The Author:

George Bernhard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856. Essentially shy, he yet created the persona of George Bernhard Shaw, the showman, satirist, controversialist, critic, pundit, wit, intellectual buffoon and dramatist. Commentators brought a new adjective into English: Shavian, a term used to embody all his brilliant qualities.

After his arrival in London in 1876 he became an active Socialist and a brilliant platform speaker. He wrote on many social aspects of the day; on Commonsense about the war (1914), How to Settle the Irish Question (1917) and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism (1928). He undertook his own education at the British Museum and consequently became keenly interested in cultural subjects. Thus his prolific output included music, art and theatre reviews, which were collected into several volumes, published as Music in London 1890 - 1894 (3 vols., 1931); Pen Portraits and Reviews (1931); and Our Theatres in the Nineties (3 vols., 1931). He also wrote five novels and some shorter fiction, including The Black Girl in Search of God and some Lesser Tales and Cashel Byron's Profession, both published in Penguins.

He conducted a strong attack on the London theatre and was closely associated with the intellectual revival of British theatre. His many plays fall into several categories: hi "Plays Unpleasant"; "Plays Pleasant"; his comedies; chronicle-plays; "metabiological Pentateuch" (Back to Methuselah, a series of plays) and "political extravaganzas".

George Bernhard Shaw died in 1950.


A poor flower-seller from the slums of London hears a conversation between two linguistic scholars (phoneticians) in a crowd sheltering from a rain storm after the opera. One of them has demonstrated his skill in identifying local dialects and boasts of his ability to teach people of lower class origin to talk like ladies and gentlemen. The flower-girl, Eliza Doolittle, decides to use the excessively generous tip she is given to buy herself some lessons, and she turns up at Professor Higgins's house next day to make necessary arrangements. Higgins is with Colonel Pickering are both bachelors, and the housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, has misgivings about the irresponsible way in which they are proposing to amuse themselves without thinking out the consequences for Eliza. However, when Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, arrives to protest at the immorality of their abduction of his daughter, it soon becomes evident that he has no real objection, but merely wants to gain something for himself from the situation. They easily buy him off and he, who would naturally and legally have the main responsibility for Eliza, is happy to leave her in their hands. The transformation of Eliza starts with cleaning her up and dressing her nicely, this involving her first introduction to the way of life of the well-to-do middle and upper classes. Speech lessons follow, and she proves to be quick, intelligent, hardworking pupil.

Higgins organises her first public test by having her attend his mother's "At-Home". Apart from Pickering and himself, the other visitors are a widow and her son and daughter of the name of Eynsford Hill. Mrs Eynsford Hill is a gentlewoman with very little money, thoroughly respectable but acutely aware that she can only barely keep up appearances and that her son and daughter have lacked the usual advantages of the upper class. The son, Freddy, falls in love with Eliza on seeing her beautifully dressed and now most attractive. The daughter, Clara, is dazzled, too, and accepts her as a young woman of high fashion. Mrs Eynsford Hill knows better, as does Mrs Higgins, for Eliza's conversation veers between ridiculously formal and stilted banalities, such as remarks about the weather, and beautifully pronounced expressions of low class ignorance and superstition. The clash between Eliza's new manner and her view of life teaches Higgins the lesson that he cannot create a lady without paying attention to her mind and soul. He still does not realise, as his mother does, that the consequences of training Eliza in ladylike habits and tastes my be disastrous for her.

He wins his bet with Colonel Pickering: at the end of the six months, the two of them take Eliza into high society, where she is universally admired. Shaw does not indicate precisely how the change has been brought about. There is something miraculous about the transformation of the sham lady who went to visit Mrs Higgins into the real lady Eliza has now become. Higgins takes all the credit to himself, and even Pickering sees Eliza's triumph as a reflection of Higgins's professional skill. This angers Eliza, who sees that her own efforts are undervalued and that and that Higgins does not regard her as a human being with real feelings, but as something inert, a doll that it has amused him to pass off as a living woman. He seems scarcely aware of her presence. Provoked, she ceases to be the obedient pupil and rebelliously assert her independence. By leaving the house in Wimpole Street, Eliza forces Higgins to realise how much he has come to rely on her. He traces her to his mother's apartment, where she has taken refuge, and tries to persuade her to come back.

