Pygmalion - Bernard Shaw - ebook

Pygmalion is a play by George Bernard Shaw, named after a Greek mythological figure. It was first presented on stage to the public in 1913. Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a commentary on women's independence. In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures, which then came to life. The general idea of that myth was a popular subject for Victorian era English playwrights, including one of Shaw's influences, W. S. Gilbert, who wrote a successful play based on the story called Pygmalion and Galatea that was first presented in 1871. Shaw would also have been familiar with the burlesque version, Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed. Shaw's play has been adapted numerous times, most notably as the musical My Fair Lady and its film version. Shaw mentioned that the character of Professor Henry Higgins was inspired by several British professors of phonetics: Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander J. Ellis, Tito Pagliardini, but above all, the cantankerous Henry Sweet.

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Bernard Shaw


First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri


A Professor of Phonetics.

As will be seen later on, Pygmalion needs, not a preface, but a sequel, which I have supplied in its due place. The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessibleeven to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play. There have been heroes of that kind crying in the wilderness for many years past. When I became interested in the subject towards the end of the eighteen-seventies, Melville Bell was dead; but Alexander J. Ellis was still a living patriarch, with an impressive head always covered by a velvet skull cap, for which he would apologize to public meetings in a very courtly manner. He and Tito Pagliardini, another phonetic veteran, were men whom it was impossible to dislike. Henry Sweet, then a young man, lacked their sweetness of character: he was about as conciliatory to conventional mortals as Ibsen or Samuel Butler. His great ability as a phonetician (he was, I think, the best of them all at his job) would have entitled him to high official recognition, and perhaps enabled him to popularize his subject, but for his Satanic contempt for all academic dignitariesand persons in general who thought more of Greek than of phonetics. Once, in the days when the Imperial Institute rose in South Kensington, and JosephChamberlain was booming the Empire, I induced the editor of a leading monthly review to commission an article from Sweet on the imperial importance of his subject. When it arrived, it contained nothing but a savagely derisive attack on a professor of language and literature whose chair Sweet regarded as proper to a phonetic expert only. The article, being libelous, had to be returned as impossible; and I had to renounce my dream of dragging its author into the limelight. When I met him afterwards, for the first time for many years, I found to my astonishment that he, who had been a quite tolerably presentableyoung man, had actually managed by sheer scorn to alter his personal appearance until he had become a sort of walking repudiation of Oxford and all its traditions. It must have been largely in his own despite that he was squeezed into something called a Readership of phonetics there. The future of phonetics rests probably with his pupils, who all swore by him; but nothing could bring the man himself into any sort of compliance with the university, to which he nevertheless clung by divine right in an intensely Oxonian way. I daresay his papers, if he has left any, include some satires that may be published without too destructive results fifty years hence. He was, I believe, not in the least an ill-natured man: very much the opposite, I should say; but he would not suffer fools gladly.

