George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion (1914)

Influenced by Marx, so worth thinking about seemingly conservative linguistic gestures are can be read as socially progressive, even radical. In the play, Higgins observes that language cuts across economic strata: money has skewed social relations, now solving problems, but creating new ones, including humans of all classes being deracinated, disordered, etc. According to the Preface, Shaw sees the play, and all of his work (all art in general), as explicitly didactic in one way or another: he calls for a reformer in the guise of an “energetic phonetic specialist.” In general, Shaw thinks we need a “new sort of human being” to face the problems of modernity; Pygmalion dramatizes the process (sometimes violent) of trying to create this new human. Once said that vegetarian do nto live on vegetables any more than

Drawing from Marx, Shaw does believe that we use the world to satisfy our needs, but that the world is the means through which we express our creative faculties. Shavian “new speech” is one such expression. The broad range of styles in Pygmalion illustrate the “inclusiveness” of this language in contrast to Higgins’ rather narrow idea of what language should be. Higgins has a problem, in short, with Metaphysics, thinking that there is some essence (linguistic, human, etc,) that can be posited and achieved, rather than a more ambiguous collection utterances and performances. One could think of the play itself as a destabilized “absence” that is supplemented by a long preface and a prose conclusion that finishes the story. In other words, the boundaries between performance, real life, drama, fiction, etc. Drama takes on fictional quality, for instance, when in the frist scene the characters are no indicated by their names, but by generic place-holders (flower girl, mother, daughter, note taker) that will be filled out in the coming scenes: this a readerly effect that can’t be performed on stage.


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