George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856. He moved to London at the age of twenty one where he began to meet the earliest British socialists. In 1884, he became one of the founder members of the Fabian Society, which promoted equality between people whatever their background or class.
Shaw was a prolific writer of novels and plays, with “Pygmalion” first being performed at His Majesty’s theatre in London in 1914. This play tells us a huge amount about Shaw’s attitude to the British class system in Edwardian times. The plot follows the attempts of Professor Henry Higgins to teach Eliza Doolittle, a street flower seller to pass for a Duchess in six months.
Early twentieth century Britain was a much divided society, being split into upper, middle and working classes. These divisions were largely based on wealth, with huge variations between the wealthy upper class and the sometimes very poor working class. Henry Higgins and Eliza represent opposite ends of the social spectrum and Shaw uses them and his descriptions of them and their surroundings to show what he believed to be an unjust gap between everyday lives and living conditions between the classes.
Eliza is described as poorly dressed and dirty.” Her hair needs washing rather badly…she wears a shoddy black coat. Her boots are much the worse for wear…compared to the ladies she is very dirty”. In contrast, the middle class characters with the time and money for leisure are leaving the theatre and looking for a cab to take them back to their comfortable homes. Higgins with his studies in phonetics is noting how different characters in the scene speak and is able to deduce their place of birth from how they speak. He is very rude to Eliza and unjustly calls her a “squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language”. Eliza returns home to a small room with very minimal furnishings, described as “the irreducible minimum of poverty’s needs”.
Shaw builds our sympathy for Eliza in Act 1, as we admire her determination and the resilience that she uses to become the heroine of the play. The Eynsford Hill’s and Higgins’ treatment of Eliza show the prejudices that Shaw say towards the lower classes from the middle and upper classes. Clara Eynsford-Hill treats Eliza with contempt, “make her give you the change. These things are only a penny a bunch”. Higgins simply sees Eliza as a project. His desire to pass her off as a Duchess is not for her benefit, but to prove a point and to promote himself as a phonetics expert. Even Mrs Pearce (Higgins’ Housekeeper) looks down on Eliza, calling her “a common girl, sir, very common indeed”. This shows that Shaw was correct in his assumptions about the prejudices against the lower classes- even evident from the working class servants, who obviously believed themselves to be a cut above the street sellers.
Shaw tries to show that everyone has aspirations. Eliza says she wants to be “a lady in a flower shop”, and with a bath and some clean clothes, she begins to be viewed in a different light. Shaw depicts Eliza as a poor girl but with morals, “I’m a good girl I am; and I won’t pick up no free -and-easy ways”. Eliza’s father , Mr Doolittle, shows the more traditional view of the lower classes with his slippery character, always on the lookout to make easy money- a cockney caricature. In these characterisations, Shaw is also showing us the sexual inequalities of Edwardian Britain, with the men being the leaders and masters and the women being mere chattels of their fathers and husbands. This was the case in all the classes. Doolittle says, “Among the lower classes, children are assets because they can earn money for the family. The girl belongs to me”.
Eliza’s transformation is tested at an open- house held by Mrs Higgins (the mother of Professor Higgins). Shaw uses Mrs Higgins to show us that not all Upper Class people are unkind and unfeeling. She shows sympathy to Eliza and chastises her son for “playing with your live doll” and berates him, “I’m sorry to say that my celebrated son has no manners. Mrs Higgins also sees the problems of trying to change a person’s perceived class , as she asks what’s going to happen to Eliza “afterwards”. She is the moral face of the upper class.
Professor Higgins’ final triumph is his winning the bet of passing Eliza off as a duchess at an Embassy party in London. Eliza, however, is distraught, as she finally realises that she means nothing more than a challenge to Higgins. We see that merely changing someone’s outward appearance, or giving them money makes no difference to the actual person you are. This idea is reinforced when Mr Doolittle comes into money. He feels uncomfortable about having to conform to “middle-class morality”.
The situations that Eliza and Mr Doolittle find themselves in reflect the amount of social climbing going on at the time. Can people change class? Eliza’s desire to become a flower-shop lady at the start of the “experiment” ends with her feeling exploited, “Oh! If I could only go back to my flower basket! Why did you take my independence from me? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes”. This highlights the foolishness of snobbery and pretending to be someone you are not. The person inside is what is important, not fine clothes and clipped vowels.
George Bernard Shaw uses “Pygmalion” to point fun at the British Class system. He does this in a light and entertaining way which means that the message of the play is very clear. Eliza learns that it is not class that matters, but a person’s integrity. Equality is achieved at the end of the play when Eliza says she will marry Freddy. This shows that society would be a far better place if equality in life were possible.