Pygmalion and My Fair Lady

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Discuss the different ways of representing class conflicts. Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw, 1914
My Fair Lady, George Cukor, 1964

“As the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, I see no reason why anyone should be exempt.” This famous quotation of French playwright Molière proves how powerfully theater and social criticism are linked, and how in its different genres, drama as well as comedy, theater can, and maybe must, be a way of communicating and expressing the human and society’s flaws. Indeed, theater, as defined by Marvin Carlson, is a “collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place.” This specificity of theatrical representation therefore allows the sharing of personal points of views and visions on certain events, and by the use of entertainment, conveys a message to a public. Throughout history, many authors have used the comedy genre to point out human vices and satirize the effects of social hierarchy. The best-known writer of this type of comedy is probably Moliere, famous for mocking the French “Ancien Regime” with plays such as The School for Wives, The Misanthrope, and Tartuffe.

Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) was an Irish playwright, whose socialism beliefs were far from hidden, as showed his implication in the Fabian Society, a British socialist movement whose aim was to advocate the “principles of democratic socialism”. However, this author was better known for his writing career than his political activity, and he is the sole writer to have won both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938). Moreover, his Oscar was a prize he won after his work on the movie based on his play, Pygmalion, written in 1912, a story about the transformation of a poor flower girl into a genteel lady. This production was a clear criticism of England’s 19th century rigid class system, and emphasized the importance of language as a key factor for this rigidity, as he had once said before: “syllables govern the world.” This play remains his most famous work, and has been adapted several times, including into a musical in 1954, and a ‘highly romanticized’ movie in 1964, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady.

My Fair Lady starred Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, and won eight academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Picture and Best Director. Its plot is actually quite faithful to Bernard Shaw’s original Pygmalion, but differs in probably its most important aspect, the ending. Indeed, the movie transformed romanticized the whole story line, as to follow Hollywood’s, and its public’s, demands.

In this essay, I will discuss the different ways of representing class conflict, in the 1912 play as well as in 1964’s My Fair Lady, so as to put forward the differences and similarities in class and conflict representation, and compare the divergences of the effectiveness of the social critique.

Before representing class conflict, that we could define as the apparent, or non apparent, tension between individuals belonging to antagonist social classes, categorized for the British system in upper, middle and lower (or working) class, one must represent these different classes.

One of the easiest, and most obvious, ways of representing the oppositions between the different classes are the physical appearances. The props and costumes used in both play and movie allow the representation of upper and lower class. Indeed, individuals from the lower class are identified with poor, cheap looking clothing, and most often look dirty. This distinction of appearance is made right at the first scene. Indeed, at the beginning of the play, Bernard Shaw describes Eliza in a negative manner: “Eliza is not at all an attractive person. (…) She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London and has seldom if ever been brushed. Her hair needs washing rather badly (…) She is no...
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