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Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw was first published in 1914, with an updated version published in 1941. The play was Shaw’s most popular and most critically acclaimed work. It inspired the heavily romanticized musical and movie adaptation My Fair Lady, which won both a Tony for Best Musical and an Oscar for Best Picture.
Shaw began his career as a novelist, but his novels were largely unsuccessful. After he moved from Dublin to London, he shifted to theater and wrote more than 60 plays. He won the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity,” in the words of the selection committee. Throughout his plays, he often incorporated satire and sought to bring realism and contemporary social issues to English theater.
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This guide uses the 2009 Simon and Schuster Enriched Classic book, which uses the 1941 play text. Shaw had a lifelong contempt for apostrophes, as he finds them unnecessary. Many editions, including the one used for this study guide, respect this choice and use apostrophes only as Shaw indicated.
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On the portico of St. Paul’s Church, various people huddle from the rain. Initially identified only by descriptive titles, the people are of various classes. Among these people, it is later revealed, are Professor Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering, Eliza Doolittle, and the Eynsford Hill family. Freddy Eynsford Hill bumps into Eliza, prompting her to yell at him in her Cockney accent. She then attempts to sell Pickering her flowers. The crowd worries that Higgins is a police informant because of his constant note-taking, and they move to protect Eliza from being arrested. To calm the crowd, Higgins demonstrates his linguistic skills. Higgins and Pickering discover their shared interest in phonetics, leading Higgins to brag that he could pass off someone as low as Eliza the flower girl as a duchess. The rain ends, and the crowd disperses.
The next morning, Eliza goes to Higgins’s laboratory on Wimpole Street. She solicits him to teach her how to speak like a lady so she can get a job at a flower shop. While he initially mocks her, Higgins eventually considers the offer as a showcase for his own skills. Pickering encourages him by reiterating the bet and agreeing to cover the experiment’s costs if Higgins can successfully pass Eliza off as a duchess. Higgins agrees, and Eliza is taken by his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, to be cleaned and given new clothes. Eliza’s absentee father, Alfred Doolittle, appears and demands the return of his daughter. Higgins agrees to send her back, forcing Doolittle to reveal his real intention to get money from Higgins. Doolittle’s unusual rhetoric amuses Higgins, who offers to give him extra money. Doolittle rejects it, as the extra money will come with responsibilities. When Eliza returns to the room, clean and dressed in a kimono, the men fail to recognize her.
Over the next few months, Higgins teaches Eliza to speak formal English. Higgins tests her progress by having her go to his mother’s house. Mrs. Higgins is having her day for social visits, so Eliza also meets the Eynsford Hill family. The son, Freddy, is instantly attracted to her. When the visit ends, Higgins asks for his mother’s opinion. She says that Eliza sounds and looks more like a duchess, but the content of her speech and her manners are still unconvincing. Mrs. Higgins also worries about what will happen once the experiment is over. Months later, the ambassador’s ball arrives, and Eliza’s second test begins. She is so convincing that even a linguistic expert, Nepommuck, is deceived.
Returning home after the party, Higgins and Pickering are bored with the project and ready to move on. They ignore Eliza, not once thanking or praising her. Eliza’s feelings are hurt. In a rage, she throws Higgins’s slippers at him. She does not know what will become of her. In response, Higgins suggests she marry someone. Eliza is insulted and returns the borrowed jewelry. She packs her things and leaves. Outside, she meets Freddy, and they begin their romantic relationship.
The next morning, Higgins and Pickering rush to Mrs. Higgins’s house in a panic. Despite their fight last night, Higgins is shocked that Eliza ran away and is searching desperately for her. In the midst of their panic, Alfred Doolittle appears, dressed in fancy wedding clothes. Doolittle is now unhappily rich, as a recently deceased philanthropist took Higgins’s joke about Doolittle’s original morality seriously. Eliza enters and thanks Pickering for treating her like a lady. She then threatens Higgins with working for his rival so that she can support herself. Doolittle, Mrs. Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza leave to attend Doolittle’s wedding. As they exit, Higgins shouts errands at Eliza, as he is sure she will return to live with him. The play ends without confirming what Eliza does.
By George Bernard Shaw