Why is Pygmalion still produced?

This weekend I saw Pygmalion staged for the first time. Raising the question why we should produce this play does not mean the production I saw lacked in acting, directing, dramaturgical research, or design skill – these elements were cohesive and I’m not a critic. Raising the question doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go see the show, come up with your own opinion, and support local theatre – you should. I raise the question due to utter confusion regarding why this play should still be produced, and if you have an answer (any answer, for or against) I would welcome the discussion.

I vaguely remember seeing My Fair Lady at some point in my childhood – the movie, not staged – and I read Pygmalion in high school, but I couldn’t remember a lot of specifics. I blame Shaw for the terrible teen romantic comedies that perpetuate the idea that there’s something wrong with a woman being herself, comfortable in a situation that others deem lesser. Further, the idea that a man could simply remake a woman into whatever (as opposed to whomever) he wants, thereby making her more attractive, and that this “makeover” is actually rescuing her from herself is beyond insulting; it’s damaging. However, I couldn’t remember the specifics of the original play, so I set all of that aside to give Shaw the benefit of the doubt. And then I saw this note in the program from the director:

…it is my passion and belief in the universal story of empowerment that draws me to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

This raised my hope that maybe what I remembered from the Audrey Hepburn movie, and my disgust towards She’s All That could be blamed on horrible interpreters and misogynistic producers rather than Shaw, who was a member of the Fabian movement which according to the dramaturg’s note

…supported such wild-eyed ideas as a minimum wage, public schools, and giving women the vote.

Pygmalion is thought of as an empowerment play because Eliza leaves Higgins at the end. The problem with this moment alone categorizing the piece as empowerment is that Henry Higgins insults and humiliates Eliza throughout, treating her as if she’s stupid or doesn’t exist. He justifies these actions by saying he treats everyone this way, so he’s an equal opportunity asshole.

Before her big moment, she “stands up to him” by threatening to work for someone else who teaches phonetics. After she threatens to work for another man, Higgins tries to take credit for this transformation, too. This suggests his treatment of her had intended to make her stronger all along. (Classic abusive response scenario, “See, I hit you to make you strong; look what I did for you.”) Higgins takes credit for her standing up to him completely disempowering her “victory”. In fact, now that she’s proven herself equal to him they can live together happily. Isn’t that wonderful? This is even more insulting because she has already proven that she’s smarter than him by learning phonetics better than he teaches, and picking up the piano in absolutely no time. So the real reason he sees her as an equal is because she’s being combative.

But she does leave. In point of fact, as she’s leaving never to see Higgins again he gives her a laundry list of errands to run and things to buy for him. She quickly tells him where these things are and how to obtain them, and then she says (paraphrasing), “I really don’t know what you’ll do without me.” After she leaves, Higgins’ mother says she’ll get the things he needs, and he says, (again paraphrasing) “Not to worry; Eliza will get them.” These last lines could simply highlight Higgins’ obliviousness and utter delusion that she’s coming back, but because Shaw wrote the ending (the original ending, that is) to be completely ambiguous, it’s difficult to say for sure that she doesn’t return. We have Shaw’s word that she’s not coming back. He actually had to write a more specific ending and epilogue to make this absolutely clear after the first production staged her returning to ask about his glove size and ham. But if there’s one thing I learned as a creative writing major it’s that you can’t write a twist out of left-field with no foreshadowing and have it blindly accepted; endings have to be earned.

When you build a strong case for a horrible, train-wreck of an attraction between two people, how do you expect the audience to believe she’s actually going to walk away when all precedent shows that she’s learned how to wince and take it? I don’t doubt that Shaw wants Eliza to leave. I also don’t doubt that Shaw’s playing on audience expectation of a love story only to subvert it with the way it should happen, but the text simply doesn’t support this ending.

In contrast, A Doll’s House builds the entire time on Nora’s idea of Torvald as a good and gallant man who would sacrifice for her as she has for him, but he proves false in these regards and upon realizing he’s a self-serving ass, she leaves. Additionally, though Torvald isn’t exactly likable, he isn’t hate-able until his blow up at Nora.

Eliza takes abuse throughout the play and in some ways is still grinning and bearing it at the end because she allows Higgins to take credit for all she has become even though her transformation is actually because she’s highly intelligent. Higgins gets the last word. He has been a monster to watch (which I’m well aware is the point) but because I see Eliza retrieving the ring he gave her, treating it as precious, hear her bring up marriage a few moments before she leaves, and hear her say where all his things are; I don’t believe she’s gone for good.

When it comes down to it: Nora leaves and I’m satisfied and happy she’s come to her senses; when Eliza leaves, I believe she’s coming back and I’m pissed. I don’t want her to come back. I know she’s not supposed to come back, but all moments prior suggest she will.

And if she doesn’t go back to Higgins, what are her options? She can go home with her (now rich) father who tried to sell her to Higgins at the beginning of the play, marry a man (probably Freddy) which Eliza has already equated with prostitution, or work for another male phonetics professor who we know nothing about. All of her options involve serving another man in some form or another. Though if she works for the phonetics professor we hope that she’ll at least be treated like a person, and that she would be on her own. But still none of the options are ideal.

So, why do we continue to produce this play? In addition to the issues above it’s also overwritten; practically every scene goes on far too long simply repeating the same sentiments. It’s also filled with philosophical rantings about the state of the poor that is sometimes humorous, but often repeats itself to the point of boring. And the only characters Shaw cared about developing were Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza so the other characters are one-dimensional.

I’m leaning towards Pygmalion adds nothing revelatory to the conversation of female empowerment (especially when Ibsen, quite frankly, did it more successfully) to the point that the writing argues against it, even if that wasn’t intended by the author. As such, I don’t know why it’s produced. I intend to see it the next time it’s performed in Seattle to see if I’m missing something. I would like to be proven wrong.

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One Comment

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  1. (Classic abusive response scenario, “See, I hit you to make you strong; look what I did for you.”)

    Ding!

    "…how do you expect the audience to believe she’s actually going to walk away when all precedent shows that she’s learned how to wince and take it?"

    Ding Ding!

    You've nailed it.

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