Most people will know the story of Pygmalion, from My Fair Lady if nowhere else, where Eliza Doolittle is taught to speak 'like a duchess' by Professor Henry Higgins. Shaw describes this as a didactic play in his preface, revelling in its success when popular opinion says that art should not be didactic. Yet it is also a charming play with likeable characters, which allows you to painlessly engage with the serious message underlying it.
It begins with a scene on a rainy London street. A flower girl begins causing a nuisance of herself, trying to sell her flowers to anyone standing still; gradually the people milling around realise that a man is noting down everything they say. After accusations that he is a copper's nark, the note-taker astounds everyone by being able to pinpoint exactly where they come from by how they speak.
'THE SARCASTIC BYSTANDER: Yes: tell him where he come from if you want to go fortune-telling.
THE NOTE-TAKER: Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India.
THE GENTLEMAN: Quite right.
Great laughter. Reaction in the note-taker's favour. Exclamations of He knows all about it. Told him proper. Hear him tell the toff where he come from? etc
THE GENTLEMAN:May I ask, sir, do you do this for your living at a music hall?
THE NOTE-TAKER: I've thought of that. Perhaps I shall some day.'
The note-taker is, as you will have gathered, Professor Higgins. The play concerns his attempt to take this cockney flower girl and teach her to speak properly, and how this affects both their lives.
'You see this creature with her kerb-stone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party.'
Reading this has reminded me that Shaw's plays are both eminently readable and, I've always found, eminently watchable. It is light and engaging, with witty dialogue. The play is dated in the sense that it is firmly set in the Edwardian era and I feel it would be hard to set it in the present without significantly changing the text (for instance, the swear word 'bloody' does not have the same capacity to shock in the twenty-first century), but the dialogue is clear and natural, and you can believe in the characters, no matter how bizarre the situation they are in.
However, there is a social commentary underlying the romantic veneer - Shaw's didacticism; this is a play very firmly about class. As Higgins says:
'This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end up in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.'
Class is something that still obsesses us in England ninety years later, and for this reason the play stands the test of time. There are constantly new books written, television programmes being made about it; we have just recently had a furore in the press about 'middle-class drinking'. We all define ourselves and others as belonging to one class or another, and the way we use language is a large part of that. This obsession is satirised by Shaw in this play, this need to classify ourselves and others and present ourselves according to the station we believe we belong, or want to belong, to by the way we speak.
As time passes, Eliza comes to realise that there is more to becoming a lady than her accent. Her character develops throughout the play as she becomes a strong, dignified woman who is able at last to stand up to Higgins.
She also finally recognises in Higgins and her father the meaning of true classlessness, in the way that, with no thought for ceremony or situation, both treat everyone the same whether they be a duke or a dustman: Mr Doolittle with easy-going familiarity and Higgins with bored contempt.
Raymond Williams (in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht) describes how Shaw did not consider plays where there was little more than the dialogue to be a true art form, they need the directions of the playwright for the entire vision. For example, Shaw believed that we do not have the full genius of Shakespeare available to us because we lack his character notes and directions. Shaw will not allow this to happen to his plays, and with a preface, an epilogue and detailed directions throughout Pygmalion has more the air of a play-novella hybrid than a piece of drama. For reading purposes this is fine, but I wonder how restricting directors find this interference from Bernard Shaw.
An example of Shaw's control over his vision is the ending of the play, which does not make clear what will happen to Eliza. In case you should be tempted to romantically decide for yourself, however, in the epilogue Shaw provides a realistic and pleasing, if not romantic, future for Eliza, Henry and the other characters.
It is pleasing because I had grown very fond of the defiant yet vulnerable Eliza, and the infuriating but essentially innocent and child-like Higgins, as well as the other characters. So even if there is a slight irritation at Shaw's need to control even after the end of the play, there is also a certain satisfaction in ending with everything sorted, rather than having Eliza and Higgins teetering on the edge of either perfect happiness or abject misery.