As artists of some kind or another, I am pretty sure that everyone understands the heart and soul that someone puts in creating their masterpiece. The constant dedication that is required from them to produce something wonderful from their craftsmanship – something so beautiful that even the artist stands in awe of what they have created – is like an addiction. The euphoria of their success stays with them for ages as their work remains with them as a constant reminder of the heights they have reached.
The Greek myth of Pygmalion emerges from this love that an artist has for their creations. According to the myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with his creation and eventually married her after she was brought to life by Aphrodite.
With the times that have passed, this story evolved into different arts and forms to be the basis of different works around the globe. But one of the best known works that this myth has inspired, is the world renowned play, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.
The play focuses on a gentleman who brings a flower girl ‘to life’ by teaching her the speech of the higher strata of society and eventually ends up in a position where he needs her in his life. That being said, unlike the myth from which this story takes origin, Henry Higgins and his ‘creation’, Eliza Doolittle do not fall in love with each other but instead portrays a sense of dependency that develops after people start spending time together .
Unlike the happy ending that the myth provides to its audience, the play shows how a certain man’s attempt in creating a life can destroy one that already exists. Eliza, who was once happy selling flowers by the curb, ends up feeling lost, as if she doesn’t belong anywhere, once Higgins is done changing her into a ‘lady’.
This brings one question to life: Why is it that the male artist, in both these cases, is considered an absolute being who has the power to create the woman of his desires, even if it does not end up being what is best for the woman in question?
“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
Eliza had, in the hopes of getting a better life for herself, taken an opportunity to learn ‘proper speech’ under Higgins who promptly placed a bet on the success of his project on her with his acquaintance. What should have been a teacher-student relationship, instead becomes one of an artist and his creation.
Similar to how Pygmalion had shaped Galatea into his liking, the makeover that Eliza undertook with Higgins was one exactly to the whims of Higgins. He merely focused on where his interests lay instead of acknowledging that there was much more to being a lady than speech and appearance.
What proves this idea that for Higgins, Eliza was never a student but a project for his art is how he doesn’t acknowledge the work that she had put in for all that she had learnt. After he wins the bet with Colonel Pickering, he gloats as to how he did the impossible and how he accomplished his work. But even when Eliza points out her contribution to the development, Higgins turns a blind eye and refuses to accept that there was anything except his work in play.
In the end, it is obvious why Eliza feels as if all that the particular activity has managed to achieve is her losing the identity she had in the first place. The fact that she would always be somewhat equal to an inanimate object- a statue, considering the myth which holds the roots of the play, is troublesome.
“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”
-George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
As Eliza becomes comfortable in this new image that is created of her, she gains back her independent thinking and decides to act on her own will instead of complying to the demands of Higgins.
She gets a life of her own, as did Galatea who learns to live. Both these figures step out of the box that restricted them to merely creations to become something that stood for themselves. Yes, Galatea still stood along with her creator and started a family with him. But eventually, it was still a very long way from the statue that she was initially.
It was Shaw’s belief that even in the original myth Galatea had never loved Pygmalion like he did her. At the end of his play, he talks about why his play is titled a romance even without any form of romantic relationships between the protagonists. Along with his elaborations, he puts forward his thoughts on the myth.
“Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
It is possible that Galatea was never in love with Pygmalion. After she is brought to life, the first man that she happens to see is her creator. Did she ever get to know the world enough to understand the concept of love and the implications of marriage before her union? Learning more about the world could have given Galatea the feeling of independence that Eliza learnt to embrace in the play. Without knowing life, how could she know how she wants to live hers?
Both the myth and the play show an artist who gets so intoxicated with their creation that he becomes dependent on it. While the myth of Pygmalion highlights this obsession of his, Shaw manages to humorously depict the artist and his relationship with his work, when his creation is a human being.
And with how Eliza is treated, the play leaves us with one question. Is it really the creation that the artist loves or the constant reminder of his success that makes the artist hold on to it?
About the Author
Uma Anilkumar is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in English Studies. She is often captivated by new, interesting ideas, especially that of pop culture and is always in search of learning something new. A lover of all kinds of art, she is a writer and poet during her free time and dreams of publishing her own work in the future.