“Pygmalion” celebrates 100 in 2012

“Pygmalion” celebrates 100 in 2012: Meet Professor Higgins!

In the preface to the 1916 edition of “Pygmalion”, George Bernard Shaw expressed his idea for creating Henry Higgins, the English Phonetics Professor, in the following words, “the reformer England needs … an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.”

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Unlike in the case with Eliza Doolittle, there wasn’t one particular person that inspired the creation of Henry Higgins, however, as he continued in the preface to the 1916 edition, there were some unintentional traces of Henry Sweet, the contemporary English language linguist and phonetician, in Henry Higgins’s personality.
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“Higgins is not a portrait of Sweet, to whom the adventure of Eliza Doolittle would have been impossible; still, as will be seen, there are touches of Sweet in the play,” wrote Shaw. Henry Sweet was an outstanding linguist specializing in Germanic languages, particularly in Old English and Old Norse. On top of that, Henry Sweet showed keen interest in English Phonetics. In 1877 he published A Handbook in Phonetics which attracted attention among the scholars of English in Europe, thus he retained the reputation of “the man who taught Europe phonetics.” 
 
Just like Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion”, Sweet was known to be able to produce over 72 vowels in a number of English dialects. On top of that, Sweet would stand before a group of English speakers on the streets, taking notes of their speech and then sending postcards to his friends with the transcribed messages he had heard. 
 
Another accomplished Phonetics professor of the time was Daniel Jones whose refined speech and dedication to the standard British pronunciation (Received pronunciation) made him one of the most prominent phoneticians of the early 20th century. Incidentally, Daniel Jones’s laboratory inspired Higgins’s, yet one must admit that regardless of all the similarities with the most acclaimed Phonetics professors of the time “the Higgins character…would appear to have taken on a vivid life of its own during the writing of the play.”  
 

What kind of dialect did Professor Higgins work with when he tried to make Eliza Doolittle into a fine lady? I will write about it more in the next post. In the meantime, please watch one of my favorite songs from My Fair Lady Musical where Professor Higgins expresses his disgust with the English language he hears on the streets, in particular that of a young flower girl, soon-to-be “the fair lady”, Eliza Doolittle.

“Pygmalion” Ready to Celebrate its 100 Birthday!

Very few people know that 2012 will mark a 100 Birthday of one of the most unique plays written by George Bernard Shaw titled “Pygmalion” (1912). In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was known as the creator of a female sculpture that came to life. The fascination with Greek mythology impacted quite a number of English playwrights of the time, Mr. Shaw being one of them.

In the play, Mr. Henry Higgins, the early 20th century Phonetics professor and the perfectionist of the standard English pronunciation, makes a bet with his colleague, Pickering, that it would take him 6 months to turn a bedraggled street girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a refined lady simply by teaching her to speak properly. Exactly how did Eliza Doolittle come to being?
The image of Eliza Doolittle was inspired by a famous British actress of the time, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Mrs. Pat, born Beatrice Stella Tanner). Though very talented and successful as an actress, Mrs. Pat’s background had only basic acting training. Her speech in particular had been criticized by George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde as it revealed much of her lower-class upbringing.

Despite his harsh criticism, George Bernard Shaw saw a lot of potential in Mrs. Pat, and over time their relationship supposedly resulted in a romance, mostly nurtured through letters. The character of Eliza Doolittle was created specifically for Mrs. Pat as a hint on her social pretensions that in many ways hampered her career.
The play was first staged in London on April 11, 1914 at Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s His Majesty’s Theater and starred a 49-year-old Mrs. Pat as Eliza Doolittle. Since then, the play has been staged around the world, and has been adapted as a musical My Fair Lady and a film of that name.
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