What is Pygmalion and Why Should I Care?

As my fellow cast and crew members prepare for this Thursday, I ask myself why people should want to come see a play that many of us were forced to read in high school.

By Abigail Taylor

Maybe you have seen the famous musical, My Fair Lady, or perhaps the more recent teen movie, She’s All That. Both essentially have the same premise: two wealthy dudes make a bet that they can transform an ugly outcast girl into a beautiful, popular, social butterfly. The former takes place in Victorian Era England, and the latter in a 1990’s California high school. Both of these are adaptions of George Bernard Shaw’s classic play, Pygmalion, written in 1912. If you’re not familiar with the story, it focuses on Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl who has been disrespected and overlooked because of her appearance and dialect, and Professor Higgins, a renowned expert in linguistics and phonetics, who bets colleague Colonel Pickering that he can turn her into a Duchess in a few months’ time.

Okay, so as both a woman and a feminist, I can’t go any further without adding that it’s irksome that a story about two educated, powerful men who make a poor, ignorant (but sassy, by george!) girl their little project, which changes her for the better, has been remade so many times.

But Shaw’s Pygmalion is not to be taken at its surface. In this play, Eliza truly possesses the power.

I’ve had the pleasure of rehearsing almost nightly the past two months with a handful incredibly talented and creative people, as we prepare to put on Pygmalion at the J. E. Broyhill Civic Center in Lenoir this coming weekend. This will be my second production through Foothills Performing Arts, and really my second speaking role of any significance on stage. We started out as most productions do, around a table on an empty stage with highlighted scripts, and in two months, the cast travelled together back to a time and place in which social status decided your fate. We’ve put on our gloves, poured our tea, and pondered middle class morality.

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Transformation begins with the shoes, as you know.

So why on earth is it called Pygmalion when the word itself is never uttered on stage? Good question. It has nothing to do with pigs. As it turns out, Shaw was a fan of the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. As the story goes, Pygmalion was a talented sculptor from Cyprus, who became increasingly indifferent to the women of his time, vowing to never waste his life on love, and burying himself in his work. He soon created his masterpiece out of ivory: a striking stature of a woman. He named her Gatalea. Despite his vows, he fell deeply in love with her, adorning her with jewelry, and praying to the gods that she might come to life. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, took notice of his passion and granted his wish. They married shortly after that, and of course…lived happily ever after. This story of an artist falling in love with his creation has been one of the most retold stories from Greek mythology. So it is no wonder that George Bernard Shaw found a way to retell it.

But this is why I like Shaw’s version. He gave it a dash of feminism, whilst lampooning the rigid social class system of Britain in that time. He wrote it as a commentary on the budding movement of women’s independence. Shaw’s character Pygmalion (Professor Higgins), creates his own masterpiece out of Gatalea (Eliza) by fixing her speech. But Eliza’s true coming-to-life transformation has nothing at all to do with Higgins, and he is left wondering if he’s created a monster or worse…his equal.

In my 25th year of life, I’ve revisited and finally come to appreciate much of the literature that was thrust upon me in high school. It seems to be the theme of my 2016; the last play I was in was To Kill a Mockingbird (and on the day of Harper Lee’s passing, no less). If only someone was putting on an adaption of Beowulf somewhere around here. Kidding; I’m not ready for that yet.

Directed by Chris Kerley and presented by Foothills Performing Arts, Pygmalion is cast with actors from Lenoir, Blowing Rock, Boone, Hudson and Granite Falls.

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Pygmalion runs this Thursday, May 5th – Sunday, May 8th at the J. E. Broyhill Civic Center.

Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thurs-Sat, and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. Find tickets here.

See it in brilliant technicolor!

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© The Lenoir Voice, 2016 

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