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Processes: The Play, Its Context, and Presented Ideas
Addressing the increasing social tension and the capitulation of Victorian values and philosophy, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” serves as not merely a witty social commentary but also as a rebellion against Victorian traditions. Pointing at the stiffness and the outdated nature of the values and ideas associated with the Victorian era, Shaw’s “Pygmalion” quickly turned into a beacon of societal change. Nevertheless, the play has retained its relevance throughout the decades of its existence and through the thousands of its reiterations, which suggests that the play appeals to its readers with its core premise of rejecting the edifice of artificiality and, instead, seeking the source of personal happiness and content.
In retrospect, the cultural context of the play was that of a period of transition from the Victorian values to the new ones and the desperate search of the ideas that could constitute a new value system. The subversion of the stiff concepts on which the previous value system resided is evident in the play, yet it does not offer a substitute in return; instead, I provoke thought and careful analysis, allowing the audience to infer solutions independently and individually. As Trimper et al. (2015) explain, the play “probes important questions about social class, human behavior, and relations between the sexes” (2).
By subverting the stereotypical notions associated with the concepts above, Shaw challenged the established ideas of how relationships between different classes should develop. As a result, while the play was firmly established in a very specific historical context, it quickly resonates with any generation due to its rebellious ideas and the reinforcement of change. Therefore, even though the play needs to retain its core elements such as the premise, the details that might be perceived as seemingly crucial, such as the actual historical setting and the linguistic characteristics of the main characters, can be replaced with only the principal idea of the conflict between different classes being kept to forward the plot.
As it is with many works by Bernard Shaw, the genre of “Pygmalion” is not quite easy to pin down as something definitive. Instead, the play seems to meander between several genres, which causes it to gain particular depth. Although “Pygmalion” was clearly intended to be perceived as a lighthearted comedy, there is an evident element of a more profound social commentary in it. The comedy elements are visible most distinctively, with Shaw’s wit pouring out of every sentence (Romanska & Ackerman 2016).
However, the hidden layers of drama can be discovered on further analysis as one wanders into the deeper context of the play and analyzes some of the cues more thoroughly. For example, Eliza’s analysis of her situation as she enters the upper-class society rings with despair and hopelessness that reflects the futility of a social conflict: “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me.” (Shaw 1913).
In the sentence above, the personal drama intertwines with the social one. On the one hand, Shaw questions the legitimacy of an ostensibly positive idea of introducing one to a wider range of opportunities but failing to realize that some people do not have the societal advantages into which others were literally born. On the other hand, the personal conflict between Eliza and Higgins spirals from a misunderstanding into a direct confrontation: “Leave me those feelings; and you can take away the voice and the face. They are not you” (Shaw 1913). Thus, the play meanders between the social conflict and the personal one, allowing the reader to see how the two are interconnected.
The ideas presented in the play are strikingly numerous, each requiring a discussion of its own. Arguably, the study of language, which Higgins names as his primary driver behind the experiment that he sets, is in the limelight of the play. Indeed, Shaw pays a sufficient amount of attention to the differences in how language is used by people belonging to different social classes.
Although the issue of dialects and linguistic specifics is often played as a joke, with Higgins’ emotions ranging from delight to bewilderment to indignation as Eliza speaks in her Cockney manner, the issue of language differences goes much deeper as a social phenomenon. By juxtaposing the prim and proper language use as shown by Higgins to the live yet hardly correct language that Eliza speaks, Shaw points out the problem of understanding as both a language issue and a social concern.
Finally, the subversion of the stereotypical perception of gender normativity is also present in “Pygmalion,” even though it might seem downplayed a bit. Eliza does not represent a staple of womanly behavior as it was expected of a female character in a 1910s play. Instead, she acts in a way that often embarrasses Higgins and Pickering, causing them to explain to her what they assume ladylike behavior to be.
The resulting challenge of gender norms and the emergence of the theme linked to the problem of gender nonconformity might have been incidental to the main plot, yet the presence of the scenes in which the specified aspect of the play is emphasized explicitly suggests otherwise (Brandth & Morgan 2017). Therefore, the issue of gender presentation, gender roles, and the interpretation of femininity can be seen as central themes in the play that could be explored further when viewed through the lens of the 21st-century feminist theory (Fortier 2016).
