The Controversial Ending of Pygmalion

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The Controversial Ending of Shaw’s Pygmalion
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a play that has become a classic in today’s world. It is a retelling of an ancient story, of the same name, by the Roman poet, Ovid, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he carved. In Shaw’s story, Henry Higgins, an expert in phonetics, happens upon a poor flower girl with awful English and street manners named Eliza Doolittle. Throughout the course of the play Higgins transforms her into an elegant independent woman. The play tracks Eliza and Higgins’s journey and the transformation of their relationship from teacher and pupil to one where both are equally accustomed to the other and have become integral parts of the others lives. Shaw does not end the play as most would expect though. The general public expects and practically demands a happy ending of a play that seems so highly romantic, but Shaw provides the audience with a strictly logical ending instead. In the end, Eliza becomes tired of Higgins’s pompous attitude as she grows independent, and leaves him to marry a typical romantic character of the middle-class. The play then ends with Henry mocking her idea of marrying this man (Shaw). The audience had conceived the idea of Henry and Eliza getting married, and could not accept this abrupt ending (Solomon 59). Over time, Shaw’s purpose behind this ending has been debated endlessly. Many have even gone as far as to simply call Shaw “wrong” in having created this ending, and have gone on to adjust the ending to what they would consider a “correct” ending (Solomon 60). This revised ending has spread into most productions and adaptations. It will be recreated yet again in the upcoming 2012 film remake of My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of Pygmalion, and most will never know that another ending—the original ending—exists. In this paper, I will show that what is considered a “correct” ending by the revisers of Shaw’s play is actually nothing more than a safe, audience-pleasing ending that is not even consistent with the nature of the main characters. Furthermore, I will give logical reasoning to my assertion that Shaw’s original ending is superior, and in fact the only one that fulfills the play’s purpose.

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912, and the play premiered in Vienna in October of 1913. It premiered in London in April of 1914 starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza and Herbert Berrbohm Tree as Higgins with Shaw directing. It was a stormy rehearsal process that involved tempers constantly flaring during rehearsals (Matlaw 33). After the show premiered with its original ending, many critics began to criticize the ending of the play, and audiences were also dissatisfied with the fact that the hero and heroine do not end up married or even on good terms with each other. Tree decided to change the ending after Shaw had left and ended the show with Higgins standing on a balcony tossing a bouquet of flowers to Eliza as the final curtain comes down. When Shaw returned for the hundredth performance he was shocked and outraged to see this ending. Tree is quoted as saying to Shaw, “My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful.” To which Shaw replied, “Your ending is damnable: you ought to be shot” (Gainor 406). The call for a happier, clarified ending continued though, prompting Shaw to write an explanation that serves as a sort of epilogue to the story that is attached to all subsequent editions of Pygmalion. In it, Shaw defends his ending and explains why it is the only ending that stays true the character: The rest of the story…would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades…in which Romance keeps its stock of “happy endings” to misfit all stories… Nevertheless, people…have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it… the true sequel is patent to...
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