Pygmalion has always been one of Shaw’s most popular plays. Its initial production with Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Higgins and Mrs. Pat Campbell as Eliza took 1914 London by storm and led to similarly successful productions all over the world. But in our day, the play has been somewhat eclipsed by the musical that Lerner and Loewe made of it, My Fair Lady. And those who think that because they know My Fair Lady they knowPygmalion are likely to be somewhat surprised when they see Shaw’s play.
Although the author called his play “A Romance in Five Acts”, it’s a strange kind of romance. Shaw himself said: “Don’t talk to me of romances, I was sent into the world to dance on them with thick boots–to shatter, stab and murder them.” And Pygmalion, if it doesn’t quite murder romance, certainly stands it on its head. The American critic, Eric Bentley, once observed that Pygmalion stood in relation to the traditional romance in the same way that Androcles And The Lion stood to English Pantomime (which had inspired that play), or The Devil’s Disciple did to conventional melodrama. All three plays are, inherently, critiques of the traditional models, and alternatives to them.
Pygmalion also seems to have been influenced by the work of Ibsen, specifically his play,A Doll’s House. This would not be surprising as Shaw had championed the Norwegian’s work long before audiences caught up with him. At the end of Ibsen’s play, Nora walks out on her husband, Torvald, in an attempt to discover who she might be. Eliza does the same. She declares her independence from her “creator”, Henry Higgins, and walks out to face her destiny.
Yet despite Shaw’s insistence that Eliza and Higgins do NOT end up together–and Eliza’s response to Higgins’ demand that she fetch him cheese and gloves is met with “Buy them yourself” (which seems about as definitive as Nora’s door slam)–, audiences and critics alike have never quite believed it. Shaw went on to write at least 6 different endings to his play as well as a prose “Sequel” in which he categorically insists that not only does Higgins NOT marry Eliza, but that Freddy Eynsford-Hill does!
In some ways, Shaw’s worrying at the problem only exacerbated it. With each attempt, his ending became less satisfying. It may be that the best solution is in leaving the ending of his play as ambiguous as it was to his original audience. It’s less important to worry about what happens to Eliza and Higgins after the end of the play than to realize that, in this instance, the end of the play is not the end of the story and that Shaw’s protagonists have much business left to resolve. So as Shaw wrote in one of those endings: “A happy ending. A happy beginning!” Life goes on.