Pygmalion and My Fair Lady Essay

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Discuss the different ways of representing class conflicts. Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw, 1914 My Fair Lady, George Cukor, 1964 “As the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, I see no reason why anyone should be exempt. ” This famous quotation of French playwright Moliere proves how powerfully theater and social criticism are linked, and how in its different genres, drama as well as comedy, theater can, and maybe must, be a way of communicating and expressing the human and society’s flaws.

Indeed, theater, as defined by Marvin Carlson, is a “collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place. ” This specificity of theatrical representation therefore allows the sharing of personal points of views and visions on certain events, and by the use of entertainment, conveys a message to a public. Throughout history, many authors have used the comedy genre to point out human vices and satirize the effects of social hierarchy.

The best-known writer of this type of comedy is probably Moliere, famous for mocking the French “Ancien Regime” with plays such as The School for Wives, The Misanthrope, and Tartuffe. Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) was an Irish playwright, whose socialism beliefs were far from hidden, as showed his implication in the Fabian Society, a British socialist movement whose aim was to advocate the “principles of democratic socialism”.

However, this author was better known for his writing career than his political activity, and he is the sole writer to have won both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938). Moreover, his Oscar was a prize he won after his work on the movie based on his play, Pygmalion, written in 1912, a story about the transformation of a poor flower girl into a genteel lady. This production was a clear criticism of England’s 19th century rigid class system, and emphasized the importance of language as a key factor for this rigidity, as he had once said before: “syllables govern the world. This play remains his most famous work, and has been adapted several times, including into a musical in 1954, and a ‘highly romanticized’ movie in 1964, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady starred Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, and won eight academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Picture and Best Director. Its plot is actually quite faithful to Bernard Shaw’s original Pygmalion, but differs in probably its most important aspect, the ending. Indeed, the movie transformed romanticized the whole story line, as to follow Hollywood’s, and its public’s, demands.

In this essay, I will discuss the different ways of representing class conflict, in the 1912 play as well as in 1964’s My Fair Lady, so as to put forward the differences and similarities in class and conflict representation, and compare the divergences of the effectiveness of the social critique. Before representing class conflict, that we could define as the apparent, or non apparent, tension between individuals belonging to antagonist social classes, categorized for the British system in upper, middle and lower (or working) class, one must represent these different classes.

One of the easiest, and most obvious, ways of representing the oppositions between the different classes are the physical appearances. The props and costumes used in both play and movie allow the representation of upper and lower class. Indeed, individuals from the lower class are identified with poor, cheap looking clothing, and most often look dirty. This distinction of appearance is made right at the first scene. Indeed, at the beginning of the play, Bernard Shaw describes Eliza in a negative manner: “Eliza is not at all an attractive person. …) She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London and has seldom if ever been brushed. Her hair needs washing rather badly (…) She is no doubt as clean as she can afford to be; but compared to the ladies she is very dirty. ” The contrast in between members from each class in even more striking when they are present in the same scene, as they contrast in both clothing and physical hygiene. In this scene from the movie, Eliza has attempted to clean up and change her appearance in order to look more lady-like.

However, even after her efforts, she stands out as poor and inadequate compared to Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering and even Mrs. Pearce, who is also of the working class. Physical appearance is of utter importance when it comes to differentiating each class, and can also be modified in order to move among the social hierarchy. During the Vth Act, a maid mistakes Alfred Doolittle for a gentleman, and Bernard Shaw insists on the fact that it is due to his new physical aspect: “ He is brilliantly dressed in a new fashionable frock-coat, with white waistcoat and grey trousers.

A flower in his buttonhole, a dazzling silk hat, and patent leather shoes complete the effect. ” Furthermore, Eliza’s transformation is made most evident throughout her clothing, which consists of at the beginning of her flower girl outfit, dirty and gloomy, and ends with her ball gown, rich and bright. However, what matters most when it comes to class distinction is speech. The play and the movie are all based on the importance of language, and its power on to build or break an individual.

Eliza at the beginning of the plot speaks in a terrible manner, proving her low origins. Her speech contrasts vividly with Henry’s, especially since he is a language expert, as it is his profession to teach people how to correctly speak. Henry’s character is the fully aware of language’s power, and he indicates himself in the first act that Eliza’s English “will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. ” She says “Darn” repetitively, speaks too loudly, and is too spontaneous.

On the other hand, Henry, as a character representing the upper class, and even Mrs. Pearce, from the lower, but educated, class, have what could be considered as posh accents, with a correct pronunciation of words, and Mrs. Pearce insists on the need to not use swear words, as this kind of behavior is not gentleman like. One of Eliza’s most important tasks so as to pass off as a duchess is to work intensively on her accent and pronunciation.