Overall, the sense that the play conveys is distinctively subversionary and inviting of change. Although the presence of the elements of romantic relationships could be arguably one of the themes that the play might potentially address, there is strong evidence that the specified interpretation of “Pygmalion” was not a part of the authorial intent. In fact, it is known that Shaw was famously and vehemently against the introduction of any hint at romance between Elisa and Higgins (Dolgin 2015). Indeed, when considering the specified plotline in the context of the message that the play strives to convey, one will realize that it, in fact, goes against every idea represented in “Pygmalion.”
The misguided assumption that one’s identity can be altered by redressing one socially and introducing one to a different manner of speaking is ridiculed abundantly clear in the play, which means that Elisa cannot possibly see Higgins’ attempts at changing her very nature as a sign of him being worthy of her affection. As Trimper et al. (2015) clarify, “Shaw insisted that such an ending would have been misery for his characters, but producers and audiences nevertheless tended to prefer a romantic ending” (p. 7).
Therefore, altering the current approach toward perceiving the play and helping the audience to view it through the lens of social conflict and the problematic attitudes toward vulnerable groups is absolutely necessary. Thus, the plight of Elise needs to be hard as an important statement in defense of the people that do not seem to have enough voice in the context of the highly stratified society.
Although “Pygmalion” has a very distinct setting and style, the environment in which the characters are placed is not set in stone; therefore, it is possible to change some of the aspects of the play, making it relevant to the present-day discourse and at the same time keeping the original atmosphere of it. Although the original play is flawless, there are ways to make it more palatable to the present-day audience without reiterating the concepts that have been represented on stage in numerous renderings of the playa million times before. For this reason, it is crucial to focus on the social context of the play as the issue that remains relevant even to date despite the attempts at creating a society rooted in the principles of equality and equity.
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In addition, revisiting the characters as they are represented in the play may be necessary as the means of breathing a new life into “Pygmalion.” At this point, as a director, one may find themselves at the crossroads between the need to expand the character of Eliza and keep the one of Higgins likable. Indeed, approaching Eliza’s character from the perspective of the feminist theory (Tompkins 2015), one will realize that her attempts at asserting herself and seeking for her true identity are worthy of being highlighted on stage, which suggests paying closer attention to Eliza, giving her a greater amount of spotlight, and framing her personal growth as the crux of the play.
However, when interpreting the play from the specified standpoint, one may find that Higgins’ character shrinks from quirky but tolerable to nearly unlikeable since he serves as the impediment to Eliza’s self-expression and self-exploration.
My initial reaction to the play was rather mixed due to the portrayal of the lead characters. Notably, a large number of staged versions of “Pygmalion” choose to play the outlined character dynamics for laughs, representing Eliza’s character as witty yet socially inept and in strong need of Higgins’ guidance, which made me feel quite annoyed. For example, in Bedlam’s 2018 version of the play, the conflict between the classes as it is portrayed by Shaw is transformed into a ploy for silly shenanigans and cheap laughs (Soloski 2018).
The focus on the superficially comedic aspect of what turns out to be a tragedy of a declassified woman does not invalidate Bedlam’s vision entirely, yet it robs the play of its weight and introduces excessive lightheartedness into it. Therefore, I felt that maintaining the balance between the characters’ relationships and their personal development is instrumental to staging the play as an art piece would make an important statement concerning perceived gender roles, social status, and class conflict (Sutherland 2015).
In addition to the multiple endeavors at staging “Pygmalion,” one may need to draw attention to how other types of source material are reworked to be introduced or re-introduced into the context of the theater. Two different examples of plays that have been staged with tremendous success, namely, “The Lion King” and “Hamilton,” come to mind. Watching “The Lion King” was an authentic experience that deviated drastically from the animated version yet also had the same emotional weight and complex undertones.
