The wildly successful musical "My Fair Lady," produced for the stage in 1956 and as a film in 1964, is based on the play "Pygmalion," penned in 1913 by Irish author George Bernard Shaw. "My Fair Lady" and "Pygmalion" share a basic storyline, in which poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle is transformed into a lady at the hands of phonetics professor Henry Higgins, but they differ with regard to genre, tone, characterization and ending.
Shaw’s "Pygmalion" retells a myth by Ovid, in which a man creates and falls in love with a female statue. The goddess of love takes pity on the man, and brings the statue to life. "My Fair Lady" turns a drama of mythological weight into a lighthearted musical comedy. This shift in genre causes the musical to lose some of the complex social analysis that occurs in "Pygmalion." For example, the portrayal of Eliza's father, through whom Shaw addresses the conflicting realities of social injustice, is reduced to comedy in "My Fair Lady." In addition, Eliza's obedient return at the end of the musical, and the closing suggestion that she will fetch Henry's slippers, reaffirm the unequal gender and class relations that, according to Richard Goldstone, Shaw's play undermines.
The Meaning of Romance
While Shaw’s play is called a romance, it does not, like "My Fair Lady," depict a romantic love story with a happy ending. According to Shaw, the romance of "Pygmalion" is Eliza’s transformation from an impoverished, uneducated girl into an elegant and independent woman. Although, in both works, the two lead characters fall in love, "Pygmalion" demonstrates love's inadequacy and impermanence by concluding with the lovers' parting and showing that they are ultimately incompatible.
Tone and Characterization
In "My Fair Lady," Henry Higgins takes on the role of romantic lead and lover. In "Pygmalion," he is portrayed as a narcissist who cannot truly love and respect others. Additionally, the musical overlooks the complexity of Eliza’s character and of her relationship to Henry. In their musical incarnations, Shaw’s characters lose much of their edginess and humanity. The tone of "Pygmalion" is darker and more realistic than that of "My Fair Lady," which is a work of fantasy composed in a light and comedic style.
The ending of "My Fair Lady" follows the conventions of a romantic comedy: Henry and Eliza transcend their misunderstandings, and love conquers all. The darker ending of "Pygmalion," in which Eliza leaves Henry, caused controversy when the play was first performed, prompting Shaw to write an afterword explaining why the lead characters could not live happily ever after. The contrasting endings are related to the different characterizations in the two works: in "My Fair Lady," Henry softens toward the end, while in "Pygmalion," he treats Eliza with arrogance and contempt until the last moment. Eliza becomes more submissive toward the end of the musical, while the ending of the play shows her asserting her independence. In this way, according to Chen Lihua's commentary on "Pygmalion," Shaw's play is more satisfying from a feminist perspective.