At this juncture Eliza's father puts in another appearance. He, too, is transformed: outwardly, from poverty to prosperity; inwardly, from cheerfulness to misery. It is a change that parallels Eliza's, but in his case it is the result of legacy from a deceased millionaire, obtained for him through some careless words written by Higgins. The practical solution to the problem of Eliza's future is thus easily found: her father can do the conventional thing and keep her in the comfort to which living the Wimpole Street has accustomed her. Eliza recognises that she has the alternative of marrying Freddy Eynsford Hill. Higgins wants her back but, being a confirmed bachelor, makes no offer of marriage to her. Eliza herself determined that she will never again go back to being subservient to him. The play has a teasingly inclusive end: Eliza goes off with Mrs Higgins to a church to see Alfred Doolittle properly married as a respectable plutocrat should be. Higgins stays behind, obviously confident that Eliza will come back as before.

The characters:

Eliza Doolittle:

She seems rather like a heroine in a melodrama, a favourite nineteenth-century type of play which encouraged audiences to indulge their emotions and presented its heroines (often poor girls) as helpless innocents in distress, claiming the audience's pity. A cliche describing such heroines was: "She was poor, but she was honest". The flower girl describes herself as "a poor girl" and keeps insisting that she is "a respectable girl", meaning "honest". She is, in fact, seeing herself as this conventional type of character, but is also capable of exaggerating the impression she makes, as if deliberately playing a role.

There is a quiet desperation in her that prompts us to think more gravely about the plight of the lady in Edwardian society, and the plight of women in relation to men. In place of her earlier self-pity, she shows a genuine modesty in comparing her ignorance with the learning of Higgins and Pickering. Vanity and boastfulness turn into self-respect and a demand for fair treatment that becomes justifiably aggressive in reaction to Higgins's treatment of her. We can perceive a consistency in Eliza's character, a continuity from Act I to Act V, despite the evident changes.

Alfred Doolittle:

HE belongs to a different category from all the others. He is more immediately recognisable as a stage character, not realistically presented to give the effect of an actual human being. In performance, the part is like a mask that the actor wears: with simpler, more boldly drawn lines than we find in an actual human face. Furthermore, what he says matches what he is with an exactness and completeness we should not expect to find in real people. He is the spokesman for that section of the lower classes he refers to as "the undeserving poor", and he is much more clear-sighted and articulate in talking about values and beliefs of such people than any actual members of this sub-class are likely to be. In fact, Doolittle makes explicit in his words what Shaw has seen implied in the behaviour of the "undeserving poor."

Shaw has made the character attractive and amusing, whereas a realistically presented drunkard who beat up his daughter and cared nothing for her, and who preferred blackmailing gentlemen to earning money by working, would very probably be repugnant to us; or, if treated sympathetically, would be a pathetic or even tragic character.

It is Doolittle's frankness and lack of shame, and his self-confident ease in the company of very different people, that make him attractive in Act II. These are all positive characteristics suggestive of good health and good temper, as such negative characteristics as self-consciousness, fear and guilt never are.

MR Higgins:

He is the clown of the play. He is full of tricks and antics which are amusing to watch. Shaw comments explicitly on the fact that he is like a spoilt baby. His bursts of temper, his generally noisy behaviour, his egoistic sense of his own importance, his careless untidiness, his rudeness, his self-indulgence are all childish features. He doesn't seem to know himself at all well; certainly he does not recognise himself in Mrs. Pearce's view of him. His energy comes across very strongly, through his restless physical movements; the swift and ready movements of his mind that enable him outwit others and get his own way all the time; through his verbal readiness and fluency; and, not least, through the assertive vigour of his style of speech with its swift twist and turns, its exaggerations, and its constant use of slangy expressions or striking and usually comic metaphors and similes. We accept the fact that he is exceptionally clever at his job, but this is not an excuse for his arrogance and vanity, for the way he exploits women, or his readiness with lies and other forms of deceitful behaviour to further his own ends. As with Doolittle, it is partly the comic treatment that enables us to like a character with so many vices. Eliza's and Mrs Higgins's interest in him and affection for him also help us to see Higgins as a likeable person. His self-dramatising postures, and exaggerated way in which he expresses his reactions, convey a sense that there is a real Higgins hidden behind all the play-acting bluster. At times, we may suspect that the hidden self is benevolent, generous and trustworthy; at other times, we may suspect this self of being a treacherous and entirely selfish.