Remarkably, the Broadway staging of “The Lion King” has helped to connect the play to “Hamlet” as its original source material, simultaneously imbuing the play with numerous elements from the African culture, thus making the play a unique artwork and an unparalleled aesthetic experience. “the Lion King” is a prime example of how staging effects can be utilized to the advantage of a play, without placing the main characters in the shadow of the production values but, instead, using the elements of staging such as lighting, sound, setting, and other important aspects thereof as the background that allows amplifying the overall message of the plot.
In turn, “Hamilton” also worked as the basis for understanding how a play material can be shaped in order to create an entirely new and fascinating universe. While “The Lion King” has shown how the existing work can be reinvented to be retrofitted into an entirely different genre, “Hamilton” has proven that historical events can be reinterpreted in a way that will appeal to general audiences and help to create a new spin on how these events occurred, as well as the effects that they produced. Moreover, it was truly inspiring to see diversity in the cast, which showed that history can be revisited from different perspectives and that the characters traditionally envisioned in a specific way could be recreated by a diverse cast.
The play also helps to focus on the characters and their personal growth. As a result, historical figures come to life and become real people with their needs, aspirations, strengths, and flaws. Thus, “Hamilton” can serve as the source of reference for how character development and their motivations can be explored in a play, thus allowing the audience to relate to historical figures or, as in the case of “Pygmalion,” the characters that have a long-established history and may have become the staple of the genre.
Thus, the opportunity to see several plays staged, directed, and performed in an entirely new way became a truly inspirational experience since it has shown that any material can be reworked to introduce an idea that used to be overlooked before. Applying this experience to “Pygmalion,” one will realize that changes to the traditional process of staging the play are inevitable since some of the ideas that were seen as innovative in the past have become trite and worn out their welcome. For this reason, it is important to focus on three main aspects of staging “Pygmalion,” which are the key ideas that will be placed at the forefront of the script, the character dynamics, and the use of visual elements that will serve as the shorthand for rendering important messages to the audience.
Currently, the main vision of the play revolves around the idea of the conflict between social classes and the necessity to be culturally sensitive when considering the idea of creating changes for those that are deemed as more vulnerable due to the challenges that the lower classes experience. For this purpose, some of the scenes will be placed in the limelight to outline the presence of a deeper social conflict within the play.
At the same time, it will be necessary to avoid making Higgins’ character unlikable so that he would not turn into the straw man of the argument. For this reason, it will be needed to represent the initial intent of the character as well-meaning, albeit somewhat smug. As a result, one will achieve the necessary balance between the light-hearted elements of the play and a more serious social context of it.
As far as the elements of the play that can be interpreted as a hint at the chemistry between Eliza and Higgins, it will be reasonable to abstain from turning the play into a romantic comedy. While staging it as an entirely serious and dramatic piece would be unreasonable due to the nature of the work, the fact that the supposed romance between Eliza and Higgins has been reiterated multiple times suggests that the introduction of a strong emphasis on the romance will make the play indistinctive from an array of others. More to the point, leaving excessive ambiguity in the relationships between Eliza and Higgins will also be unreasonable since there is evidence of the authorial intent, which suggests that, having developed the sense of agency, Eliza would not want to stay with Higgins (Cantu 2015).
In fact, Shaw responded in the following manner to the first attempt at romanticizing Elisa’s and Higgins’ relationships: “Your ending is damnable. You out to be shot” (Lerner 2015, p. 22). Therefore, reducing the number of romantic interactions between the characters to a minimum and focusing on balancing out the comedic elements with a more serious tone when speaking of social issues will be a welcome change to the play.
Overall, the vision that will provide the foundation for the play will be based on the underlying social concerns and the idea of inequality as the basis for the existence of social classes. While the play will not intend to subvert the current class system, it will address the gap between its members, delineating the necessity to search for the common points of contact and establish relationships based on cooperation as opposed to the attempts at treating each other with either hidden or explicit contempt and the sense of superiority.
Although the identified vision might be deemed as too broad, it can be conveyed perfectly by considering the interactions between Elisa and any other character within the play. Representing the lower tier of the British society, Elisa is seen by Higgins as a pliable material that can be shaped into a human being, yet the difference in their social background obscures his vision and prevents him from recognizing her as a person with an individual, developed personality and an agency of her own (Kent 2015). Herein the primary conflict should live, providing the foil for the play and setting the stage for the final delivery of the crucial message about the necessity of equality as an indispensable part of relationships.
