George Bernard Shaw

As a playwright, George Bernard Shaw has many popular works that come to mind: Pygmalion, Heart Break House, Major Barbara. We are about to head into Pygmalion, now made famous by the musical My Fair Lady. Musicals of this time period tend to sugar coat things and have made this into a happy love story between Eliza and Higgins. It isn’t.

The myth that it’s named for is about a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. Yes, Higgins transforms Eliza, but that’s not the whole story. Eliza is a street flower-seller who’s command of the English language leaves much to be desired, or does it? What is Shaw really writing about?

To answer this question I have to tell you that my favorite work of his isn’t a play, it’s The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, a work that tony Kushner pays homage to in his new work The Gay Man’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism.

Looking at Shaw’s body of work he is quite political. Like his colleague, Wilde, he wrote about class and what it was doing to the British people. Wilde poked the bear too many times and paid for it with his life in the end. Shaw was a stronger voice and asked deeper questions.

Let’s look at the women in Pygmalion. We have the housekeeper, Professor Higgins’ mother, and Eliza. When the men take Eliza in, really on a schoolboy’s wager, it is the housekeeper and the mother who ask the questions that all will inevitably ask. What is her position in the house? Will you pay her as a servant? What is her status, employee or kept woman? She must be defined. They see, as the men do not, how important this distinction is. It is women who feel the brunt of the eyes of society. Eliza will be seen as a kept woman without position and ruin any chance she has at striking out on her own.

Higgins and Pickering, and even Eliza’s father, have a cavalier attitude about society. After all, they are men and may move about as they choose, within their own class. As is made very apparent with Doolittle who is transformed by Higgins’ interference and forced to marry Eliza’s Step mother. Marriage, it seems, is not that common among the lower classes. Eliza is transformed, but she is left in limbo and in the end takes control of her own destiny as best she can.

With humor, Shaw points at the flaws and imbalance of power within the British beehive and between the sexes. In the end, all the characters come to a place that suits them and holds up appearances for society. They find a place that is theirs without compromise and still pose as respectable for the greater world.

Shaw is a great writer for strong women, women battling against poverty, class, and the idea that they are some how fragile, and weak. Mrs Warren’s Profession is actually a scathing exposé on how women had to maneuver in the structure of British society. Major Barbara ,in some ways, is about the working poor. Shaw was not shy about what he tackled. He was not always liked either, but he spoke his mind. The saddest thing is the things he railed against then are still happening now to some degree or other.


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