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Vikas Datta: From gratified desire to social-climbing skills
March 20, 2017
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Does only economic status determine social class, or do other determinants — speech patterns, apparel, mannerisms and the like — play a part? And if so, will changing them mean upward — and irreversible — social mobility for all (across gender)? These questions have been much debated, but never so entertainingly as in this play, named after a mythological Greek character, and its numerous adaptations.

First century Roman poet Ovid, in his “Metamorphoses”, tells the story of the sculptor, Pygmalion, who crafts a statue of his idea of a perfect woman, falls in love with “her” and then prays successfully to the gods (it was Ancient Greece) to grant her life. Variants and versions of this tale have echoed down ages and traditions, but it is a modern, more figurative — and realistic — version that we happen to be more familiar with.

This was the theatrical adaptation by Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in the early 20th century.

Though not the first adaptation in modern times — playwright W S Gilbert (of the famous Gilbert-Sullivan duo) produced a stage version in 1871 and a burlesque soon followed — Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (1913) is his most famous and most influential, raising issues of artificial social divides, gender roles and women’s emancipation.

The story begins with a socially diverse crowd, sheltering from rain under the impressive portico of a London church. Some of them get suspicious of a middle-aged man who seems to be noting their words, especially of a Cockney “flower girl” trying to make a sale to an amiable gentleman of apparent military background. The note-taker is, however, no police detective but phonetics specialist Henry Higgins doing research.

As Higgins calms — or rather upbraids — the girl for her excessive sensibility and “barbaric” sounds while winning over the crowd by unerringly identifying the area they hail from, it turns out he and the older gentleman, who is Colonel Pickering, author of “Spoken Sanscrit” know of each other by reputation.

As they leave for dinner, Higgins bets he could pass off this girl — “this creature with her kerbstone English: The English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days” — as a “duchess at an ambassador’s garden party” with a few months training in accent and instilling some upper-class mannerisms.

And then the same girl, Eliza Doolittle, shows up at Higgins’ house next morning and expresses interest in his offer. Higgins, blind beyond his own skills, takes her up despite reservations expressed rather forcefully by his housekeeper (and to some extent by Pickering) and then by his mother.

Indo-Asian News Service

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