The current goals of staging “Pygmalion” include representing the social conflict within the plot and emphasizing that, despite the decades of progress, the misconceptions between classes, as well as the inherent oppression existing within relationships between their representatives, remain intact. For this reason, the setting of the play may need to be updated to the present-day context while retaining the original idea and the main characteristics of the lead characters.
The play will have to focus on conveying the problems of relationships within modern society. While the specified topic might seem too broad to be encompassed in a single play, the new staging of “Pygmalion” will strive to achieve the specified effect by encouraging viewers to contemplate the issues within modern society while slightly hinting at them as the plot of the play unravels in front of the audience. By focusing on imbuing scenes with meaning and allowing audiences to interpret these meanings on their own, one will create the ply that will have a lasting emotional impact on the viewers. Specifically, the audience will be introduced to the idea of personal autonomy, relationships between the representatives of different classes, and the connection between how social hierarchy works and how language is used to reinforce it.
Thus, the language will play a critical role in the staging process along with other important elements such as the necessity to keep Elisa’s character intact and the need to represent each of the characters as fairly neutral, without antagonizing either of them. By making it clear that Higgins is a product of his time, one will not deprive him of the sense of negativity that he tends to convey but, instead, make the audience understand how he comes to the conclusion that language affects personality and not vice versa. As a result, instead of pinning the problems faced by Elisa and people like her on a single delusional person, the play will open the audience to a whole array of societal issues that need to be resolved in order to achieve harmonious relationships.
Another crucial aspect of how the play will be staged involves rethinking the character of Higgins and the role that he plays in “Pygmalion.” While it is necessary to keep him likable to retain the innocent charm of the story, it will be crucial to convey that he is doing more harm than good overlooking the unfairness of the situation in which Eliza has found herself and focusing on the language as a thing in itself instead of a product of social interactions.
For instance, the scenes that involve Higgins criticizing Eliza’s manner of speaking or behaving will need to be represented in a way that will show Eliza in a sympathetic light. The described change will demand alterations in how the characters will behave; specifically, Eliza will need to show an emotional response toward Higgins’ remarks. In turn, to portray Higgins as the character that is deluded yet not devoid of the possibility of redemption, one will need to use visual shorthand to create the image of a person that remains blissfully ignorant of the social factors underlying the differences between him and Eliza.
The described change does not imply that Higgins’ point of view should be represented as positive and worth accepting as a given. Quite the contrary, it is crucial to emphasize the errors that Higgins makes in his assumption that language constitutes one’s personality. Although the message that changes in the manner of peaking does not entail the complete redesign of one’s personality might seem as evident, and even on-the-nose, the character of Higgins may be taken for granted due to the propensity among most iterations of “Pygmalion” to promote the idea of Eliza and Higgins becoming a couple.
Aside from the fact that the identified intention goes against the authorial intent completely, the change in Higgins’ personality will also nullify a rather progressive message that the play leaves for the reader to consider, namely, the fact that Eliza has the agency of her own and that it is her and not Higgins who is in charge of her destiny (Gaines 2017). Therefore, reducing the romantic tension between Higgins and Elisa should be one of the crucial directorial intentions when staging the play. The fact that Elisa does not seek Higgins’ romantic support should be made explicitly obvious in order to outline the rigid nature of social stereotypes and focus on Elise’s plight as a member of a marginalized community.
However, the need to portray Higgins as a flawed character may also entail difficulties since the described change may turn him into an antagonist of the play, which should not be the case. On the contrary, it will be needed to establish that the challenges faced by the characters and specifically Elisa run deeper than the presence of a stubborn professor who refuses to consider the implications of his assumption that language defines personality.
One might argue that in “Pygmalion’s” context, Higgins is representative of a larger social trend and the common delusion about the rigid and clearly delineated distinction between the people belonging to different classes. Although there is the grain of truth in the specified statement, Higgins still needs to be treated as a character of his own and not the concoction of social prejudices and stereotypes combined into a controversial personality.
