Download Pygmalion as PDF
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts (1912) is one of greatest comic masterpieces of the 20th century. It's hard now to imagine how a play about a phonetics expert who decides to convert an uneducated Cockney flower girl into a high society lady would have been controversial. It does take jabs at the British social hierarchy and women's independence, all packaged up as a neat comic play. Shaw originally staged Pygmalion as a translation in Vienna, hoping to generate a buzz for his work outside the purview of British critics. When the play was a hit, English audiences and critics where intrigued.
Shaw's second tactic to launch a successful staging was to make his audiences think that Pygmalion, which referenced Ovid's Metamorphosis, was a classical play. In the Metamorphosis, Pygmalion becomes celibate after becoming fed up with women, whereafter he pursues the ideal female which he carves out of ivory. After making a quick sacrifice to the gods, Pygmalion's woman comes to life. Under the ruse of this well known story, Shaw rehearsed the play in secrecy, and when it was staged, voila! Magic. Ironically, as the play is about a linguist, the primary criticism was with its language: the word "bloody" until then had never been uttered on stage at Her Majesty's Theatre.
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