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Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts (1913) is a play by George Bernard Shaw. It tells the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can successfully pass off a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, as a refined society lady by teaching her how to speak with an upper class accent and training her in etiquette. In the process, Higgins and Eliza grow close, but she ultimately rejects his domineering ways and declares she will marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill – a young, poor, gentleman.

The Pygmalion myth was a popular subject for Victorian era English playwrights, including one of Shaw's influences, W. S. Gilbert, who wrote a successful play based on the story in 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea. Shaw also would have been familiar with the burlesque version, Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed.

Inspiration and First Productions

Shaw created Eliza Doolittle specifically for Mrs Patrick Campbell, partly as a flirtatious challenge and partly to tease her for her social pretensions, which he felt hampered her growth as an artist. Her affected diction onstage (even in Shakespeare), which both he and Oscar Wilde instantly recognized as that of a suburban social climber, was at odds with her considerable abilities, and likely provoked the Higgins in Shaw to a great degree. The idea came to him in 1897, when "Mrs Pat" was under contract to Johnston Forbes-Robertson and at the height of her youthful fascination and glamour. Writing to Ellen Terry in September of that year, he mentions Forbes's "rapscallionly flower girl"; the next sentence is, "Caesar and Cleopatra has been driven clean out of my head by a play I want to write for them in which he shall be a west end gentleman and she an east end dona in an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers."

"The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play." The success of Pygmalion drew attention to the science of phonetics and speculation arose over whether a model for Henry Higgins existed. Shaw never named an inspiration for the man or the professor. However, in the Preface to the 1916 edition he writes at length about the respected philologist and phonetician Henry Sweet, with whom he communicated for years regarding phonetics and shorthand. Dr. Sweet would stand before a group of speakers, taking furious notes on their phonetic conversation; he categorized voice sounds and accents, sent postcards to friends written in a unique shorthand or in the symbols of his "Broad Romic" system of phonetic notation, could pronounce seventy-two vowel sounds, and "unfortunately was of a rather difficult disposition." Nevertheless, "Higgins is not a portrait of Sweet... still, as will be seen, there are touches of Sweet in the play." Shaw also knew and may have consulted with Daniel Jones, the leading phonetician of the time. In a few years Jones would codify a standard of English speech, Received Pronunciation, "the accent most commonly associated with the British 'upper crust'...based on a sixteenth-century, upper-class London accent"; the steps to learning and teaching such an accent would have been of paramount importance to the playwright. It's also possible that Dr. Jones's laboratory equipment inspired Higgins's. Some of the material in the play is based on the work of Jones, but his personality was gentle and modest. Daniel Jones's biographer concludes that "the Higgins character...would appear to have taken on a vivid life of its own during the writing of the play."

Shaw wrote the play in the spring of 1912 and read it to Mrs. Campbell in June. She came on board almost immediately, but her mild nervous breakdown (and its doctor-enforced leisure, which led to the famous romantic intrigue with Shaw) contributed to the delay of a London production. Pygmalion premiered at the Hofburg Theatremarker in Viennamarker on October 16, 1913, in a German translation by Shaw's Viennese literary agent and acolyte, Siegfried Trebitsch. It opened in London on April 11, 1914 at Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's His Majesty's Theatre and starred Mrs Campbell as Eliza and Tree as Higgins. Shaw directed the actors and oversaw every element of staging, decoration and technical effects.


First American (serialized) publication, Everybody's Magazine, November 1914

Shaw was conscious of the difficulties involved in staging a complete representation of the play. Acknowledging in a "Note for technicians" that such a thing would only be possible "on the cinema screen or on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery", he marked some scenes as candidates for omission if necessary. Of these, a short scene at the end of Act One in which Eliza goes home, and a scene in Act Two in which Eliza is unwilling to undress for her bath, are not described here. The others are the scene at the Embassy Ball in Act Three and the scene with Eliza and Freddy in Act Four. Neither the Gutenberg edition referenced throughout this page nor the Wikisource text linked below contain these sequences.

