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Pygmalion by (George) Bernard Shaw

My Un-fair Pygmalion

My Fair Lady, the 1964 musical, was based on Pygmalion, the play by George Bernard Shaw.  I watched the movie ages ago, when I was young and loved it—loved Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, and Rex Harrison made a nice Professor Higgins. I loved it when he teaches her to say/sing “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”  And I still snicker how she’s all dressed up and lady-like at the horse races but shocks the crowd when she yells “move your bloomin’ arse!” at the horse. The only problem is that those things didn’t happen in the play.

The play is actually based on a Greek myth in which the sculptor, Pygmalionfalls in love with a statue he forms—also not in the play.  Professor Higgins might have softened to the “guttersnipe”[1]he attempts to transform into a dignified grande dame in the movie, but in Shaw’s play, love and adoration do not factor into their relationship.

The general concept, is of course, the same as the movie.  Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor, takes Eliza Doolittle, a common girl with a heavy Cockney accent who sells flowers on the street, and turns her into a lady.  His challenge is to have her pass as a duchess at a party. The play, however, is not as playful as the movie. 

In the play, Henry Higgins puts the “pyg” in Pygmalion.  He’s not a nice guy.  He’s much rougher than in the movie and unlike the big screen version, he doesn’t come around in the end.  He’s a lingual pugilist, a Mike Tyson flinging words like punches.  He calls her a fool, a common idiot, a “dammed impudent slut.”[2]  Granted, they were having a quarrel at the time and she wasn’t all that nice either.  And I’m sure slut meant something totally different back then, because she showed no signs of sluttiness – no flirtations, no short miniskirts, no popping cleavage, no come-hither looks. She’s a “good girl,”[3]she is.  But all-in-all, Mr. Higgins wasn’t Mr. Congeniality. 

So bottom line—is it worth reading or should you just watch the movie?  The answer is—do both.  The play is short and the movie is entertaining—if you like musicals.

Here’s a link to a free online version of Pygmalion, compliments of The Project Gutenberg:

Happy Reading, 


[1]“I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe.”
George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1913; reprint, Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Little, Inc., 2002), 34.
[2]Ibid., 131.
[3]“I’m a good girl, I am.” 
George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1913; reprint, Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Little, Inc., 2002), 16.


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