'Pygmalion' is 100 years old: Happy Birthday, dear Eliza

Michael Holroyd tells the story of Pygmalion's conception, and how its author was smitten by his leading lady

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion between March and June 1912, but it's opening night in London was on 11 April 1914 – almost 100 years ago, and some 15 weeks before Britain declared war on Germany.

In a culture of increasing competition, countries were extending their empires by winning wars; and individuals were improving their places in society through the acquisition of money. Shaw ridicules the random absurdity of vast incomes with the story of an elderly dustman who has the appropriate name of Doolittle. As the result of a joke describing him as England's most independent moralist (rather like Shaw himself), he is left a fortune and obliged to deliver improving lectures every year. He describes himself as ruined by money.

Shaw's ideal, which he wished to impose on the 20th century, was equality. He did not mean the political clichés of equal opportunities and level playing fields. What he looked for was something nearer equality of income and equality of accent. "The reformer we need most today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast," he wrote in the preface to his play. Such methods of cutting down social barriers were his gesture towards removing the power for change from financiers and fighting men. His dream was of a revolution without bloodshed or misery.

Henry Higgins'social experiment, turning an East End flower girl into a West End lady, reaches a very different conclusion from the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses where the legendary King Pygmalion made a statue of a girl with whom he fell in love when it came to life. "A Romance in Five Acts" was Shaw's subtitle to his play. But he enjoyed describing it, not as a romance, but a didactic attempt to show how the science of phonetics could pull apart Britain's antiquated class system. However, the autobiographical subtext to his play became a strong undercurrent that threatened to carry this theme out of his control.

The voice tests that Higgins gives Doolittle's illegitimate daughter Eliza are a foretaste of the respectable voice tuition given to prime ministers Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. They also bring to mind the singing lessons Shaw's mother had in Dublin. Her teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, was a Svengali-like personality and a Catholic. Mrs Shaw moved her Protestant family into his superior Dublin house and in 1873 followed him to London, leaving her 16-year old son with his semi-alcoholic father George Shaw. The adolescent boy began to wonder which George he had been named after. Was he, like Eliza Doolittle, illegitimate? Illegitimacy carried far greater moral opprobrium than it does today.

The painful relationship with his mother left Shaw feeling unlovable and he developed a need for public attention to take the place of love. Orphaning himself from his family, he became the child of his writings, a 20th-century celebrity with the brand name GBS. He omitted the worrying name George from his publications – and instructed friends: "Don't George me."

In his relationships with women he used a witty self-assertive style as a means of self-protection. Of all the actresses he knew, the most seductively magical was Mrs Patrick Campbell – or Stella as he called her. He wanted her for his play-world and persuaded her to play Eliza.

A tasty brew: ‘Pygmalion’ with Jane Lambert, Alistair McGowan, Rachel Barry (as Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle) and Anna O’Grady A tasty brew: ‘Pygmalion’ with Jane Lambert, Alistair McGowan, Rachel Barry (as Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle) and Anna O’Grady
Early in 1913, Shaw's mother died. It was as if the source of her son's unlovableness and need for emotional protection vanished. He found himself violently in love with Stella – something he had never experienced before, not even with his wife Charlotte. He was in his mid-fifties and she was in her late forties – but what did age matter? It mattered perhaps because Stella was thirty years too old to be Eliza.

Her husband had died in 1900. She was nearing the end of her acting career and, as so many women were obliged to do, she was looking for the security of marriage and a safe place in society. Not many playwrights wrote parts for middle-aged and elderly women. Stella was charmed by Shaw taking so many years off her age. But she escaped his advances and, during rehearsals, took a few days off to marry George Cornwallis-West – another George, and with a hyphenated name like the brainless Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the play. Shaw was deeply wounded. Of his 57 years, he wrote, "I have suffered 20 and worked 37. Then I had a moment's happiness … I risked the breaking of deep roots and sanctified ties … what have I shrunk into?"

The rehearsals and many later productions of Pygmalion became a nightmare for him. Everyone wanted Eliza to marry Higgins. But he strongly objected (as he objected to the idea of his mother having a love affair with George Vandeleur Lee). He wanted Eliza to have employment and teach phonetics. That was the feminine equality he sought. He re-wrote passages of the play to make this clearer. But the stage directions point to a sexual relationship that helped future directors get round his objections. Nothing seemed to go his way. Even when he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Pygmalion in 1939, additional romantic dialogue had, unknown to him, been inserted.

Irish author and dramatist George Bernard Shaw Irish author and dramatist George Bernard Shaw (Getty Images)
Shaw could, however, congratulate himself on having won a major battle. When Franz Lehár proposed making a romantic musical of Pygmalion, Shaw strongly rejected the proposal. It was not until six years after his death, in 1956, that My Fair Lady came into being.

Despite these many difficulties, Pygmalion has become Shaw's most popular play. It is focused both on the past and the future, coming from autobiographical sources in his early years and carrying his vision of a classless future without unemployment and excessive incomes. When a modern audience sees Eliza's predicament it asks: why can't Eliza marry Higgins and have a job? That was not a valid question a century ago. µ

'Pygmalion', Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (01483 440000) to Saturday then touring to 21 June (pygmalionuktour.co.uk)

Michael Holroyd is George Bernard Shaw's authorised biographer. Re-produced by kind commission of John Good Ltd, publishers of the 'Pygmalion' programme

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions