George Bernard Shaw’s iconic play, Pygmalion, lives up to its reputation as a tongue-in-cheek play that reflects on English society. Plus, it has the bonus of being tied to the wonderful Audrey Hepburn and its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady (which I will admit, I’ve never actually seen).

When a professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, comes across a poor, Cockney flowergirl, Eliza Doolittle, he makes a bet with his equally wealthy friend, Pickering – he believes that with the correct training and right clothes he can pass Doolittle off as a duchess within six months.

Shaw is definitively poking fun throughout Pygmalion at the rigid class system that England continues to upload – it doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, it’s all about the accent and where you were born. While in basic terms it seems preposterous, class distinction remains to this day – after all, does the Royal Family and the House of Lords ring a bell for anyone?

However, it is the somewhat subtler references that Shaw makes to women’s independence that took Pygmalion from a witty place to something a bit more. While Eliza is beautiful, and definitely likes to speak her mind, her desires, beliefs and actions matter little to Higgins when he has won his bet. After all, as long as a woman looks good and doesn’t embarrass a man, does she need do or be anything else? I loved that Shaw went against this commonly held belief, even more apparent in the upper classes, and created a character that was feisty and basically didn’t give a damn about what Higgins thought of her. Sure, this meant she ended up in hot water fairly frequently, but it still more accurate of how a woman thinks and feels than the typical representation of them in early twentieth-century literature written by males.

While Pygmalion is probably now known more for its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady (the Audrey Hepburn effect after all), it is apparent why Shaw is well-known to most (or at least well-known to those who occasionally read). His writing was clear, concise and moved at a distinct pace – though he left many things out of the plot, it was for the benefit of the reader, and for the flow of the storyline. In Pygmalion he has created a trio of characters that, while over-the-top, were also rather accurate caricatures of their class. Lastly, his wonderful wit, so dazzlingly dry and ironic, reinforced why English literature is considered, perhaps, the very best – or perhaps it simply appeals to me because I’m Australian, where we love poking fun at the big guy.

Have you read Pygmalion or seen My Fair Lady? Are you a fan of George Bernard Shaw? Let me know!

pygmalion by george bernard shaw

Pygmalion – (image taken from http://www.bp.blogspot.com)

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