Shaw’s Pygmalion was in a different class

100 years ago today Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ shocked class-ridden Victorian Britain, writes Robert Hume.

Shaw’s Pygmalion was in a different class

ONE hundred years ago tonight in London, Eliza Doolittle shocked and delighted theatregoers when the curtain went up on George Bernard Shaw’s comic masterpiece, Pygmalion.

It was Shaw’s early years in Dublin that inspired him to write his sensational attack on the British class system. Shaw led a “devil of a childhood” as he states in his autobiography, “I was just something that had happened to my parents “and had to be put up with and supported”.

His mother was “a Bohemian anarchist with ladylike habits”; his father a failed flour merchant, and “not always quite sober”.

His house in Synge Street, Dublin, “an awful little kennel with primitive sanitary arrangements” close to the city’s slums and the “perpetual gabble” of their inhabitants – gave him a lifelong hatred of poverty: “I saw it and smelt it and loathed it”.

School was a “prison” where “I learnt nothing”. His real education, his “salvation,” came from reading his own books, listening to music, looking at pictures, and roaming over Dalkey Hill.

He prowled around the National Gallery (to which he gave a legacy), and enrolled at Royal Dublin Society’s School of Art. “I wanted to be another Michaelangelo, but found that I could not draw.”

Watching Shakespeare at the Theatre Royal inspired him and a friend to write their own plays and become theatre critics.

Shaw also loved music but was an “execrable pianist… until the happy invention of the pianola”. His sister Lucy was already a fine singer, and his mother was receiving singing lessons from George Vandeleur Lee, with whom the impecunious Shaws agreed to share a house. Lee had an orchestra and dreamt of conducting in London.

At 14 he was office boy in a “leading and terribly respectable” firm of land agents, Uniacke Townshend & Co – stressing the “h”. The office “was saturated with class feeling which I loathed”. Not being a university graduate he was simply referred to as “Shaw”.

When Shaw was 16, Lee duly uprooted to London and Shaw’s mother left her weak-willed husband and followed him, taking both her daughters.

In March 1876 Shaw packed a bag, boarded ship and “broke loose” from his father. “I had to go to London… the literary centre for the English language.”

He would not return to Dublin for almost 30 years, and only because his wife Charlotte wanted to visit her home near Rosscarbery in Co Cork.

Shaw arrived in the capital a tongue-tied young man, self-conscious of his Irish accent but determined to find fame and fortune. He would rebrand himself “GBS.”, teetotaller and vegetarian. Apart from a brief spell at the Edison Telephone Company, he spent his days writing art and literature reviews, and ghostwriting music reviews for Lee.

Especially significant was his work for the Pall Mall Gazette. This radical newspaper, famous for its snipes at British society, pioneered the use of doorstep reporters and undercover specials – about workhouses, disease and depravity.

He joined the Fabians, middle-class socialists who aimed, through argument, to get rid of Britain’s divided society with its hostile classes, and redistribute wealth equally. As Shaw began to lecture in pubs and cellars, his nervousness began to wear off. Although broke, he never accepted payment, just reimbursement for his third class train ticket.

Aged just 27, G.B.S. had completed five novels in the reading room of the British Museum, where ink, blotting paper and light were free. He penned exactly five pages each day, even if it meant stopping in mid-sentence. But his “hostility to respectable Victorian thought and society” had so far put off over 50 publishers. In despair, he resorted to writing plays, making the stage a forum to highlight the prevalence of brothels and slum landlords.

Pygmalion, his 16th play, premiered in Vienna in October 1913, and was attended by Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It reached His Majesty’s Theatre, London on April 11, 1914.

The play illustrated Shaw’s contempt for a social system where class and voice meant everything, unlike in the USA.

Flower-girl Eliza Doolittle was played by Mrs Patrick (‘Stella’) Campbell, one of Shaw’s former sweethearts, who included the daughters of William Morris and Karl Marx.

The character was partly based on the real-life 13-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong, whose poverty-stricken mother had sold her for £5, the very price Henry Higgins pays for Eliza.

Eliza’s line “Not bloody likely” created such pandemonium among the middle-class audience that, says Shaw, “it was really doubtful for some time whether they could recover themselves and let the play go on.”

At the final curtain, Herbert Tree, who played Professor Higgins, threw a bouquet to Eliza. But unlike the sculptor in the Pygmalion myth, Shaw had not planned that Higgins should marry his creation.

Pygmalion was made into two films, and soon after Shaw’s death into a musical comedy (1956) and film (1964), My Fair Lady. This time Eliza caused a stir with “Move Yer Bloomin’ Arse!”

Would GBS have approved of such rewriting?

Not bloody likely!

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