Pygmalion is a play by George Bernard Shaw, named after a Greek mythological figure. It was first presented on stage to the public in 1913.
Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a commentary on women’s independence.
In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures, which then came to life. The general idea of that myth was a popular subject for Victorian era English playwrights, including one of Shaw’s influences, W. S. Gilbert, who wrote a successful play based on the story called Pygmalion and Galatea that was first presented in 1871. Shaw would also have been familiar with the burlesque version, Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed. Shaw’s play has been adapted numerous times, most notably as the musical My Fair Lady and its film version.
Shaw mentioned that the character of Professor Henry Higgins was inspired by several British professors of phonetics: Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander J. Ellis, Tito Pagliardini, but above all, the cantankerous Henry Sweet.
Shaw wrote the play in early 1912 and read it to famed actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell in June. She came on board almost immediately, but her mild nervous breakdown contributed to the delay of a London production. Pygmalion premiered at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna on 16 October 1913, in a German translation by Shaw’s Viennese literary agent and acolyte, Siegfried Trebitsch. Its first New York production opened on 24 March 1914 at the German-language Irving Place Theatre. It opened in London on 11 April 1914, at Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s His Majesty’s Theatre and starred Mrs. Campbell as Eliza and Tree as Higgins, running for 118 performances. Shaw directed the actors through tempestuous rehearsals often punctuated by at least one of the two storming out of the theatre in a rage.