I watched My Fair Lady about twenty years ago and all I remember is that a linguistic professor taking in a common flower girl to teach her proper language and speech and to improve her behaviour so that she’ll become a lady. I didn’t know then that the musical was based on the play Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw. I acquired that knowledge very recently. I cannot remember many details of the musical, so the reading of the play was quite fresh.
Pygmalion, the play, is centered on Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, and Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl. Higgins makes it his “project” to reform Eliza and makes her a “duchess”. He is successful in his project but he must face certain consequences that were not anticipated.
Under this light storyline, Bernard Shaw exposes a few powerful themes. The major one is speech and language defects in the lower classes of English society. Eliza represents them. Her life story is a blatant example of the lives of men and women of the lower class. Their lack of education and inability to speak proper English made their life circumstances dire. They were confirmed to have very low jobs and to become even a shop assistant is beyond reach. Shaw advocates the value of education irrespective of gender.
Another is the class difference and attitude of the higher classes toward the low class. Professor Higgins represents a higher class. His treatment of Eliza and the likes generally shows that the class Higgins represents does not see the likes of Eliza as humans with feelings. They are only mere objects to be used and then sent to the “gutter” as Professor Higgins so shamelessly states.
Finally, Shaw addresses the issue of women’s position in English society. Eliza is a “project” for Higgins, and he keeps her in the house without any thought to her future. And when his “project” triumphs, all he does is to express his relief that it is all over. When Eliza is hurt and leaves the house, Higgins wants her back because he is “used to the sound of her voice and appearance”. Using the cold and snobbish character of Higgins, Shaw portrays how women are seen and viewed. In men’s eyes, they are nothing but objects to be possessed, used, abused, and manipulated. Higgins does not value Eliza. What is valuable to him is his creation, just like Pygmalion who loved the statue which he carved. Her leaving to find her independence and following her heart to be with the one who appreciates her is Shaw’s way of signifying the women’s emerging fight for independence.
Overall, this was an interesting play with witty dialogues, satire, and powerful themes. Simple writing and the light storyline made it very much fun to read.