeless classic by George Bernard Shaw, is mercifully left out of all the intimidating should-read lists one finds on the Internet. Some of us know this as My-Fair-Lady[1]-without-the-songs. I, for instance, have grown up with the songs from My Fair Lady on my ears.

That was probably why I picked up Pygmalion in the first place. I did not particularly enjoy the musical version of it, could not find any timelessness about it and wondered why generations of theatre groups produced it over and over again. Being a play, it wasn’t to be found on any should-read lists, as I’ve already said. And yet, it is acknowledged as Bernard Shaw’s best work; and passed on from hand to hand as a must-read.

George Bernard Shaw - The Writer
Superficially, it is another story of another whimsical Englishman (a linguist and phonetician, in this case) who, on a bet, picks up a Cockney flower girl in order to improve her speech and to pass her off as a Duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. Very reminiscent of that other book – Around the World in Eighty Days – but infinitely more enjoyable. This has probably got something to do with the fact that our writer was Irish, while the other’s was French.

So, we are introduced to some of the strongest characters in English literature – Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle (who kicks ass of the other Eliza[2] – the Bennet sister, yes). Professor Higgins comes across as a character we all can recognize, being IITians.  Steeped to the gills with passion for his subject (phonetics) and Miltonic poetry, he is unmindful of the people around him, or their feelings. His diversions (he often interrupts others in their speech, and talks of something quite unrelated) make particularly fun reading. Shaw, in fact, describes him as an overgrown baby!
When, in a later Act, Mrs Higgins – his mother – is introduced, you can recognize some of these traits as inherited. Take for instance, the following witty exchange between Henry Higgins and his mother:
HIGGINS. Oh, I can't be bothered with young women. My idea of a loveable woman is something as like you as possible. I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women: some habits lie too deep to be changed. [Rising abruptly and walking about, jingling his money and his keys in his trouser pockets] Besides, they're all idiots.
MRS. HIGGINS. Do you know what you would do if you really loved me, Henry?
HIGGINS. Oh bother! What? Marry, I suppose?
MRS. HIGGINS. No. Stop fidgeting and take your hands out of your pockets.

A still from the musical, with Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle
Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl, has a learning arc. She starts out as a miserable street-girl; and with the Professor’s lessons on speech, develops a much more sombre character – the archetypal taken-for-granted woman. In a scene filled with brilliant action and war-of-words alike, she throws the Professor’s slippers at his face. Her dialogues are strongly-pitched; and she makes an able rival to the Professor near the end of the play, where she claims that she doesn’t need the Professor anymore, and can sustain herself by giving speech-lessons to others, now that she has mastered the art herself.

The other characters in the play are equally riveting. You’ve got Colonel Pickering, the perfect gentleman; Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father; Mrs Pierce, Higgins’ housekeeper; and Mrs Higgins, his mother. While Colonel Pickering serves more as a compare-and-contrast to the Professor (he’s the one who makes the wager, by the way), Alfred Doolittle’s outbursts on middle class morality are both, entertaining and eye-opening. One of the famous exchanges from this play is when Colonel Pickering asks him, “Have you no morals, man?” and Doolittle replies, “Can’t afford them, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me”

Another still from the musical – the scene following the ambassador’s garden party – showing the complete transformation of Eliza Doolittle
Mrs Pierce, the housekeeper, is an example of the Professor’s ability to cling onto women, like a child to its nurse. Mrs Higgins’ character gives an insight to the Professor’s childhood; and her monologue, “Men, men, men!”, conjures images of a strong woman (the best kind there is, when it comes to Literature).

The play has several themes. One is, whether Education does in fact leave you better off than before. Another theme is that of class conflict – Shaw’s favourite (he was a proud Fabian[3]). And finally, the one corresponding to the Title – what should a teacher’s feelings be towards the pupil, when the teacher has rendered himself redundant, after the process of education is completed. Pygmalion, it transpires, is the name of a mythological sculptor who fell in love with a woman he’d carved out of ivory. However, beware: Shaw does not intend the two main characters of his play, to fall in love. He clearly states in the epilogue that it is impossible.

That is where the musical, My Fair Lady, fails – it ends with the romantic but flawed ending, with the Professor and Eliza heading for the altar. (In my opinion, even the Bennet Eliza[2], and Mr Darcy, could never have fallen in love. Admiration and respect, yes; Love, no!)

Then of course, making a musical out of it, drowns the excellent verbal music that Shaw’s writing has. Shaw’s prose is like water cascading off a precipice; each scene crescendoing and receding like a perfect symphony. I would have quoted him to show you what I mean, but I would rather have you read the real thing itself.

It is short and yet, has incredible depth. It is British and yet, very modern. It is entertaining and yet, very didactic. But then, as Shaw himself claims, “art should never be anything else”. I couldn’t agree more.

-- Contributed by Udit Mavinkurve