by Pericles Lewis

George Bernard Shaw’s best-known work, Pygmalion (1913), premiered in Vienna in German translation before shocking the London theater world with Eliza Doolittle’s exclamation “not bloody likely.” It features the Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins, who transforms the flower-girl Eliza into a duchess by teaching her how to enunciate. Here, the worldly wisdom is distributed more widely among the characters. Although a classic Cinderella-style marriage plot is anticipated, Eliza will not be seduced by the brilliance of her mentor and winds up marrying the upper-class twit Freddy Eynsford-Hill instead. Her father, Alfred P. Doolittle, seems most successful at gaming the system. A self-proclaimed specimen of the “undeserving poor,” he manages to make a good life for himself by becoming respectable and preaching about his repentance. Brecht, a playwright of ideas who greatly admired Shaw, seems to have drawn aspects of the beggar king Mr. Peachum, in The Threepenny Opera, from such Shavian models. Like Brecht’s ballad opera, Pygmalion achieved great fame. In the musical version, My Fair Lady (1956; filmed in 1964), the conventional happy ending is provided: Eliza stays with Higgins. Shaw’s social critique is entirely muted in the play’s more distant progeny, the Hollywood comedy Pretty Woman (1990).[1]

  1. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 202.