Those who knew him will recognize in my third act the allusion to the patent Shorthand in which he used to write postcards, and which may be acquired from a four and six-penny manual published by the Clarendon Press. The postcards which Mrs. Higgins describes are such as I have received from Sweet. I would decipher a sound which a cockney would represent by zerr, and a Frenchman by seu, and then write demanding with some heat what on earth it meant. Sweet, with boundless contemptfor my stupidity, would reply that it not only meant but obviously was the wordResult, as no other Word containing that sound, and capable of making sense with the context, existed in any language spoken on earth. That less expert mortals should requirefuller indications was beyond Sweet's patience. Therefore, though the whole point of his "Current Shorthand" is that it can express every sound in the language perfectly, vowels as well as consonants, and that your hand has to make no stroke except the easy and current ones with which you write m, n, and u, l, p, and q, scribbling them at whatever angle comes easiest to you, his unfortunate determination to make this remarkable and quite legible script serve also as a Shorthand reduced it in his own practice to the most inscrutable of cryptograms. His true objective was the provision of a full, accurate, legible script for our noble but ill-dressed language; but he was led past that by his contempt for the popular Pitman system of Shorthand, which he calledthe Pitfall system. The triumph of Pitman was a triumph of business organization: there was a weekly paper to persuade you to learn Pitman: there were cheap textbooks and exercise books and transcripts of speeches for you to copy, and schools where experienced teachers coached you up to the necessary proficiency. Sweet could not organize his market in that fashion. He might as well have been the Sybil who tore up the leaves of prophecy that nobody would attend to. The four and six-penny manual, mostly in his lithographed handwriting, that was never vulgarly advertized, may perhaps some day be taken up by a syndicate and pushed upon the public as The Times pushed the Encyclopaedia Britannica; but until then it will certainly not prevail against Pitman. I havebought three copies of it during my lifetime; and I am informed by the publishers that its cloistered existence is still a steady and healthy one. I actually learned the system two several times; and yet the shorthand in which I am writing these lines isPitman's. And the reason is, that my secretary cannottranscribe Sweet, having been perforce taught in the schools of Pitman. Therefore, Sweet railed at Pitman as vainly as Thersites railed at Ajax: his raillery, however it may have eased his soul, gave nopopular vogue to Current Shorthand. Pygmalion 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. With Higgins's physique and temperamentSweet might have set the Thames on fire. As it was, he impressed himself professionally on Europe to an extent that made his comparative personal obscurity, and the failure of Oxford to do justice to his eminence, a puzzle to foreign specialists in his subject. I do not blame Oxford, because I think Oxford is quite right in demanding a certain social amenity from its nurslings (heaven knows it is not exorbitant in its requirements!); for although I well know how hard it is for a man of genius with a seriously underrated subject to maintain serene and kindly relations with the men who underrate it, and who keep all the best places for less important subjects which they profess without originality and sometimes without much capacity for them, still, if he overwhelms them with wrath and disdain, he cannot expect them to heap honors on him.

Of the later generations of phoneticians I know little. Among them towers the Poet Laureate, to whom perhaps Higgins may owe his Miltonic sympathies, though here again I mustdisclaim all portraiture. But if the play makes the public aware that there are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among the most important people in England at present, it will serve its turn.

I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of thewiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art shouldnever be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.

Finally, and for the encouragement of people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment, I may add that the change wrought by Professor Higginsin the flower girl is neither impossible nor uncommon. The modern concierge's daughter who fulfils her ambition by playing the Queen of Spain in Ruy Blas at the Theatre Francais is only one of many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue. But the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first. An honest and natural slum dialect is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically untaught person toimitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club; and I am sorry to say that in spite of the efforts of our Academy of Dramatic Art, there is still too much sham golfing English on our stage, and too little of the noble English of Forbes Robertson.


Covent Garden at 11.15 p.m. Torrents of heavy summer rain. Cabwhistles blowing frantically in all directions. Pedestrians runningfor shelter into the market and under the portico of St. Paul'sChurch, where there are already several people, among them aladyand her daughter in evening dress. They are all peering outgloomily at therain, except one man with his back turned to therest, who seems wholly preoccupied with a notebook in which he iswriting busily.

The church clock strikes the first quarter.

THE DAUGHTER [in the space between the central pillars, close tothe one on her left] I'm getting chilled to the bone. What canFreddy be doing all this time? He's been gone twenty minutes.

THE MOTHER [on her daughter's right] Not so long. But he oughttohave got us a cab by this.

A BYSTANDER [on the lady's right] He won't get no cab not untilhalf-past eleven, missus, when they come back after dropping theirtheatre fares.

THE MOTHER. But we must have a cab. We can't stand here untilhalf-past eleven. It's too bad.

THE BYSTANDER. Well, it ain't my fault, missus.

THE DAUGHTER. If Freddy had a bit of gumption, he would have gotone at the theatre door.

THE MOTHER. What could he have done, poor boy?

THE DAUGHTER. Other people got cabs. Why couldn't he?

Freddy rushes in out of the rain from the Southampton Streetside, and comes between them closing a dripping umbrella. He is ayoung man of twenty, in evening dress, very wet around theankles.