In the movie, the transformation of her speech is intensified, as she struggles to improve and seems to be tortured by Higgins’ instruments. However, in the play, Eliza’s progress seems to be extremely rapid, and it appears that she is extremely quick learning and intelligent. In spite of this, the two male characters involved, Colonel Pickering and Henry, do not acknowledge her talent, showing how the upper class does not consider appropriately the lower class, even if they are entitled to the same level of recognition and respect.

Nevertheless, having the correct language skills is not sufficient when it comes to integrating the upper class, as proves the scenes of Mrs. Higgins’ social event in the play, and the Ascot Racing scene in the movie. These two scenes have the same function of showing that even if Eliza’s speech is nearly flawless, she does have the necessary cultural background to follow and enjoy what could be considered an “upper-class conversation”, which Shaw points out to be extremely dull, boring and superficial, consisting mainly if the futile subjects such as the weather.

Physical appearance and language are the two main factors of class differentiation in both play and movie, and the strength of the differences between upper and lower class are powerfully representative of society’s flaws and rigidity. Representing class differences is a useful way of showing potential class conflict, but is far from sufficient when it comes to portraying the intensity of such conflicts.

In the play and in the movie, physical and violent action is quite limited, but they both put forward a number of individual, and sometimes implicit, conflicts that allow an understanding of British society and its flaws. Eliza’s character seems to be in constant opposition and antagonism with the rest of the world, antagonism that remains present during the whole story, as she is represented as an independent individual, trying hard to evolve and improve in a society that does not advocate social mobility. Both movie and play successfully present her particular situation within society right from the beginning.

Eliza’s first encounter with the upper class is quite violent, and Bernard Shaw expresses in the beginning scene:” (…) but comes into collision with a flower girl, who is hurrying in for shelter, knocking her basket out of her hands. ” The first time Eliza is shown in the movie, a high angle is used, making her appear as small, almost fragile, compared to the massive columns she is standing next to. The first scenes in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are of primary importance when it comes to setting the implicit conflict between Eliza and the rest of ociety. Indeed, they present all of the main characters, especially Eliza and Henry Higgins, and allow us to understand the differences in between both individuals, therefore the difference in between social classes, when it comes to the key factors of physical appearance, language and culture. The first scenes present the strong antagonism between what appears to be two completely different worlds, poor Eliza from the messy and loud market, and rich Henry coming out of the theater, posh and distinguished.

The confrontation is violent, as Eliza runs into Freddy, and Henry uses strong language towards her: ”A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live. ” Throughout the rest of the story, the relationship in between Eliza and Henry is quite representative of the general social conflicts in society, as they have to learn how to live with each other, are sometimes extremely brutal towards one another (in the movie, she sings ‘Just you wait’, with quite aggressive lyrics, and in the play he does not hesitate to insult her, and at one point almost strangles her).

Eliza is also put in opposition with the working staff in the house, as it is most obvious during the bathing scene (present in the movie, shortly discussed in the play), during which Eliza seems to battle against the women wanting to bathe her, a possible metaphor of her battling against society wanting to change her. Another important conflict that takes place during the play and movie is the conflict that occurs inside of Eliza. Her evolution deeply transforms her, as she has not only changed her appearance and speech, but has ‘culturally’ joined the upper class, without being able to fully belong to such a world.

She fears for her future, because it seems that she will never completely belong to any particular social class: too genteel for the lower working class, too poor for the upper class. Eliza’s internal conflict translates itself in her physical appearance, as her facial expressions contrast with her rich clothing: “Eliza opens the door and is seen on the lighted landing in opera cloak (…) her pallor contrasts strongly with her dark eyes and hair; and her expression is almost tragic”.

This loss of marks is highlighted during one of the final scenes, in which Eliza returns to the market, only to realize that none of her old friends recognize her, and most importantly, to understand that she does not, and never will again, fit in this social group. She blames Henry for her sense of loss and unclear future during one of their final verbally violent confrontations: “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do?

What’s to become of me? ” Her father goes through a similar process, as he gains a lot of money and recognition when a rich American left him with an important heritage. We understand during the whole story that even if he was extremely poor, he was happy to be so, as it meant that he was completely free and not restrained with any sort of moral obligations. However, this new acquired wealth and status obliges him to fulfill a number of moral obligations, such as to marry his mistress.

The fact that the two people who undergo the strongest transformations are completely lost when this change is done proves how complex and intense social differences and tensions are. One cannot solely change appearance and speech to be somewhat “promoted” to the higher class, as origins will continuously define who you are and still differentiate you from everyone else. In the play and the movie, social conflicts are always limited to individual representations and images of tension (physical, verbal, moral), that must be generalized by the public itself so that the story gains its full meaning and significance.

