With symbols man casts woman down, and then with symbols keeps her there

The theatre in my city runs a scheme (with state funding, of course – when did you last hear of a private company doing something this fantastic?) to get da yoofs in to see plays – they give away free tickets to people 18-25. At 24, I still count as a yoof, and I finally decided to get my arse in gear and sign up for the thing.

(I’d just like to take a moment to say that this is the best way of driving young people to ‘old people’ interests – you don’t dumb it down and put twelve-year-olds in pastel-coloured costumes prancing around like fuckwits spouting idiotic, simplified platitudes: you provide access to the existing, quality stuff.)

It so happened that the first play that was available was Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw.

This is the story of a poor flower-girl who gets plucked off the streets by a pair of pompous linguists, who make the bet between them to see if they can make her indistinguishable to a Duchess (spoiler: they can). You may recognise this story from the musical My Fair Lady, which is based upon Pygmalion.

Pygmalion was, in Greek myth, a sculptor who made a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with it. He prayed to the goddess Aphrodite, and made offerings on her altar, and so she took pity and turned the statue into a real woman. It’s a forerunner to and distillation of the ‘woman as reward’ plot point so common in fiction – Galatea (as the statue was known – named that by Pygmalion, according to Ovid) literally had no personality, no individuality, no agency, no traits whatsoever apart from her beauty (she is depicted on a literal pedestal) until Pygmalion’s desire turns her into a living creature, at which point she promptly marries him and they have children.


Pygmalion is a play quite full of deception, and the production I saw understood and embraced that. Before the play began they played a perfectly charming announcement over the tannoy system along the lines of ‘In the time that this play was written, telephones existed, but a “mobile” was a sort of glittering toy that was hung above an infant’s cot’, all delivered in a very Mr. Darcy sort of Received Pronunciation Authoritative Man voice. It was a cute way of telling everyone to turn their phones off (though one girl in the row behind me, showing off to her friend, did state that she found it, like, really annoying and oh god why am I here this is going to be so boring).

In short, my first impression was that it was going to be a sort of Steampunk/Downton Abbey bit of harmless-but-infuriating fluff. You know: taking (some of) the aesthetics of a past time, maybe sprinkle it with a few characters with amusingly outdated views, but with all the characters we’re supposed to like being variations of Tim, Nice-But-Then, and with no real engagement with anything approaching reality.

(If you need to take a few moments to seek medical care because your eyeballs have rolled back too far in your head, I understand, but: look, I’d heard of George Bernard Shaw, in a vague sort of way, and I’d heard that he was good – but I’ve heard that about Andrew Lloyd Webber, Babylon 5 and Attack on Titan, and those are all rubbish.)

The opening scene of the play introduces us to the useless fop Freddy, his overbearing mother, and stupid sister, trapped under a bus shelter in the rain. He’s forgotten to book a taxi cab, you see, the idiot boy and oh god this is going to be some comedy of manners shite isn’t it – but then we find that all of this is actually just a lengthy set-up to the introduction of the professor of phonetics Henry Higgins (who makes his money by teaching Americans and wealthy industrialists to speak with posh accents), his newfound colleague and friend Colonel Pickering, and the protagonist of the piece: flower-girl Eliza Doolittle.

A flowergirl
Selling flowers on the streets of London was a very precarious proposition, only a few steps above begging or prostitution. From Henry Mayhew’s London Labour & London Poor, 1851:

Sunday is the best day for flowerselling, and one experienced man computed, that in the height and pride of the summer four hundred children were selling flowers on Sundays in the streets. The trade is almost entirely in the hands of children, the girls outnumbering the boys by more than eight to one. The ages of the girls vary from six to twenty, few of the boys are older than twelve, and most of them are under ten.

Of flowergirls there are two classes. Some girls, and they are certainly the smaller class of the two, avail themselves of the sale of flowers in the streets for immoral purposes, or rather, they seek to eke out the small gains of their trade by such practices. Their ages are from fourteen to nineteen or twenty, and sometimes they remain out offering their flowers until late at night.

The other class of flowergirls is composed of girls who, wholly or partially, depend upon the sale of flowers for their own support or as an assistance for their parents. They are generally very persevering, more especially the younger children, who will run along barefooted, with their, “Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers. Poor little girl!” or “Please kind lady, buy my violets. O, do! please! Poor little girl! Do buy a bunch, please, kind lady!”

Shaw was certainly aware of this ambiguity. As Eliza repeats many times: ‘I’m a good girl, I am!’ – she’s always terrified of being seen as a prostitute, who were of course the lowest of the low in her society: not only were they women (and therefore intellectually stunted, incapable of thinking rationally or ruling their own lives), but they were fallen women, who needed to be punished. We used to burn women of power in this country; by the time that Shaw was writing the focus had moved to an even easier target, and the punishment had gone from death to ‘just’ being condemned to a life of pointless drudgery in a workhouse. Death from disease or violence was seen as just desserts for living a life of infamy, or else it was seen as a regrettable but inevitable result of their choices, which amounts to much the same thing in the final analysis.

