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Old Sunday, November 12, 2006
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Lightbulb G.B.Shaw: PYGMALION

One literary critic has put :
Literature portrays almost every conceivable human action, thought, attitude, emotion, situation, or problem. In one way or another people are basic to the literary imagination, even in its most fanciful flights.
Pygmalion: The Myth
In Greek legend, a brash young sculptor named Pygmalion found the women of Cyprus so impossibly flawed that he resolved to carve a statue of his ideal woman, embodying every feminine grace and virtue. For months he labored with all his prodigious skill (and also with a strange compulsion), rounding here, smoothing there, until he had fashioned the most exquisite figure ever conceived by art. So exquisite indeed was his creation that Pygmalion fell passionately in love with the statue, and could be seen in his studio kissing its marble lips, fingering its marble hands, dressing and grooming the figure as if caring for a doll. But soon, and in spite of the work's incomparable loveliness, Pygmalion was desperately unhappy, for the lifeless statue could not respond to his desires, the cold stone could not return the warmth of his love. He had set out to shape his perfect woman, but had succeeded only in creating his own frustration and despair.
Pygmalion prayed to the goddess of love, Venus took pity on Pygmalion and brought his statue to life, and he and "Galatea," as he named her, blushed, embraced, and married with the goddess's blessing
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Lightbulb Shaw's love of paradox

There is a species of paradox known as the Irish Bull, a logically absurd statement that paradoxically reveals a kind of truth. By contradicting our expectations, paradox shocks us into and out of our sensibilities, leaving us marked with the knowledge of something new. The word comes from the Greek, and literally means beyond or beside opinion. Shaw’s story is rife with such ‘beyond opinions’, as an Anglo-Irish Protestant, a Dubliner in London, and a socialist living in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. In one sense, as a Protestant choosing to live in London, he is a John Bull, yet he remains Irish – an Irish Bull, something alluded to in his one play set in Eire, John Bull’s Other Island. Being neither entirely Irish nor English, he is marginal to both his home and adopted islands, existing as two things at once, yet not fully either. He saw himself as ‘a sojourner on this planet rather than a native of it’, and once stated ‘I am an Irishman without a birth certificate’. This paradoxical perspective informs his art – ‘An Irishman has two eyes’, he told G.K. Chesterton, one for poetry and one for reality. Shaw’s use of artistic paradox is so pervasive, his style so distinct, that it has marked our language with the term Shavian, an idiom that now stands alongside Dickensian and Shakespearean
Shaw’s paradoxes function on many levels: they occur in his own approaches to the literary process; in his attitude towards literary conventions and past role models; and in his embedded social commentaries
Shaw employs paradox to criticise, entertain and educate his audience and their society. ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’, he writes at the end of Man and Superman; yet true to Shavian form, it is his art that teaches, educating by doing. He creates these educative paradoxes by juxtaposing different ideas of civilisation, social class, dialect, speech acts, and even writing styles like essay and drama – his work is language for both the eye and the ear. In 1903 Beatrice Webb identified Man and Superman as ‘a play which is not a play’, but a work of multiple juxtapositions where ‘all the different forms [illustrate] the same central idea’. Critic Max Beerbohm was in agreement, calling Man and Superman perfect art, by which he meant perfect artifice. Yet Shaw knew that art requires substance as well as style: ‘He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none: he who has something to assert will go as far in power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will carry him. Disprove his assertion after it is made, yet its style remains.’
One aspect of Shaw’s style can be seen in his extended essays that masquerade as prefaces, though even Shaw acknowledged they have ‘practically nothing to do with the plays’. In the preface to Major Barbara Shaw claims not to echo thinkers like Nietzsche, Ibsen or Schopenhauer, yet five paragraphs on he invokes Schopenhauer, followed Nietzsche, and then a number of other philosophers. He carries the ironic moment further by asking why critics never acknowledge England’s own thinkers in his work (such as, obviously, himself); the underlying implication is that theatre critics will find whatever they’re looking for. This may be why Shaw entitled this section ‘First Aid to Critics’.
Shaw did all he could to manage audience response to his work; he even ghost-wrote and published confrontational interviews with himself that served to display key points of his plays. He wanted his audience to recognise their own misconceptions, to react viscerally to the situations he depicted, and to participate actively in the mechanics of his dramas. With Widower’s House the audience was to be ‘thoroughly uncomfortable’ yet artistically entertained. This play, a deliberate inversion of Victorian middle-class conventions, portrays a conniving daughter who turns down a marriage proposal because her father’s dowry, earned as a slumlord, is refused by her suitor. The audience (who would have been middle-class if they were at the theatre) became quite indignant. Shaw addressed them afterwards, agreeing that the play was indeed disgraceful, and he expressed his hope that such scenes would not occur in middle-class London for much longer. Even though Shaw appeared to be admitting the failure of his play, the audience had actually participated in a Shavian event, becoming implicated in the play’s own premises.
Shaw also wished to curtail hasty assumptions based on literary conventions. For instance, the conquering figure of Caesar is familiar from history, yet in Caesar and Cleopatra Shaw highlights his indiscriminate kindness in a manner that flummoxes the audience’s expectations of a war lord – his Caesar treats prisoners as guests who are free to leave, a leader who can be kind in cold blood. Dick Dudgeon, the disciple in The Devil’s Disciple, turns out to be the play’s Christ-like figure. Prostitution is seen not as a moral sin in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, but as a product of the Victorian social environment. The Devil of Man and Superman makes Hell into something we might see as Heaven, where all pleasures can be experienced while attention is diverted from eternity. Shaw’s hedonistic Don Juan, however, chooses a hellish Heaven over heavenly Hell, claiming the purpose of the famous Shavian Life Force is for humanity to gain understanding of the self, and this cannot be done when one is continually diverted.
Pygmalion, Shaw’s popular romance that inspired the musical My Fair Lady, is rife with Shavian literary paradox. The play reverses the classical myth of the King of Cyprus who, having carved a statue of a woman, is so enamoured with it that Aphrodite (the Goddess of Love) brings it to life. Pygmalion’s Professor Higgins, who acknowledges that the lower-class Eliza’s life was more real when she lived in the gutter, brings the flower girl to a kind of death by phonetically sculpting her into a faux duchess. Eliza remains literally statuesque until she finds love with Freddy Pickering; yet without Higgins’s help neither Eliza nor her father would have been able to leave the gutter and improve their quality of life. In the end, art teaches and reforms, but only when acted upon – and it is up to the audience to act upon what they learn from the circumstances in the play. Pygmalion was wildly popular, which Shaw mistrusted: ‘There must be something radically wrong with the play if it pleases everybody, but at the moment I cannot find what it is.’
SOURCE
Shaw's Sense of Paradox
by Joley Wodd
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Lightbulb Professor Henry Higgins

