George Bernard Shaw: Socialist and Playwright

EN 31920 September 2004George Bernard Shaw’s power as a dramatist is directly linked to hiswork as a socialist both before and during his work as a playwright.

It isbecause these two forces are so inextricably tied that a working knowledgeof both his socialist ideals and his ideas concerning the theatricalprocess is not only useful, but on some levels necessary for an adequateunderstanding of his meaning in each. Shaw himself knew this, and he madeit known to his reader/viewer through essays on socialism and socialrelations and in the prefaces to his plays that his drama was meant tocarry a specific social message. Therefore, it is the purpose of thisthesis to examine Shaw’s play, Pygmalion in the light of his social theoryas displayed one of his essays and as well as in the preface to Pygmalion.

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In the web page sponsored by Bartleby.com they summarize thefollowing: “Based on classical myth, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion plays on thecomplex business of human relationships in a social world. PhoneticsProfessor Henry Higgins tutors the very Cockney Eliza Doolittle, not onlyin the refinement of speech, but also in the refinement of her manner. Whenthe end result produces a very ladylike Miss Doolittle, the lessons learnedbecome much more far reaching”.I found that this play offers incite to the social arrangement of thattime. He carefully dictated the pronunciations for which separate bothcharacter and class. He used the results of the language in the beginningto show Eliza’s “place” in society as being lower class, uneducated andwith disregard to the mannerisms of that time.

He then in turn showed thatthrough social reform, you can take this little flower girl and turn herinto a princess., thus changing her place in society by enhancing herdialect to that of which is spoken by only the elite. He not only improveschanges her status through linguistics (though this is the primary focus),he also places much concentration of the mannerisms to which a culturedlady would possess. Eliza loses the cockney accent without any indicationthat there had ever existed anything other than that of this women Higginscreated in Eliza. Where did Shaw come up with this technical approach tothe highly developed training of individuals, skillfully advancing them insociety?According to a web page sponsored by Project Gutenberg, Shaw’s essayentitled, Treatise On Parents And Children, closely relates to the subjectmatter of Pygmalion in which he addresses important issues of class, socialpower and even sexual politics in the relationship between the Cockneyflower girl Eliza Doolittle and her teacher, the middle class ProfessorHenry Higgins.

In his essay he writes, “Technical training may be as tedious aslearning to skate or to play the piano or violin; but it is the price onemust pay to achieve certain desirable results or necessary ends”(“Treatise”).Shaw also writes, “Languages, even dead ones, have their uses; and, asit seems to many of us, mathematics have their uses. They will always belearned by people who want to learn them; and people will always want tolearn them as long as they are of any importance in life: in deed the wantwill survive their importance: superstition is nowhere stronger than in thefield of obsolete acquirements.

And they will never be learnt fruitfully bypeople who do not want to learn them either for their own sake or for usein necessary work. There is no harder schoolmaster than experience; and yetexperience fails to teach where there is no desire to learn” (“Treatise”).It is true that in order for Eliza to become the “princess” or socalled socialite she must continuously work to achieve her goal throughstrenuous lessons. It was beneficial for her to gain the knowledge intolinguistics so to better her social status in order to live a moremeaningful life which is what the character Higgins encourages the readersto believe, undoubtedly the belief of Shaw. What constitutes a meaningfullife? It seems that the improvement of an individual is comes to theforefront of this question. This is better explained by Shaw’sparticipation with The Fabian Society in which he molds many of hisbeliefs.In the book entitled “The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama”, written byW.B.

Worthen, a small biography on G. Bernard Shaw states that Shaw hadadopted the Fabian Societies plan of gradual reform in place of a morerigorously Marxist call for social revolution. The Fabians strove tochange society through a strategy of permeations. Being deeply influenced,Shaw used the Fabians scheme for social improvement – a scheme thatunderlies the utopian project of his greatest plays to develop his idea ofCreative Evolution.

He urged that humanity take command of its future bywilling itself to evolve in certain humane directions. His attempt was thatof the Fabian socialist project of gradual social evolution with theindividualist metaphysics of Creative Evolution: the improvement of societythrough the improvement of each of its members (652).It seems very clear to me that Bernard Shaw used these exact ideas asa basis for Pygmalion. The social evolution within this play developsthrough the interaction with Eliza and the professor in which he uses heras a basis in the improvement of society. By taking one person at a time,teaching them of language and class, he is able to reform this area ofsociety. Not only in this play did he attempt to address his idea of socialevolution, but in all of them. He attacked specific social problems, likeslum landlords and international prostitution, conventional morality,salvation, damnation, and raw power (652). There is a connection betweenthe characters in his plays and those who have been influential models inhis life.

Not only did they spark an interest in the social problems asstated, they served as a basis for which characters were built from.Phua writes, “In his preface to the play, Shaw writes that the figureof Henry Higgins is partly based on Alexander Melville Bell, the inventorof Visible Speech. How does Shaw utilize this idea of “Visible Speech”? Isit an adequate concept to use to approach people?” She then answers thatthrough the concept of “Visible Speech,” Shaw hits on the two aspects oftheater that can make the greatest impression on an audience: sight andsound. Therefore, the transformation of Eliza is most marked and obvious onthese two scales. In regard to both these senses, Pygmalion stays faithfulto the most clichd formula of the standard rags-to-riches stories, in thatthe heroine changes drastically in the most external ways. However, whileEliza certainly changes in these blatant external ways, these changes serveas a mask for a more fundamental development of self-respect that Elizaundergoes. Because Higgins only ever charts “Visible Speech,” it makes himliable to forget that there are other aspects to human beings that can alsogrow.

But in the possible loss that Higgins faces in the final scene, andin is inability to recognize that loss as a possibility at all, the playmakes certain that its audience sees the tension between internal andexternal change, and that sight and sound do not become measures of virtue,personality, or internal worth.As stated in the Preface of Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and in reference toPhua’s argument, “Pygmalion Higgins is not a portrait of Sweet, to whom theadventure of Eliza Doolittle would have been impossible; still, as will beseen, there are touches of Sweet in the play” (xi). Shaw goes on to say,”Those who knew him will recognize in my third act the allusions to thepatent shorthand in which he used to write postcards, and which may beacquired from a four and sixpenny manual published by the Clarendon Press.The postcards which Mr.

Higgins describes are such as I have received fromSweet” (x).He was influenced by Sweet. This made clear in his statement, “…ifthe 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, itwill serve its turn” (xi).G.

Bernard Shaw’s history with the Fabian Society enlightened the pathto which he formed his basis for his plays, among which my focus has beenon that of Pygmalion. This is made evident in the preface when Shaw states,”The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: thatis why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play” (ix). I wonderwhat his plays would have been composed of had Shaw not become greatlyinfluenced by this socialist political organization. Would he have gone onto write plays based on different meanings other than on the improvementsof society or had he always had the fascination with the effects of due tocreative evolution? I believe that that it was in his blood to generatethese notions and that regardless of his interactions with the Fabians, hewould have found a way to signify his plays regarding this idea of societalevolution. Works CitedPhua, Mei Pin. SparkNote on Pygmalion. 20 Sep.

2004.Shaw, G. Bernard. Treatise on Parents and Children.

1884. 1 may 1997..

Shaw, G. Bernard. Pygnalion. Ed. Thomas Crofts.

New York: DoverPublications, 1994.Shaw, G. Bernard.

Pygmalion. New York: Brentano, 1916; Bartleby.com, 1999.19 Sep. 2004 .Worthen, W. B. The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama.

Ed. Aron Keesbury. Boston:Wadsworth, 2004. 4th ed. 652-653.