Colonel Pickering:

He gives the impression of being an ideal gentleman, though he is not drawn in any detail. He has served his country overseas; he is always courteous to women, and his politeness is not just a style, but conveys true respect; and he is thoroughly trustworthy. He is also older than Higgins, and the correctness of his manners makes him seem rather old-fashioned and conservative. As Higgins's fellow scholar, Wagner to the other's Faust, he can be roused to an enthusiasm that makes him lose sight of realities temporarily. The bachelorhood of the pair enables Shaw to suggest that intellect flourishes most when women are kept at a distance and the emotional claims of love and the responsibilities of marriage can be avoided. The comradeship of Pickering and Higgins contrasts with the turbulent relationship between Higgins and Eliza; but on the whole Pickering's presence in the play serves to set off the character of Higgins by contrast.

Mrs Higgins:

She is the ideal mother, wise, tolerant, caring for others, yet self-contained, detached and contented in her quiet, orderly life. Her room expresses her sense of beauty and testifies to her culture. Altogether she is a figure of stability and comfort and her presence in the play acts as a guarantee that nothing will go seriously wrong.

Mrs Pearce:

Higgins's housekeeper, belongs to the respectable lower classes that, through close contact as servants to their social superiors have come to adopt middle-class standards of behaviour and morality. Her concern with cleanliness and tidiness is partly a mark of her profession, and partly characteristic of a mother looking after a small boy, which seems to be her principal role in Higgins's bachelor household. This character is defined almost exclusively in terms of the way she relates to the others in the household.

Mrs Eynsford Hill:

She is a less vivid portrait of an older lady than we have in Mrs Higgins. This is a comment on her personality as well as on Shaw's delineation of her. She is more conventional than Mrs Higgins, and only comes to life as a human being in those moments when she speaks as th anxious mother, concerned about Eliza's seeming to know Freddy, in Act I, and apologising to Mrs Higgins for Clara, and speaking her approval of Freddy, in Act III.


She is the most individualised member of her family. She is brash and clumsy in society, stronger-willed than her mother and her brother both of whom she tends to nag and scold. By contrast with her, Eliza's natural grace and sensitiveness shine more brightly, but Clara isn't without spirit, and the improvement in her that Shaw describes in the Afterword begins in the play with her imitation of Eliza.


He is a foolish and futile young-man-about-town. HE may be good-hearted, but he is good for nothing apart from his love for Eliza. Indeed, falling in love, which makes most people look foolish, is the brightest thing Freddy does. His failure to get a taxi, in Act I, is a pointer towards his uselessness. Clara's crossness may make us feel a little sorry for him, but Freddy proves that men can be weaker than women, less competent, less capable of independence. Eliza recognises that, if she marries Freddy, she will have to support him.


Pygmalion was an ancient sculptor who fell in love with his own statue of Galathea who was awakened to life by Aphrodite and whom he then married. In Show's play Professor Higgins experiments with a girl born in poverty. Her advancement from a poor flower girl to a sophisticated lady has stirred emotions and prompted audiences to reflect upon their social values. Is speaking English correctly really enough to be upper-class?

Is the true human character not more important than education and correct manners? Is it correct to discriminate against people just because of their birth, their environment or their speech?

Shaw wants you to think about this. That's why he resisted to degrade his play into a plain musical. It was, however, Alan J. Lerner, who ignored Shaw's will and adapted the play for the film and musical "My fair Lady", which have made Eliza and Henry popular and immortal figures cheered by audiences all over the world.

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