Both movie and play represent social differences and social conflicts through out various visual and written visualizations, but they do not convey the same social message, which is clearly socialist for the play, and more ambiguous in the movie. Bernard Shaw used the myth of Pygmalion, the story of a sculptor who fell in love with his own creation and had it transformed into a real woman, as an inspiration for his play. Indeed, Eliza could be considered as “raw material” (Higgins at one point asks his maids to wrap her up in brown paper, as you would raw produce) that is transformed with Higgins teachings.

However, the play rests on the ambiguity of Eliza’s relationship with Henry and the other characters, whose tensions are a clear metaphor of hierarchized British’s 19th century society. Bernard Shaw’s goal of criticizing the flaws and rigidity of the class system is far from hidden, as proves the epilogue he wrote after the first presentations of the play. He realized that his open ending (will Eliza come back to Henry? ) was being romanticized by the public, transforming the whole aim of the play. In his epilogue, he gives out precisions on Eliza’s choice and future lifestyle.

She marries Freddy, and opens a flower store, with Colonel Pickering’s help. With this ending, it becomes quite clear that Eliza’s social rank has improved, in comparison with Freddy’s “downfall”. The couple manages to finally make it on their own, but still use Eliza’s connections with Henry and Pickering in order to enjoy certain benefits. This ending is not exactly what could be considered a “happy ending”, and engages the public to think about society’s rigidity and how it powerfully controls peoples’ lives.

Furthermore, the play insists more on Henry’s perception of his profession more than the movie does, as he considers it to be a form of ‘social work’, “feeling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul. ” His character is also a lot more cynical and critical towards the existing social hierarchy, and he does not hesitate to insinuate that to be a maid or shop assistant one’s English must be better than an aristocrat’s: “(…) I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.

I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English. ” Even though the play is a comedy, and supposedly a romantic story, its representation of social classes has an evident goal of denouncing their differences, and even their existence. On the contrary, the movie’s intentions of denouncing the existing social order are quite unclear, and this for a number of reasons. The movie was directed in 1964 in the United States, in opposition to the play, which was written in 1912 and in England.

George Cukor clearly did not have Bernard Shaw’s political beliefs, and was not trying to create a movie of social criticism, but follow Hollywood’s, and its public’s, demands. The traditional storyline of a Hollywood movie is a two line plot: “X” and a romance. In My Fair Lady, “X” is Eliza’s transformation, and there is evidently more focus on her and Henry’s relationship than in the play. The ending of the movie differentiates itself greatly from Bernard Shaw’s epilogue, leaving it completely open, with the possibility of a romance in between the two main characters quite obvious.

Throughout the whole movie, the representation of the differences between social classes are made mainly through costumes and props, and not so much through camera angles and shots, as most scenes regrouping Eliza and Henry are filmed at eye-level. The criticism of the social hierarchy, and the relativity of morals depending on one class on the other are no so obvious, and it seems that the differences are emphasized for the main and sole purpose of pure comic entertainment.

The fact that the movie is a musical lightens the whole movie, as the singing and dancing takes a lot of importance, neglecting perhaps the complexity of the human relationships present. The lack of criticism and opinion can be explained by the fact that it was a Hollywood production, obeying to the laws of demand, as it needed to be financially viable (this constant need of financial security can be seen through the choice of actors, Audrey Hepburn being more famous than Julie Andrews, who seemed more appropriate for the role).

Furthermore, one must not forget that in the 1960’s, artistic production was being greatly censored by the ongoing McCarthyism, represented by the “House Un-American Activities Committee”. This group controlled the political meanings of each Hollywood movie, and any “left-leaning critiques” on the United States and society was immediately denounced as being communist, which could lead to imprisonment in the Cold War Era. The movie, due to multiple reasons, is not so obviously a critique on social classes and the existing conflicts between them.

George Cukor transformed the original playwright into a story that would please a vast majority of Americans, concentrating then on the romance and the light forms of entertainment. Both artistic creations, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, are stories representing through comedy class differences, and their importance on the individual and its life. However, as the play was written by a true socialist activist, the forms of representation take on a whole new level social criticism, and forces the public to meditate on this subject.

On the other hand, the movie could be considered as a true Hollywood production of the 1960’s, the entertainment value overtaking any form of social critique and contestation. Visually identifying class differences is essential when it comes to social criticism, but it is far from enough, as the differences in between the movie and play prove. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Marvin Carlson, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 2011 [ 2 ]. 1662 [ 3 ]. 1666 [ 4 ]. 1664 [ 5 ]. « But all I want is ‘enry ‘iggins ‘ead ! » [ 6 ]. « You damned impudent slut, you ! » [ 7 ]. Act III

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