Higgins does not define Elisa’s misery by reinforcing social stereotypes on her; instead, he is guided by these stereotypes, being entirely blind to the effects that they produce. Thus, the main directorial intention that will have to be introduced into the staging process will include guiding the actors to play the characters that are strongly affected by the social prejudices defined by the class differences.
In addition, to place the performance into the context of more recent years, one will need to modernize the setting, specifically, by creating it timeless as opposed to linking it to a particular era of British history. Thus, the message of the play will have a much greater impact on the audience. One might argue that the attempt at modernizing the play to point out some of the issues that remain unresolved in contemporary society and have to be addressed on the social level may devalue the play.
The specified sentiment is understandable since the attempt at introducing innovative elements may rob “Pygmalion” of its timelessness and make it easily dated. For this reason, the changes to the setting will have to be very subtle, such as slight updates in the setting and the attempt at making the setting timeless rather than related to any particular time period.
The described approach toward staging the play will also help to convey the importance of focusing on the interpersonal relationships within it. By making the environment devoid of any references to a particular era and detached from anything that could potentially distract viewers from the interactions between the characters, one will be able to convey the importance of understanding the power of prejudice and the problematic aspects of the social hierarchy that makes people of the lower class invisible to those of the higher one. Although the described issue concerns mostly the dynamics between Elisa and Higgins, other aspects of the described phenomenon will also have to be explored in the play.
For instance, despite the fact that the relationships between Elisa and Pickering are typically seen as smoother and implying significantly less conflict, the juxtaposition between Elisa and the rest of the characters, who strive to believe that they belong to an entirely different world, needs to be introduced into the play to convey the weight of its final message.
Overall, the changes that the staging process will entail are expected to have a profound impact on the audience, leaving them with philosophical contemplations about the constructed nature of the concept of a social class. Moreover, the importance of coming to terms with one’s cultural legacy and the background will be represented as essential ideas of the staged play. In the context of modern reality, in which the search for identity has become one of the main quests for every person to embark on, the idea that one’s personality is not inherently attached to the construct of the social class but, instead, remains flexible and able to acquire new facets and characteristics has to be made obvious.
Because of the necessity to focus on the social aspects of the play and address the problem of the conflict between classes as one of the main issues that the play discusses, it will be crucial to place two specific scenes of “Pygmalion” into the limelight. Given the objectives described above, it will be needed to place emphasis on two particular scenes in the play. Namely, the scene in which Eliza talks to Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her daughter Clara will have to be considered as the crucial part of the play that changes the dynamics between its lead characters and the development of the main one completely.
While the scene itself is quite hilarious, the underlying rebellious nature of it and the despair in which it is drenched as Eliza recognizes the futility of her efforts to become a part of the middle class imbue it with particular importance for the general understanding of the play and its meaning. The describe moment in the play will have to be staged in a way that will allow for a substantial amount of subtlety since, if directed as explicit, in-your-face criticism of the quality of interactions between the members of different social classes, it will not have a tangible effect on the target audience.
Therefore, to stage the specified scene, one will need to indicate Eliza’s willingly distancing herself from Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her daughter. The specified effect can be achieved by arranging the characters and objects on the scene to emphasize the fact that Eliza feels isolated from Mrs. Eynsford Hill and Clara. For this purpose, one will have to place Eliza on the opposite form Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her daughter, at the same time ensuring that neither Higgins nor Pickering should appear on the side of the stage where Eliza would stay. While the described tool for showing the isolation of the character and her being distanced from the rest of the middle class is rather simplistic, it is expected to have a profound emotional impact on the audience.
In addition, the scene in question will benefit from the specific use of lighting. By using very harsh light that will shine at Eliza to show every single detail of the appearance, one will convey the sense of vulnerability that Eliza experiences throughout the specified scene, as well as the feeling of despair that encourages her to perform in the way that deviates significantly from Higgins’ and Pickering’s expectations. The use of harsh light will help to reinforce the feeling of isolation that Eliza experiences in the specified scene. Moreover, the use of the identified device will allow introducing the necessary social dimension to the scene.