Act One

Covent Garden - 11.15p.m. A group of people are sheltering from the rain. Amongst them are the Eynsford-Hills, superficial social climbers eking out a living in "genteel poverty", consisting initially of Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and her daughter Clara. Clara's brother Freddy enters having earlier been dispatched to secure them a cab (which they can ill afford), but being rather timid and faint-hearted he has failed to do so. His sister bullies him, and enjoys seeing him look ridiculous. As he goes off once again to find a cab, he bumps into a flower girl, Eliza. Her flowers drop into the mud of Covent Gardenmarker, the flowers she needs to survive in her poverty-stricken world. Shortly they are joined by a gentleman, Colonel Pickering. While Eliza tries to sell flowers to the Colonel, a bystander informs her that a man is writing down everything she says. The man is Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics. Eliza worries that Higgins is a police officer and will not calm down until Higgins introduces himself. It soon becomes apparent that he and Colonel Pickering have a shared interest in phonetics; indeed, Pickering has come from India to meet Higgins and Higgins was planning to go to India to meet Pickering. Higgins tells Pickering that he could pass off the flower girl as duchess merely by teaching her to speak properly. These words of bravado spark an interest in Eliza, who would love to make changes in her life and become more mannerly, even though, to her, it only means working in a flower shop. At the end of the act, Freddy returns after finding a taxi, only to find that his mother and sister have gone and left him with the cab. The streetwise Eliza takes the cab from him, using the money that Higgins tossed to her out of pity, leaving him on his own.

Act Two

Higgins' home - Next Day. As Higgins demonstrates his phonetics to Pickering, the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, tells him that a young girl wants to see him. Eliza has shown up, and she tells Higgins that she will pay for lessons. He shows no interest in her, but she reminds him of his boast the previous day, so she can talk like a lady in a flower shop. Higgins claimed that he could pass her for a duchess. Pickering makes a bet with him on his claim, and says that he will pay for her lessons if Higgins succeeds. She is sent off to have a bath. Mrs. Pearce tells Higgins that he must behave himself in the young girl's presence. He must stop swearing, and improve his table manners. He is at a loss to understand why she should find fault with him. Then Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, appears with the sole purpose of getting money out of Higgins. He has no interest in his daughter in a paternal way. He sees himself as member of the undeserving poor, and means to go on being undeserving. He has an eccentric view of life, brought about by a lack of education and an intelligent brain. He is also aggressive, and when Eliza, on her return, sticks her tongue out at him, he goes to hit her, but is prevented by Pickering. The scene ends with Higgins telling Pickering that they really have got a difficult job on their hands.

Act Three

Mrs Higgins' drawing room. Higgins bursts in and tells his mother he has picked up a "common flower girl" whom he has been teaching. Mrs Higgins is not very impressed with her son's attempts to win her approval because it is her 'at home' day and she is entertaining visitors. The visitors are the Eynsford-Hills. Higgins is rude to them on their arrival. Eliza enters and soon falls into talking about the weather and her family. Whilst she is now able to speak in beautifully modulated tones, the substance of what she says remains unchanged from the gutter. She confides her suspicions that her father killed her aunt, to whom gin was "mother's milk", and that her father himself was always more cheerful after a good amount of gin. The Eynsford-Hills are curiously unperturbed by this, which Higgins passes off as "the new small talk" — and Freddy is enraptured. When she is leaving, he asks her if she is going to walk across the park, to which she replies, "Walk? Not bloody likely!" (This is the most famous line from the play, and, for many years after the play's debut, use of the word 'bloody' was known as a pygmalion; Mrs. Campbell was considered to have risked her career by speaking the line on stage. ) After she and the Eynsford-Hills leave, Henry asks for his mother's opinion. She says the girl is not presentable and is very concerned about what will happen to her, but neither Higgins nor Pickering understand her criticism, and leave feeling confident and excited about how Eliza will get on. This leaves Mrs Higgins feeling exasperated, and exclaiming, "Men! Men!! Men!!!"

