Do you remember the first time you read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion? Perhaps, like me, you too were just out of high school, taking a Theater Appreciation course. Pygmalion paired well with Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and so many other wonderful plays.
From that play, Eliza Doolittle is front-and-center in our thoughts. She’s introduced as “not at all a romantic figure,” but she soon she steals our hearts. We watch her transform from an ugly street urchin to a beautiful lady, of class and refinement. But, there’s also a very Faustian bargain in play. It was a deliberate bet, designed to prove a point — that Professor Henry Higgins could take the most lowly of human beings and transform her. He’d promised that he could improve her speech enough so that she’d be recognized as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.
It was no easy task, but Higgins In true Cinderella fashion, she comes into her own, falls in love, and becomes a “pillar of strength”. She’d wanted human kindness. Instead, she was a plaything, a statue to be molded into the facade of a “perfect” woman — fit, even, for a king.
Retake on Mythic Pygmalion
In ancient Greek myth (Ovid’s Metamorphoses), Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor, who falls in love with the statue of a woman he’d created out of ivory. Pygmalion offered tribute to Aphrodite, and then wished for a bride, who was “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” Of course, the goddess heard his prayer, and granted his wish.
Far from being made of ivory, Eliza is simply a flower girl — never expected to amount to much. In the end, though, she shows her inner strength, and she re-writes her own story — perhaps not in the way that we would have imagined, but certainly a metamorphosis that’s striking and unforgettable.