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George Bernard Shaw: Socialist and Playwright

George Bernard Shaw’s power as a dramatist is directly linked to his work as a socialist both before and during his work as a playwright. It is because these two forces are so inextricably tied that a working knowledge of both his socialist ideals and his ideas concerning the theatrical process is not only useful, but on some levels necessary for an adequate understanding of his meaning in each. Shaw himself knew this, and he made it known to his reader/viewer through essays on socialism and social relations and in the prefaces to his plays that his drama was meant to carry a specific social message.

Therefore, it is the purpose of this thesis to examine Shaw’s play, Pygmalion in the light of his social theory as displayed one of his essays and as well as in the preface to Pygmalion. In the web page sponsored by Bartleby. com they summarize the following: “Based on classical myth, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion plays on the complex business of human relationships in a social world. Phonetics Professor Henry Higgins tutors the very Cockney Eliza Doolittle, not only in the refinement of speech, but also in the refinement of her manner.

When the end result produces a very ladylike Miss Doolittle, the lessons learned ecome much more far reaching”. I found that this play offers incite to the social arrangement of that time. He carefully dictated the pronunciations for which separate both character and class. He used the results of the language in the beginning to show Eliza’s “place” in society as being lower class, uneducated and with disregard to the mannerisms of that time.

He then in turn showed that through social reform, you can take this little flower girl and turn her into a princess. thus changing her place in society by enhancing her dialect to that of which is spoken by only the elite. He not only improves hanges her status through linguistics (though this is the primary focus), he also places much concentration of the mannerisms to which a cultured lady would possess. Eliza loses the cockney accent without any indication that there had ever existed anything other than that of this women Higgins created in Eliza. Where did Shaw come up with this technical approach to the highly developed training of individuals, skillfully advancing them in society?

According to a web page sponsored by Project Gutenberg, Shaw’s essay entitled, Treatise On Parents And Children, closely relates to the subject atter of Pygmalion in which he addresses important issues of class, social power and even sexual politics in the relationship between the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and her teacher, the middle class Professor Henry Higgins. In his essay he writes, “Technical training may be as tedious as learning to skate or to play the piano or violin; but it is the price one must pay to achieve certain desirable results or necessary ends” (“Treatise”).

Shaw also writes, “Languages, even dead ones, have their uses; and, as it seems to many of us, mathematics have their uses. They will always be earned by people who want to learn them; and people will always want to learn them as long as they are of any importance in life: in deed the want will survive their importance: superstition is nowhere stronger than in the field of obsolete acquirements. And they will never be learnt fruitfully by people who do not want to learn them either for their own sake or for use in necessary work.

There is no harder schoolmaster than experience; and yet experience fails to teach where there is no desire to learn” (“Treatise”). It is true that in order for Eliza to become the “princess” or so alled socialite she must continuously work to achieve her goal through strenuous lessons. It was beneficial for her to gain the knowledge into linguistics so to better her social status in order to live a more meaningful life which is what the character Higgins encourages the readers to believe, undoubtedly the belief of Shaw. What constitutes a meaningful life?

It seems that the improvement of an individual is comes to the forefront of this question. This is better explained by Shaw’s participation with The Fabian Society in which he molds many of his beliefs. In the book entitled “The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama”, written by W. B. Worthen, a small biography on G. Bernard Shaw states that Shaw had adopted the Fabian Societies plan of gradual reform in place of a more rigorously Marxist call for social revolution. The Fabians strove to change society through a strategy of permeations.

Being deeply influenced, Shaw used the Fabians scheme for social improvement – a scheme that underlies the utopian project of his greatest plays to develop his idea of Creative Evolution. He urged that humanity take command of its future by willing itself to evolve in certain humane directions. His attempt was that of the Fabian socialist project of gradual social evolution with the individualist metaphysics of Creative Evolution: the improvement of society through the improvement of each of its members (652).

It seems very clear to me that Bernard Shaw used these exact ideas as a basis for Pygmalion. The social evolution within this play develops through the interaction with Eliza and the professor in which he uses her as 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 of ociety. Not only in this play did he attempt to address his idea of social evolution, but in all of them.

He attacked specific social problems, like slum landlords and international prostitution, conventional morality, salvation, damnation, and raw power (652). There is a connection between the characters in his plays and those who have been influential models in his life. Not only did they spark an interest in the social problems as stated, they served as a basis for which characters were built from. Phua writes, “In his preface to the play, Shaw writes that the figure f Henry Higgins is partly based on Alexander Melville Bell, the inventor of Visible Speech.

How does Shaw utilize this idea of “Visible Speech”? Is it an adequate concept to use to approach people? ” She then answers that through the concept of “Visible Speech,” Shaw hits on the two aspects of theater that can make the greatest impression on an audience: sight and sound. Therefore, the transformation of Eliza is most marked and obvious on these two scales. In regard to both these senses, Pygmalion stays faithful to the most clichd formula of the standard rags-to-riches stories, in that he heroine changes drastically in the most external ways.

However, while Eliza certainly changes in these blatant external ways, these changes serve as a mask for a more fundamental development of self-respect that Eliza undergoes. Because Higgins only ever charts “Visible Speech,” it makes him liable to forget that there are other aspects to human beings that can also grow. But in the possible loss that Higgins faces in the final scene, and in is inability to recognize that loss as a possibility at all, the play makes certain that its audience sees the tension between internal and xternal 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 to Phua’s argument, “Pygmalion Higgins is not a portrait of Sweet, to whom the adventure of Eliza Doolittle would have been impossible; still, as will be seen, 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 the patent shorthand in which he used to write postcards, and which may be acquired from a four and sixpenny manual published by the Clarendon Press. The postcards which Mr. Higgins describes are such as I have received from Sweet” (x).

He was influenced by Sweet. This made clear in his statement, “… if the 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, it will serve its turn” (xi). G. Bernard Shaw’s history with the Fabian Society enlightened the path to which he formed his basis for his plays, among which my focus has been on that of Pygmalion. This is made evident in the preface when Shaw states, “The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that s why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play” (ix).

I wonder what his plays would have been composed of had Shaw not become greatly influenced by this socialist political organization. Would he have gone on to write plays based on different meanings other than on the improvements of society or had he always had the fascination with the effects of due to creative evolution? I believe that that it was in his blood to generate these notions and that regardless of his interactions with the Fabians, he would have found a way to signify his plays regarding this idea of societal evolution.

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