THE DAUGHTER. Well, haven't you got a cab?

FREDDY. There's not oneto be had for love or money.

THE MOTHER. Oh, Freddy, there must be one. You can't havetried.

THE DAUGHTER. It's too tiresome. Do you expect us to go and getone ourselves?

FREDDY. I tell you they're all engaged. The rain was so sudden:nobody was prepared; and everybody had to take a cab. I've been toCharing Cross one way and nearly to Ludgate Circus the other; andthey were all engaged.

THE MOTHER. Did you try Trafalgar Square?

FREDDY. There wasn't one at Trafalgar Square.

THE DAUGHTER. Did you try?

FREDDY. I tried as far as Charing Cross Station. Did you expectme to walk to Hammersmith?

THE DAUGHTER. You haven't tried at all.

THE MOTHER. You really are very helpless, Freddy. Go again; anddon't come back until you have found a cab.

FREDDY. I shall simply get soaked for nothing.

THE DAUGHTER. And what about us? Are we to stay here all nightin this draught, with next to nothing on. You selfishpig—

FREDDY. Oh, very well: I'll go, I'll go. [He opens his umbrellaand dashes off Strandwards, but comes into collision with a flowergirl, who is hurrying in for shelter, knocking her basket out ofher hands. A blinding flash of lightning, followed instantly by arattling peal of thunder, orchestrates the incident]

THE FLOWER GIRL. Nah then, Freddy: look wh' y' gowin, deah.

FREDDY. Sorry [he rushes off].

THE FLOWER GIRL [picking up her scattered flowers and replacingthem in the basket] There's menners f' yer! Te-oo banches o voyletstrod into the mad. [She sits down on the plinth of the column,sorting her flowers, on the lady's right. She is not at all anattractive person. She is perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty, hardlyolder. She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has longbeen exposed to the dust and soot of London and hasseldom if everbeen brushed. Her hair needs washing rather badly: its mousy colorcan hardly be natural. She wears a shoddy black coat that reachesnearly to her knees and is shaped to her waist. She has a brownskirt with a coarse apron. Her boots are much the worse for wear.She is no doubt as clean as she can afford to be; but compared tothe ladies she is very dirty. Her features are no worse thantheirs; but their condition leaves something to be desired; and sheneeds the services of a dentist].

THE MOTHER. How do you knowthat my son's name is Freddy,pray?

THE FLOWER GIRL. Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y'de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a poregel's flahrzn than ran awy atbaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them?[Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent herdialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned asunintelligible outside London.]

THE DAUGHTER. Do nothing of the sort, mother. The idea!

THE MOTHER. Please allow me, Clara. Have you any pennies?

THE DAUGHTER. No. I'venothing smaller than sixpence.

THE FLOWER GIRL [hopefully] I can give you change for a tanner,kind lady.

THE MOTHER [to Clara] Give it to me. [Clara parts reluctantly].Now [to the girl] This is for your flowers.

THE FLOWER GIRL. Thank you kindly, lady.

THE DAUGHTER. Make her give you the change. These things areonly a penny a bunch.

THE MOTHER. Do hold your tongue, Clara. [To the girl]. You cankeep the change.

THE FLOWER GIRL. Oh, thank you, lady.

THE MOTHER. Now tell me how you know that young gentleman'sname.


THE MOTHER. I heard you call him by it. Don't try to deceiveme.

THE FLOWER GIRL [protesting] Who's trying to deceive you? Icalled him Freddy or Charlie same as you might yourself if you wastalking to a stranger andwished to be pleasant. [She sits downbeside her basket].

THE DAUGHTER. Sixpence thrown away! Really, mamma, you mighthave spared Freddy that. [She retreats in disgust behind thepillar].

An elderly gentleman of the amiable military type rushes intoshelter, and closes a dripping umbrella. He is in the same plightas Freddy, very wet about the ankles. He is in evening dress, witha light overcoat. He takes the place left vacant by the daughter'sretirement.