Specifically, by using harsh and direct lighting as the tool for focusing on Eliza, one will convey the message of the lead character being placed under societal scrutiny and being judged very harshly and strictly. As a result, the main character will appear sympathetic, yet the rest of the cast will not be seen as overly judgmental. By using external tools as the means of outlining the social setting in which Eliza is placed, one will show that none of the participants of the conversation is responsible for the rigid social boundaries that are placed on them and that Eliza breaks so unapologetically. Therefore, the integration of the lighting as the tool for conveying an important message concerning social standards and the presence of the class conflict within society is essential to the specified scene.
Moreover, when considering the process of staging, one will have to focus on how the actual conversation will take place. As stressed above, it is important not to create a straw man out of any of the characters involved, which is why Mrs. Eynsford Hill and Clara will need to be represented in a neutral light. The manner in which they will communicate with Eliza should sound like casual small talk and should not be evocative of a personal attack of any kind.
For the same reason, Eliza’s decision to use colloquialisms in her conversation should not be seen as dictated by her disdain for the people with whom she converses but, instead, appear to be the product of her desperate situation. Feeling that she no longer belongs to the environment in which she was born and raised, yet simultaneously realizing that she cannot fit into the middle-class society, Eliza may feel bitter, but she would not take her feelings out on the people that do not have the power to influence this situation.
One might argue that she could do so without giving a full account of her actions and being emotionally overwhelmed, yet the specified perspective would diminish Elisa’s sense of agency and the overall strength of her character. Therefore, it is critical that neither of the participants of the conversation is painted in an unflattering light. Instead, the absurdity of the social hierarchy should be showcased with the help of the described scene.
The second scene to which particular attention will be played is the one in which Eliza reaches the pinnacle of her disdain for the social injustice that she observes in Higgins’ attitude. The specified scene is central to the entire play since it represents its thesis statement and is expressed by the eliding character, who delivers the main idea with a masterful combination of emotionality and reasonability. Similar to the previous scene, described one would need to be staged in a way that will allow juxtaposing Eliza and Higgins to show the boundary that divides the two classes and causes prejudices to define the interactions between the participants.
In order to convey the emotional impact of the described scene and create the sense of greater social injustice behind Elisa’s situation, one will need very careful directing and a perfectly thought-out choice of the devices that will help to emphasize the idea behind the specified scene. Namely, it will be crucial to convey to the audience that the very title of the play symbolizes the error that Higgins makes by presuming that changing one’s language implies altering one’s personality entirely and constructing a completely new identity.
Although the described concept can be considered as subverted in the scene discussed above, the ending allows exploring Elisa’s personal perspective on the subject matter and, thus, understand the foundational error that Higgins makes. Namely, it will be necessary to make it blatantly obvious that these are people who construct the language, and not vice versa. Therefore, the final scene will have to be structured in a way that will allow addressing the specified issue explicitly, at the same time keeping the tone of the play aligned with the previous acts. For this purpose, it will be crucial to make sure that Elisa’s character remains literally central to the entire scene.
By placing Elisa in the limelight and allowing her monologue to shine, one will convey the sense of urgency and emotionality of her speech. In addition, the use of color will have to be reconsidered for this scene, with the lighting being changed to the lighter hues as the focus shifts to Elisa. Thus, the role that her speech as the means of illuminating the problems within society will be emphasized and maximized encoring that the audience recognizes the problem and accepts it as such. As a result, the scene in question will gain the emotional impact that it will need to leave a lasting impression on the audience and shed light on the continuity of the conflict within the society.
Offering substantial food for contemplations, “Pygmalion” has warranted an important place in the pantheon of plays that have retained their cultural and social significance decades after they were written. However, to make sure that the play remains captivating for modern audiences and that new facets of the problems discussed in it are studied in close detail, one will need to reinvent the play and add a unique touch to it by shaping the staging process.
With the minimum adjustments, which will imply a slight change in the setting and a new approach toward lighting, one will be able to create a unique version of the play that will stand out due to its lasting emotional impact and the ripples in the social discussions that it will leave. Due to the need to keep the play timeless, the process of modernization should occur at a very careful and slow pace, yet, when presented to the audiences, the new staging version is expected to cause multiple discussions.
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