George Bernard Shaw: Socialist and Playwright

EN 319

20 September 2004

George Bernard Shaw\'s power as a dramatist is directly linked to his work as a socialist both before and during his work as a playwright. It is because these two forces are so inextricably tied that a working knowledge of both his socialist ideals and his ideas concerning the theatrical process is not only useful, but on some levels necessary for an adequate understanding of his meaning in each. Shaw himself knew this, and he made it known to his reader/viewer through essays on socialism and social relations and in the prefaces to his plays that his drama was meant to carry a specific social message. Therefore, it is the purpose of this thesis to examine Shaw\'s play, Pygmalion in the light of his social theory as displayed one of his essays and as well as in the preface to Pygmalion.

In the web page sponsored by they summarize the following: “Based on classical myth, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion plays on the complex business of human relationships in a social world. Phonetics Professor Henry Higgins tutors the very Cockney Eliza Doolittle, not only in the refinement of speech, but also in the refinement of her manner. When the end result produces a very ladylike Miss Doolittle, the lessons learned become much more far reaching”.

I found that this play offers incite to the social arrangement of that time. He carefully dictated the pronunciations for which separate both character and class. He used the results of the language in the beginning to show Eliza’s “place” in society as being lower class, uneducated and with disregard to the mannerisms of that time. He then in turn showed that through social reform, you can take this little flower girl and turn her into a princess., thus changing her place in society by enhancing her dialect to that of which is spoken by only the elite. He not only improves changes her status through linguistics (though this is the primary focus), he also places much concentration of the mannerisms to which a cultured lady would possess. Eliza loses the cockney accent without any indication that there had ever existed anything other than that of this women Higgins created in Eliza. Where did Shaw come up with this technical approach to the highly developed training of individuals, skillfully advancing them in society?

According to a web page sponsored by Project Gutenberg, Shaw’s essay entitled, Treatise On Parents And Children, closely relates to the subject matter of Pygmalion in which he addresses important issues of class, social power and even sexual politics in the relationship between the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and her teacher, the middle class Professor Henry Higgins.

In his essay he writes, “Technical training may be as tedious as learning to skate or to play the piano or violin; but it is the price one must pay to achieve certain desirable results or necessary ends” (“Treatise”).

Shaw also writes, “Languages, even dead ones, have their uses; and, as it seems to many of us, mathematics have their uses. They will always be learned by people who want to learn them; and people will always want to learn them as long as they are of any importance in life: in deed the want will survive their importance: superstition is nowhere stronger than in the field of obsolete acquirements. And they will never be learnt fruitfully by people who do not want to learn them either for their own sake or for use in necessary work. There is no harder schoolmaster than experience; and yet experience fails to teach where there is no desire to learn” (“Treatise”).

It is true that in order for Eliza to become the “princess” or so called socialite she must continuously work to achieve her goal through strenuous lessons. It was beneficial for her to gain the knowledge into linguistics so to better her social status in order to live a more meaningful life which is what the character Higgins encourages the readers to believe, undoubtedly the belief of Shaw. What constitutes a meaningful life? It seems that the improvement of an individual is comes to the forefront of this question. This is better explained by Shaw’s participation with The Fabian