However, the six months are not yet up, and just in time for the Embassy Ball Eliza learns to behave properly as well as to speak properly. The challenge she faces is increased, however, by the presence at the Ball of Nepommuck, a former pupil of Higgins' who speaks 32 languages and is acting as an interpreter for a "Greek diplomatist" who was in fact born the son of a Clerkenwellmarker watchmaker and "speaks English so villainously that he dare not utter a word of it lest he betray his origin." Nepommuck charges him handsomely for helping keep up the pretence. Pickering worries that Nepommuck will see through Eliza's disguise; nonetheless, Eliza is presented to the Ball's hosts, who, impressed by this vision of whom they know nothing, despatch Nepommuck to find out about her. Meanwhile Higgins, the interesting work done, rapidly loses interest in proceedings as he sees that no-one will see through Eliza. Indeed, Nepommuck returns to his hosts to report that he has detected that Eliza is not English, as she speaks it too perfectly ("only those who have been taught to speak it speak it well"), and that she is, in fact, Hungarian, and of Royal blood. When asked, Higgins responds with the truth - and no-one believes him.

Act Four

Higgins' home - The time is midnight, and Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza have returned from the ball. A tired Eliza sits unnoticed, brooding and silent, while Pickering congratulates Higgins on winning the bet. Higgins scoffs and declares the evening a "silly tomfoolery", thanking God it's over and saying that he had been sick of the whole thing for the last two months. Still barely acknowledging Eliza beyond asking her to leave a note for Mrs. Pearce regarding coffee, the two retire to bed. Higgins asks where his slippers are, and on returning to the room Eliza throws them at him. Higgins is taken aback, and is at first completely unable to understand Eliza's preoccupation, which aside from being ignored after her triumph is the question of what she is to do now. When Higgins does understand he makes light of it, saying she could get married, but Eliza interprets this as selling herself like a prostitute. "We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Roadmarker." Finally she returns her jewellery to Higgins, including the ring he had given her, which he throws into the fireplace with a violence that scares Eliza. Furious with himself for losing his temper, he damns Mrs. Pearce, the coffee and then Eliza, and finally himself, for "lavishing" his knowledge and his "regard and intimacy" on a "heartless guttersnipe", and retires in great dudgeon.

Eliza retrieves the ring but throws it down on a table, and goes to pack. She slips out into the night, only to encounter Freddy, who has taken to wandering up and down Wimpole Street by night, just to be close to Eliza. He declares his love for her and they kiss, only to be interrupted by a passing constable. They move on, only to be interrupted again; they decide to drive round in a taxi all night and call on Mrs. Higgins in the morning, reasoning that she will know what Eliza ought to do.

Act Five

Mrs. Higgins' drawing room, the next morning. Higgins and Pickering, perturbed by the discovery that Eliza has walked out on them, call on Mrs. Higgins to phone the police. Higgins is particularly distracted, since Eliza had assumed the responsibility of maintaining his diary and keeping track of his possessions, which causes Mrs. Higgins to decry their calling the police as though Eliza were "a lost umbrella". Doolittle is announced; he emerges dressed in splendid wedding attire and is furious with Higgins, who after their previous encounter had been so taken with Doolittle's unorthodox ethics that he had recommended him as the "most original moralist in England" to a rich American founding Moral Reform Societies; the American had subsequently left Doolittle a pension worth three thousand pounds a year, as a consequence of which Doolittle feels intimidated into joining the middle class and marrying his missus. Mrs. Higgins observes that this at least settles the problem of who shall provide for Eliza, to which Higgins objects — after all, he paid Doolittle five pounds for her. Mrs. Higgins informs her son that Eliza is upstairs, and explains the circumstances of her arrival, alluding to how marginalised and overlooked Eliza felt the previous night. Higgins is unable to appreciate this, and sulks when told that he must behave if Eliza is to join them. Doolittle is asked to wait outside.

Eliza enters, at ease and self-possessed. Higgins blusters but Eliza isn't shaken and speaks exclusively to Pickering. Throwing Higgins' previous insults back at him ("Oh, I'm only a squashed cabbage leaf"), Eliza remarks that it was only by Pickering's example that she learned to be a lady, which renders Higgins speechless. Eliza goes on to say that she has completely left behind the flower girl she was, and that she couldn't utter any of her old sounds if she tried — at which point Doolittle emerges from the balcony, causing Eliza to relapse totally into her gutter speech. Higgins is jubilant, jumping up and crowing over her. Doolittle explains his predicament and asks if Eliza will come to his wedding. Pickering and Mrs. Higgins also agree to go, and leave with Doolittle with Eliza to follow.

