Tuesday, November 17, 2009

FINALLY SOLVED: The Mystery of Pygmalion’s Missing Scene!

by Douglas Grudzina

You know those stories that are so ubiquitous, so culturally iconic, that everyone thinks he or she “knows” it?

You know how some people can get really bent out of shape when their belief that the version of the tale they know is not necessarily the original or the definitive version is challenged—when someone dares to suggest that what they “know” about the story is simply inaccurate?

A week or so ago, we did a post on the universality and limitless adaptability of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Today, let’s examine the strange case of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
At least three times a year (quite possibly more), we receive a letter, e-mail, or telephone call inquiring about a “defect” in our Prestwick House Touchstone Literary Classic edition of Pygmalion. The inquiry is always the same: a crucial scene is missing from our edition, specifically, the scene in which Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins take the flower-girl-turned-Princess Eliza Doolittle to the ball.

Most of the calls we receive are from genuinely concerned customers—either concerned that they purchased a defective product, or that we may have received a defective product from our printer, who somehow omitted full pages from the manuscript.

First, a word about the texts of our Touchstone Literary Classics (and probably more than you ever needed or wanted to know about the history of international copyright in the bargain). Back in the day—I think 1926 is the pivotal year, but don’t quote me—copyright laws were very different from today’s. Most things written and printed in the world prior to that year—it might be 1923, but I really think it’s 1926—have fallen into the “public domain.”

(Not everything, but most things.)

“Public domain” means that no one person or entity owns the copyright. Shakespeare is in the public domain. So is Dickens. So are Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—and so are some of George Bernard Shaw’s works. All of our Literary Touchstone Classics are public domain works. (We can sell them to you so inexpensively because we do not have to pay royalties on the work.)

Now, added material, like introductions, prefaces, footnotes and endnotes, study guide questions, etc., can all be copyrighted; and Prestwick House, of course, owns all of the material included in the Touchstones.


Pygmalion was originally a play written for the stage by George Bernard Shaw in 1913. It was a typical five-act play: Act I taking place in the street outside of Covent Garden Theater; Act II taking place in the library of Henry Higgins’s home on Wimpole Street. Act III takes place in the drawing room of Higgins’s mother at her at-home. Act IV returns to Higgins’s home, and Act V returns to Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room. There are, in all, three sets: the London street, Higgins’s library, and Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room.

The action of the play ends with everyone leaving Mrs. Higgins’s house to go to Mr. Doolittle’s wedding. Higgins balks at going, and Eliza says something to him along the lines of: “Good-bye, Professor Higgins, I shall not be seeing you again.” Higgins curses, she leaves, and the final curtain falls. [Applause]

This 1913 stage play is the version reproduced in the Prestwick House Literary Touchstone. (Since it was published before 1926, it exists in the public domain.)

Theater audiences and critics complained about the “ambiguous” ending of this play and the apparent lack of a “happy ending,” so Shaw wrote an epilogue, which is included in the Touchstone edition. In this epilogue, Shaw narrates the events of the years following the close of the play. Eliza marries Freddy. He drops the “Eynsford” from his name and—with financial assistance from Colonel Pickering—opens a green-grocer shop. Eliza, also with Pickering’s help, opens a florist shop next door to Freddy. The couple remains close friends with the Colonel and Higgins, neither of whom ever marry.

In 1938 (after that key 1926 copyright date), Shaw adapted his stage play for the screen. This film version of Pygmalion starred Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza. There are several notable differences between the 1913 stage play and the 1938 screenplay. While the stage play has a decidedly Victorian flavor, the screen play is definitely twentieth-century. Whereas in the stage play, Higgins and Pickering intend to take Eliza to an ambassador’s garden party, in the screenplay, they take her to an embassy ball.

The movie also depicts the scene of Eliza’s triumph at the ball, which the play does not. To do so in the play would have required an additional set change, costume changes, and a host of “stage extras,” all of which Shaw and his producer apparently deemed unnecessary.

Probably the most significant difference between the 1913 stage play and the 1938 screen play, however, is the ending. Shaw’s epilogue must not have satisfied the public because, at the end of the 1938 movie, Eliza returns to Higgins.

It’s kind of funny that, during my 25+ years teaching British literature to high school seniors, most of the anthologies I used included the full text of Pygmalion—the 1913 stage version, with Epilogue. The text was then peppered with stills from the 1938 film! (Talk about confusing the poor student!)

It is the 1938 screenplay that served as the basis for the 1956 stage musical and the 1964 movie musical, My Fair Lady. Again, however, there were significant changes. The visit to Mrs. Higgins’s home in Act III becomes a visit to the Ascot Racecourse. The role of Eliza’s father and his marriage in Act V are greatly expanded. How Eliza spends the night after the embassy ball is expanded, and so on.

Those, therefore, who call and write to wonder about the absence of a “party scene” in Shaw’s original (1913) play are probably more familiar with the 1938 movie (or the 1964 screen musical). Many of these callers also express concern about the “different ending.” For Eliza to return to Higgins, however, was not Shaw’s original idea of a “happy ending” for the play. Shaw’s notion of Eliza’s happy ending is explained in considerable detail in the epilogue to the 1913 play, which appears in most anthologies and in the Literary Touchstone.

Perhaps noting the difference(s) between the 1913 stage play (the Literary Touchstone) and the 1938 screenplay (and the musicals it inspired) presents the opportunity to do a play-to-movie-to-movie comparison/contrast, taking into consideration the limitations of the genre (the inconvenience and expense of additional set and costume changes in a live performance) versus the expectations of the audience (added and expanded scenes, altered endings, etc.).

Eliza and Higgins, like Scrooge and Tiny Tim, touch something deep within the hearts and souls of those who encounter them—whether in a public-domain text, a black-and-white classic film, or a lavish costume-extravaganza that probably should have starred Julie Andrews.

But that’s another post for another day.

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