(It should, perhaps, be noted that the play was written only 24 years after the Jack the Ripper killings, which Shaw (who was living in London at the time) would have been aware of. That case was illustrative of the position of prostitutes in London: they were only of interest when they were dead, slabs of carved meat; they and their suffering were exploited to sell newspaper copy. In his magnum opus From Hell, Alan Moore posits that the murders of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – and the media spectacle around those murders – constituted the birth of the twentieth century, an age where the manipulation of mass media became a primary form of power. But I digress.)

Important to note is how the posh characters all treat Eliza: as a suspect. Because of her class and obvious lack of education, they patronise and accuse her.‘Now tell me how you know that young gentleman’s name’, demands Freddy’s mother. Unsaid, but obvious, is the accusation: has he fucked you? Oh, God, please don’t let my son have got some whore pregnant!

I’m making this all sound very dreary and serious, aren’t I? Well, it isn’t. The play – most of it, anyway – is pretty funny. That is its secret weapon: it makes you lower your guard, and then hits you over the head with the implications of what you’re seeing. Eliza plays the fool for most of the play, a stupid working-class girl for the poshos to mock in ways that she doesn’t understand, and then every once in a while…

A good example of this is the first scene with Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. He is clearly a comic character – a funny drunk. He gets in a few good lines haranguing Henry Higgins about ‘middle-class morality’: that is, the thought that oh, if only the poor would just act like us, they wouldn’t be poor any more! Of course, he does that while attempting to sell his daughter to what he believes to be two rich perverts, which does undermine his points somewhat.

Now, throughout this scene, Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering have a lot of fun with Alfred. He’s a very charismatic, very funny man – I don’t think I heard the audience laughing louder than they were when he was on stage.

HIGGINS. I suppose we must give him a fiver.

PICKERING. He’ll make a bad use of it, I’m afraid.

DOOLITTLE. Not me, Governor, so help me I won’t. Don’t you be afraid that I’ll save it and spare it and live idle on it. There won’t be a penny of it left by Monday: I’ll have to go to work same as if I’d never had it. It won’t pauperize me, you bet. Just one good spree for myself and the missus, giving pleasure to ourselves and employment to others, and satisfaction to you to think it’s not been throwed away. You couldn’t spend it better.

He goes on and on, this clown, and then Eliza enters the room. There’s some more comic banter – Eliza think having a mirror in the bathroom is a step too far. It’s all very amusing, very cosy; and then, childishly, Eliza sticks out her tongue at her father.

Don’t give me none of your lip!’ he roars, and Eliza shrinks down to half her size, and the audience goes completely silent.

There are a lot of moments like that. It’s a deceptive, brilliant play.

Having had the misfortune to see My Fair Lady, I was just waiting for the point in the play when Henry would realise that he loooves Eliza and decide to stop being a such a jerk and win the girl as his reward. Having sculpted his Galatea, he would redeem himself and live happy even after with wedding bells and children and me vomiting with rage into the hair of the students in front of me. That’s the shape of these sort of stories, isn’t it? One of the Seven Basic Plots, probably.

But, once more, I had underestimated Shaw.

Over the last section of the play, a series of possible escapes are provided for Eliza. Freddy, the nice-but-dim lad we met earlier, meets her in her first outing to an afternoon tea and falls head-over-heels for her. Colonel Pickering is there, still quite pompous but quite friendly compared to Henry. Her father comes into some money – something he blames Henry for, because now he’s got to marry his common-law wife and act ‘respectably’.

All of these, she rejects. She is no longer afraid of her father, and even goes along to his wedding, but she won’t rely on him. Colonel Pickering is much more like an uncle to her than anything else, and they part of amiable terms. Freddy isn’t even an option, really.

‘I shall miss you, Eliza’, says Henry. ‘I have learnt something from your idiotic notions: I confess that humbly and gratefully. And I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance. I like them, rather.’ But it is too late for that, far too late. He’s treated her poorly, like an animal to train, like a problem to be solved in order to win a bet; even when he tries to get her to stay with him, he can’t help but call her notions ‘idiotic’. And so she leaves him, but not for her father, or Colonel Pickering, or Freddy.

Aha! Now I know how to deal with you. What a fool I was not to think of it before! You can’t take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can. Aha! That’s done you, Henry Higgins, it has. Now I don’t care that for your bullying and your big talk. I’ll advertize it in the papers that your duchess is only a flower girl that you taught, and that she’ll teach anybody to be a duchess just the same in six months for a thousand guineas. Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself.


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2 responses to “With symbols man casts woman down, and then with symbols keeps her there”

  1. William says :

    We read Pygmalion in high school. Didn’t get much out of it. Apparently, I’ll have to read it again.


    • evilsoup says :

      I’ve never really been convinced of the practice of reading plays in school — I mean, Shakespeare has some pretty cool monologues at least, but… the proper way to experience a play is to either see it performed or perform it yourself (the latter would be how I’d do it if I was in charge of the curriculum. And had unlimited funding, haha).

      So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t get much out of just reading a script. Without seeing actors act, you’re at best getting half the experience.


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