The scene ends with another confrontation between Higgins and Eliza. Higgins asks if Eliza is satisfied with the revenge she has wrought thus far and if she will now come back, but she refuses. Higgins defends himself from Eliza's earlier accusation by arguing that he treats everyone the same, so she shouldn't feel singled out. Eliza replies that she just wants a little kindness, and that since he will never stoop to show her this, she will not come back, but will marry Freddy. Higgins scolds her for such low ambitions: he has made her "a consort for a king." When she threatens to teach phonetics and offer herself as an assistant to Nepommuck, Higgins again loses his temper and promises to wring her neck if she does so. Eliza realises that this last threat strikes Higgins at the very core and that it gives her power over him; Higgins, for his part, is delighted to see a spark of fight in Eliza rather than her erstwhile fretting and worrying. Mrs. Higgins returns and she and Eliza depart for the wedding. As they leave Higgins incorrigibly gives Eliza a number of errands to run, as though their recent conversation had not taken place. Eliza disdainfully explains why they are unnecessary, and wonders what Higgins is going do without her. Higgins laughs to himself at the idea of Eliza marrying Freddy as the play ends.


Pygmalion was the most broadly appealing of all Shaw's plays. But popular audiences, looking for pleasant entertainment with big stars in a West End venue, wanted a "happy ending" for the characters they liked so well, as did some critics. During the 1914 run, to Shaw's exasperation but not to his surprise, Tree sought to sweeten Shaw's ending to please himself and his record houses. Shaw returned for the 100th performance and watched Higgins, standing at the window, toss a bouquet down to Eliza. "My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful," protested Tree. "Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot." Shaw remained sufficiently irritated to add a postscript essay, "'What Happened Afterwards," to the 1916 print edition for inclusion with subsequent editions, in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married.

He continued to protect the play's and Eliza's integrity by protecting the last act. For at least some performances during the 1920 revival, Shaw adjusted the ending in a way that underscored the Shavian message. In an undated note to Mrs Campbell he wrote,
When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on 'constant battleship' you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final 'Buy them yourself.' He will go out on the balcony to watch your departure; come back triumphantly into the room; exclaim 'Galatea!' (meaning that the statue has come to life at last); and — curtain. Thus he gets the last word; and you get it too.

This ending is not included in any print version of the play.

Shaw fought uphill against such a reversal of fortune for Eliza all the way to 1938. He sent the film's harried producer, Gabriel Pascal, a concluding sequence which he felt offered a fair compromise: a romantically-set farewell scene between Higgins and Eliza, then Freddy and Eliza happy in their greengrocery/flower shop. At the sneak preview he learned that Pascal had shot the "I washed my face and hands" ending, implying that Eliza and Higgins probably will get married. Shaw amended the ending subsequent to the 1938 film and it is this later version that is described above: in the original ending, Eliza merely retorts "Buy them yourself" in response to Higgins' list of errands. Higgins is unperturbed, and the play ends with him left alone in Mrs. Higgins' drawing room, serenely confident that Eliza will, in fact, do as he asks.

Differing versions

Different printed versions of the play omit or add certain lines, much like Shakespeare's First Folio and First Quarto editions of his plays. The Project Gutenberg version published online, for instance, omits Higgins famous declaration to Eliza, "Yes, you squashed cabbage-leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language! I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!" - a line so famous that it is now retained in nearly all productions of the play, including the 1938 film version of Pygmalion as well as in the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady.

In the original play Eliza's test is met at an ambassador's garden party, offstage. For the 1938 film Shaw and co-writers replaced that exposition with a scene at an embassy ball; Nepommuck, the dangerous translator spoken about in the play, is finally seen, but his name is updated to Arstid Karpathy — named so by Gabriel Pascal, the film's Hungarian producer, who also made sure that Karpathy mistakes Eliza for a Hungarian princess. In My Fair Lady he became Zoltan Karpathy.

Shaw's screen version of the play as well as a new print version incorporating the new sequences he had added for the film script were published in 1941. The scenes he had noted in "Note for Technicians" are added.

