How Pygmalion went from feminist manifesto to chick flick

Studio 360
Still from the movie Pygmalion

The story of the Broadway musical My Fair Lady is familiar to people with knowledge of musical theater. And some savvy theatergoers know that it was based on the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw.

But few people know this story: When the play first opened, it was not performed as Shaw intended. For years, the ending of the play was misinterpreted and altered in a way Shaw loathed. And when it was turned into a musical ... well, by then, Shaw was likely spinning in his grave.

When Pygmalion premiered in April, 1914 — just months before the start of World War I — women still did not have the right to vote. Shaw intended his play to change people’s minds about that.

He borrowed from the myth of Pygmalion. In the story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, a sculptor falls in love with his sculpture, Galatea, and prays for her to come to life. With the help of Aphrodite, his wish comes true.

But Shaw didn’t set out to write a frothy, romantic confection. He wanted to advocate for women’s suffrage and the end of Britain’s class system. In the play, stuffy professor Henry Higgins sets himself a challenge: to pass off Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller, as a duchess.

“The play is really about language, and the idea that, through language, one can raise one’s social status, which is something really important for that era,” says Ellen Dolgin, vice-president of the International Shaw Society. Dolgin says Shaw wanted to get rid of the whole class system and thought the play would prove his point. “What [they thought] of as absolutely innate — social placement — is not," Dolgin says. "It can be learned — and it can be fudged.”

This is where the play gets interesting. Once Higgins wins his bet and completes Eliza’s transformation, she is stuck between two worlds. She can’t to go back to selling flowers and she doesn’t want to be Higgins’ secretary — or worse, his wife. At the end of the play, after an enormous battle of wills, Eliza decides to strike out on her own. “If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence,” she declares.

Then, according to Shaw’s final stage directions, Eliza "sweeps out."

Leonard Conolly, who taught Shaw at Trent University in Ontario, sees this as “sweeping clean her relationship with Higgins and heading off to a better, brighter future.” Shaw purposely left unclear what happens next. Higgins hasn’t changed — he is still a pompous ass. The ending is unresolved, and that's just how George Bernard Shaw wanted it.

But when the play debuted, Shaw was in for a shock. At the end of the play, after Eliza "sweeps out," the actor playing Henry Higgins created a moment for himself — a moment Shaw never wrote and clearly didn’t want. As Eliza was leaving, Higgins watched her go, and then gave her a look. He didn’t change any lines, but he gave the audience exactly what they wanted to see: that Eliza and Higgins had been in love all along and that after the curtain fell, they’d be together.

“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” Leonard Connoly exclaims. “That is the absolute antithesis of what Shaw had in mind.”

Apparently, there was nothing Shaw could do to rein this actor in. By the hundredth performance, the actor was throwing flowers after Eliza.

When the play came to the United States, a critic wrote: "If you're looking for a happy ending with the hero and heroine joined joyfully together, you will get it in Pygmalion — if you use your imagination a little."

It kept getting worse. Shaw wrote the screenplay for a movie version in 1938, but the producer secretly filmed his own happy ending. Shaw won an Oscar for a movie he hated.

Not surprisingly, Shaw refused to grant the rights for a musical version. But after he died, in came Julie Andrews.

At the end of My Fair Lady, Higgins repents and Eliza returns. Now the final stage directions read: "There are tears in Eliza's eyes. She understands."

And that is how Pygmalion went from feminist manifesto to "chick flick."

In a postscript, Shaw wrote about what really happened to Eliza. After leaving Higgins, she opened a flower shop. She married a nice man. They struggled some, but ultimately did all right. She even dropped in on Higgins from time to time, but she never, ever loved him.

Shaw wrote: "Galatea, the woman who comes to life in the myth, never does quite like Pygmalion. His relation to her is too God-like to be altogether agreeable."

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Studio 360, a weekly show about pop culture, the arts and design.

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