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  • Pygmalion as Narrative Bridge Between the Centuries
  • Vicki R. Kennell (bio)

From My Fair Lady and Educating Rita to the critical theorizing of J. M. Miller and John Fowles, the tale of Pygmalion, with some re-visioning, has permeated much of the twentieth-century narrative scene. Perhaps the best-known version of Ovid's tale is Shaw's Pygmalion,1 which deals most overtly with the shaping of a self in relationship to social constructions and expectations. Shaw's version of the original tale merges internal and external aspects of identity formation, a move that places Shaw solidly in the center of the transition from nineteenth- to twentieth-century understandings of identity and its creation. Shaw's Higgins and Eliza set the stage, so to speak, for later narrative writers such as John Fowles, Muriel Spark, and Ian McEwan to explicate and eventually to problematize the construction by a Pygmalion, such as Higgins, of the identity of a Galatea, such as Eliza. At the core of Shaw's play is the tension between the fiction of reality and the fiction of the fictive that later writers examine.

Shaw's version of the Pygmalion tale offers two basic revisions of Ovid's story: the change from supernatural agency to natural explanations, and the replacement of physical creation by linguistic transformation. The relationship between the supernatural and natural in Shaw's play is evident at the beginning as the scene opens in a storm possessing, as Errol Durbach points out, "all the portents of supernatural awe,"2 with lightning and thunder to accompany the meeting of Eliza and Freddy, which initiates all that is to come. Yet Durbach also notes that the play itself does not sustain this mythically auspicious beginning: "[Shaw] empties the process of all its mystery and insists upon the commonplace nature of the transfiguration"(23). Durbach sees this emptying as reason enough to ignore the classical roots and search elsewhere for influence. Irrespective of influence, Shaw's revision of the story allows him to collapse the distinction between the creator-god and the creator-artist, between the supernatural and the natural. By replacing Ovid's Pygmalion-Venus duo with Higgins alone, Shaw raises [End Page 73] issues of morality and ethics relevant to his audience. A goddess can, perhaps, be forgiven for meddling in human affairs, for acting to satisfy the whim of one petitioner by manipulating the life of another. But does it necessarily follow that a Higgins can receive the same forgiveness? The ills that potentially could result from Higgins's "experimentation" are social ills as well as individual ones, exacting a higher toll on a larger number of people than just Eliza. By providing natural explanations as a replacement for Ovid's supernatural interventions, Shaw removes the play from the realm of absolute morality, from questions of absolute good and absolute evil, and instead situationalizes the morality. By replacing supernatural agency with natural, Shaw forces the tale squarely into the center of turn-of-the-century society, making Pygmalion more than a legend or fairy tale, making it an indictment of stratified, class-based values, or, at the very least, a cause for thought.

Shaw's attempt to place the tale in a frame of reference familiar to his audience resulted in the need to shift the focus from that of physical creation, since physical creation is impossible to effect on a natural level. The focus becomes language, rather than stone, as medium for the artistic endeavor. Just as physical creation gave Galatea human life, linguistic creation gives Eliza social life. In this, Shaw aligns himself with earlier novelists. Tony Crowley notes that in late nineteenth-century novels "the bitterness and dangers which surround 'Standard English' are insistently portrayed."3 Shaw uses this nineteenth-century notion of language as, in Crowley's words, "crucial to the making of the social self,"4 to explore questions of selfhood. As Jean Reynolds points out, Shaw "attacked . . . the popular belief that every human possesses a stable and unchanging essence, or self."5 Such a social-constructivist stance allowed Shaw to span the gap between the Victorian concern with social issues and the objective world of which a character...


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