CHARACTER
Henry Higgins is a professor of phonetics who plays Pygmalion to Eliza Doolittle's Galatea. He is the author of Higgins' Universal Alphabet, believes in concepts like visible speech, and uses all manner of recording and photographic material to document his phonetic subjects, reducing people and their dialects into what he sees as readily understandable units. He is an unconventional man, who goes in the opposite direction from the rest of society in most matters. Indeed, he is impatient with high society, forgetful in his public graces, and poorly considerate of normal social niceties--the only reason the world has not turned against him is because he is at heart a good and harmless man. His biggest fault is that he can be a bully.
Higgins' Philosophy

Professor Higgins is seen throughout Pygmalion as a very rude man. While one may expect a well educated man, such as Higgins, to be a gentleman, he is far from it. Higgins believes that how you treated someone is not important, as long as you treat everyone equally. The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another. -Higgins, Act V Pygmalion. Higgins presents this theory to Eliza, in hope of justifying his treatment of her. This theory would be fine IF Higgins himself lived by it. Henry Higgins, however, lives by a variety of variations of this philosophy. It is easily seen how Higgins follows this theory. He is consistently rude towards Eliza, Mrs. Pearce, and his mother. His manner is the same to each of them, in accordance to his philosophy. However the Higgins we see at the parties and in good times with Pickering is well mannered. This apparent discrepancy between Higgins' actions and his word, may not exist, depending on the interpretation of this theory. There are two possible translations of Higgins' philosophy. It can be viewed as treating everyone the same all of the time or treating everyone equally at a particular time. It is obvious that Higgins does not treat everyone equally all of the time, as witnessed by his actions when he is in "one of his states" (as Mrs. Higgins' parlor maid calls it). The Higgins that we see in Mrs. Higgins' parlor is not the same Higgins we see at the parties. When in "the state" Henry Higgins wanders aimlessly around the parlor, irrationally moving from chair to chair, highly unlike the calm Professor Higgins we see at the ball. Higgins does not believe that a person should have the same manner towards everyone all of the time, but that a person should treat everyone equally at a given time (or in a certain situation). When he is in "one of those states" his manner is the same towards everyone; he is equally rude and disrespectful to all. Yet when minding his manners, as he does at the parties, he can be a gentleman. If the second meaning of Higgins' theory, that he treats everyone equally at a particular time, is taken as his philosophy, there is one major flaw. Higgins never respects Eliza, no matter who is around. In Act V of Pygmalion, Eliza confronts him about his manner towards her. "He (Pickering) treats a flower girl as duchess." Higgins, replying to Eliza, "And I treat a duchess as a flower girl." In an attempt to justify this Higgins replies "The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better." Eliza does not answer this question but the reader knows that Higgins has treated others better than Eliza. At the parties, for example, Higgins is a gentleman to the hosts and other guest, but still treats Eliza as his "experiment." Higgins could never see the "new" Eliza. Higgins only saw the dirty flower girl that had become his "experiment." Much like an author never sees a work as finished, Higgins could not view Eliza lady or duchess. Since Higgins knew where Eliza came from it was difficult for him to make her parts fit together as a masterpiece that he respected. Part of Higgins' problem in recognizing the "new" Eliza is his immaturity. He does not see her as what she is, he only sees her as what she was. This immaturity is representative of Higgins' childish tendencies that the reader can see throughout the play. Higgins' child-like actions can partially explain the variations in his philosophy. Try to imagine Higgins as a young teenager. A young Higgins, or any teenage boy for that matter, has a very limited outlook. They treat everyone the same; depending on the situation they may be little gentlemen or rude dudes. When around parents the teenager is rude and inconsiderate yet when among his friends he a complete gentleman. The adult Higgins' actions are the same as the child.
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