George Bernard Shaw wrote over forty plays during the course long life of 94 years. Pygmalion, written in 1913, became his most famous work. Check out our article on Shaw's biography to learn more about his life and literature.
It's the tale of a conceited professor of linguistics, Henry Higgins, and the brash, incorrigible young woman named Eliza Doolittle. Higgins sees the cockney girl as a great challenge. Can she learn to speak like a refined English lady? Higgins endeavors to transform Eliza in his own image, and he gets much more than he ever bargained for.
Pygmalion in Greek Mythology
The title of the play is derived from ancient Greece. According to Greek Mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who created a beautiful statue of a woman. The gods grant the artist a wish by making the sculpture come to life. The main character in Shaw's play is not a sculptor; however, he does become enamored with his own creation.
Plot Summary of Act One
Professor Henry Higgins wanders the streets of London, absorbing the local color and studying the various dialects those around him. A crowd of people huddle together, due to the sudden downpour of rain. A wealthy woman tells her adult son, Freddy to hail a taxi. He complains but obeys, bumping into a young woman selling flowers: Eliza Doolittle.
She asks a man to buy flowers from her. He declines, but gives her spare change, for charity's sake. Another man warns Eliza that she should be careful; a stranger has been writing down every word she has been saying.
The "stranger" is Prof. Henry Higgins who reveals his shorthand notes. She is distressed, thinking that she is in trouble. Henry rebukes her:
HIGGINS: Don't be ridiculous. Who's hurting you, you silly girl?
The crowd gives Higgins a hard time when they realize he is a "gentleman" instead of a policeman. At first, the citizens are quite concerned about the poor flower girl. Eliza expresses her distress (and reveals the nature of the crowd) in the following quote and subsequent stage direction:
ELIZA: I ain't done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman. I've a right to sell flowers if I keep off the kerb. (Hysterically) I'm a respectable girl: so help me, I never spoke to him except to ask him to buy a flower off me. (General hubbub, mostly sympathetic to the flower girl, but deprecating her excessive sensibility. Cries of Don't start hollerin. Who's hurting you? Nobody's going to touch you. What's the good of fussing? Steady on. Easy, easy, etc., come from the elderly staid spectators, who pat her comfortingly. Less patient ones bid her shut her head, or ask her roughly what is wrong with her. (… ) The flower girl, distraught and mobbed, breaks through them to the gentleman, crying mildly.) Oh, sir, don't let him charge me. You dunno what it means to me. They'll take away my character and drive me on the streets for speaking to gentlemen.
Prof. Higgins listens to people's accents and cleverly recognizes where they are from and where they have been. The crowd is both impressed and perturbed at his uncanny abilities.
The rain stops and the crowd disperses. Colonel Pickering, the man who gave Doolittle spare change, is intrigued by Higgins. The professor explains that he can identify a person's origins based solely on phonetics, the "science of speech."
Meanwhile, Eliza is still nearby, sulking and muttering to herself. Higgins complains that the flower girl's speech is an insult to the majestic English language. Yet he also boasts that he is so skilled in phonetics that he could train her to speak like royalty.
Pickering reveals his name, explaining that he has written a book on Indian dialects. By coincidence, Higgins had been hoping to meet the distinguished Colonel, just as Col. Pickering had been hoping to meet Higgins. Delighted by their chance encounter, Higgins insists that Pickering stay at his home. Before they leave, Eliza begs them to buy some of her flowers. Higgins drops a large amount of coins into her basket, amazing the young woman who very likely has never paid so much. She celebrates by taking a taxi cab home. Freddy, the wealthy young man who originally hailed the taxi says "Well, I'm dashed," in response to the flower girl's confident attitude.