Television episodes


Pygmalion remains Shaw's most popular play. The play's widest audiences know it as the inspiration for the highly romanticized musical and film.

Ironically, Pygmalion has transcended cultural and language barriers since its first production. The British Museum contains "images of the Polish production...; a series of shots of a wonderfully Gallicised Higgins and Eliza in the first French production in Paris in 1923; a fascinating set for a Russian production of the 1930s. There was no country which didn't have its own 'take' on the subjects of class division and social mobility, and it's as enjoyable to view these subtle differences in settings and costumes as it is to imagine translators wracking their brains for their own equivalent of 'Not bloody likely'."

Joseph Weizenbaum named his artificial intelligence computer program ELIZA after the character Eliza Doolittle.

Notable productions


The play led to a series of adaptations:


  1. Terry, Ellen and G.B. Shaw, edited by Christopher St. John (1932).Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  2. Shaw, G.B. (1916). Pygmalion. New York: Brentano. Preface: A Professor of Phonetics. Bartleby: Great Books Online.
  3. "Broad Romic" In Act II Higgins announces, "We'll set her talking; and I'll take it down first in Bell's visible Speech; then in broad Romic;...."
  4. Wainger, Bertrand M. "Henry Sweet — Shaw's Pygmalion." Studies in Philology, Oct. 1930 vol. 27, no. 4. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. JSTOR
  5. Sweet contributed a comprehensive essay on Phonetics for The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), pp.458-67. Transcribed at
  6. Daniel Jones, who briefly studied under him, quoted in Collins and Mees, p.96.
  7. East, Melanie (2008). "The Rise, Reign, and (declining?) Reputation of Received Pronunciation." CHASS, University of Toronto.
  8. Collins, Beverley and Inger M. Mees. The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. London: Walter de Gruyter, 1998. ISBN 978-3110151244.
  9. Shaw, G.B. and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, edited by Alan Dent (1952). Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: Their Correspondence. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.
  10. "A Dramatist For All Seasons: George Bernard Shaw In Vienna." The Oscholars
  11. Shaw, Bernard, edited by Samuel A. Weiss (1986). Bernard Shaw's Letters to Siegfried Trebitsch. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 0804712573, p.164.
  12. Evans, T.F. (ed.) (1997). George Bernard Shaw (The Critical Heritage Series). ISBN 0415159539, pp. 223-30.
  13. "From the Point of View of A Playwright," by Bernard Shaw, collected in Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Some Memories of Him and His Art, Collected by Max Beerbohm (1919). London: Hutchinson. Versions at Text Archive Internet Archive
  14. Shaw, Bernard, edited by Dan H. Laurence. Collected Letters vol. III: 1911-1925.
  15. Shaw-Campbell Correspondence, p.160. Shaw's "FINAL ORDERS" letter to Mrs. Campbell on the first night. He wrote to his wife the next day that the audience's wild appreciation of the third act — which he had warned the actors would happen — impelled Tree instinctively to begin playing to please the house, much to Shaw's disgust but to the play's guaranteed popular success. Collected Letters, vol. III. The same day he withdrew his recommendation to Lee Shubert that Tree be included in an American tour.
  16. Shaw, G.B. (1916). Pygmalion. New York: Brentano. Sequel: What Happened Afterwards. Bartleby: Great Books Online.
  17. "The Instinct of An Artist: Shaw and the Theatre." Catalog for "An Exhibition from The Bernard F. Burgunder Collection," 1997. Cornell University Library
  18. Collected Letters
  20. "The lesson of a Polish production of 'Pygmalion.'"The Independent on Sunday, July 3, 2001. The Independent
  21. British Theatre Guide (1997)
  22. Willy Russell - Introduction

External links

  • Pygmalion stories & art: "successive retellings of the Pygmalion story after Ovid's Metamorphoses"
  • "Bernard Shaw Snubs England and Amuses Germany." The New York Times, November 30, 1913. This article quotes the original script at length ("translated into the vilest American": Letters to Trebitsch, p.170), including its final lines. Its author, too, hopes for a "happy ending": that after the curtain Eliza will return bearing the gloves and tie.

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