THE MOTHER [to the gentleman] Oh, sir, is there any sign of itsstopping?

THE GENTLEMAN. I'm afraid not. It started worse than ever abouttwo minutes ago. [He goes to the plinth beside the flower girl;puts up his foot on it; and stoops to turn down his trouserends].

THE MOTHER. Oh,dear! [She retires sadly and joins herdaughter].

THE FLOWER GIRL [taking advantage of the military gentleman'sproximity to establish friendly relations with him]. If it's worseit's a sign it's nearly over. So cheer up, Captain; and buy aflower off a poor girl.

THE GENTLEMAN. I'm sorry, I haven't any change.

THE FLOWER GIRL. I can give you change, Captain,

THE GENTLEMEN. For a sovereign? I've nothing less.

THE FLOWER GIRL. Garn! Oh do buy a flower off me, Captain. I canchange half-a-crown. Take this for tuppence.

THE GENTLEMAN. Now don't be troublesome: there's a good girl.[Trying his pockets] I really haven't any change—Stop: here'sthree hapence, if that's any use to you [he retreats to the otherpillar].

THE FLOWER GIRL [disappointed, but thinking three halfpencebetter than nothing] Thank you, sir.

THE BYSTANDER [to the girl] You be careful: give him a flowerfor it. There's a bloke here behind taking down every blessed wordyou're saying. [All turn to the man who is taking notes].

THE FLOWER GIRL [springing up terrified] I ain't done nothingwrong by speaking to the gentleman. I've a right to sell flowers ifI keep off the kerb. [Hysterically] I'm a respectable girl: so helpme, I never spoke to him except to ask him to buy a flower off me.[Generalhubbub, mostly sympathetic to the flower girl, butdeprecating her excessive sensibility. Cries of Don't starthollerin. Who's hurting you? Nobody's going to touch you. What'sthe good of fussing? Steady on. Easy, easy, etc., come from theelderly staid spectators, who pat her comfortingly. Less patientones bid her shut her head, or ask her roughly what is wrong withher. A remoter group, not knowing what the matter is, crowd in andincrease the noise with question and answer: What's the row? Whatshe do?Where is he? A tec taking her down. What! him? Yes: him overthere: Took money off the gentleman, etc. The flower girl,distraught and mobbed, breaks through them to the gentleman, cryingmildly] Oh, sir, don't let him charge me. You dunno what it meansto me. They'll take away my character and drive me on the streetsfor speaking to gentlemen. They—

THE NOTE TAKER [coming forward on her right, the rest crowdingafter him] There, there, there, there! Who's hurting you, you sillygirl? What do you take me for?

THE BYSTANDER. It's all right: he's a gentleman: look at hisboots. [Explaining to the note taker] She thought you was acopper's nark, sir.

THE NOTE TAKER [with quick interest] What's a copper's nark?

THE BYSTANDER [inept at definition] It's a—well, it's acopper's nark, as you might say. What else would you call it? Asort of informer.

THE FLOWER GIRL [still hysterical] I take my Bible oath I neversaid a word—

THE NOTE TAKER [overbearing but good-humored] Oh, shut up, shutup. Do I look like a policeman?

THE FLOWER GIRL [far from reassured] Then what did you take downmy words for? How do I know whether you took me down right? Youjust show me what you've wrote about me. [The note taker opens hisbook and holds it steadily under her nose, though the pressure ofthe mob trying to read it over his shoulders would upset a weakerman]. What's that? That ain't proper writing. I can't readthat.

THE NOTE TAKER. I can. [Reads, reproducing her pronunciationexactly] "Cheer ap, Keptin; n' haw ya flahr orf a pore gel."

THE FLOWER GIRL [much distressed] It's because I called himCaptain. I meant no harm. [To the gentleman] Oh, sir, don't let himlay a charge agen me for a word like that. You—

THE GENTLEMAN. Charge! I make no charge. [To the note taker]Really, sir, if you are a detective, you need not begin protectingme against molestation by young women until I ask you. Anybodycould see that the girl meant no harm.