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Pygmalion Essay-Appropriation of a Key Text from the Past

Appropriation of texts has occurred for centuries, as stories have been adapted to contemporary situations that are relevant to their audience. The Myth of Pygmalion is one such case. George Bernard Shaw and Garry Marshall have taken the ancient Myth of Pygmalion and transformed it using language, form and values to reflect the context of their times. For example, the play Pygmalion appropriates characters, social context and values to present the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from a flower girl to a lady, whilst Pretty Woman uses filmic devices to present Vivian’s transformation from a prostitute to a rich woman. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the artist figure of the Myth is represented by Henry Higgins, now transformed into an enthusiastic phoneticist.

This is appropriate to the social context of the time, as an individual’s speech determined their social class and status. Like a sculptor, Higgins moulds Eliza into his image of an ideal middle-class woman by changing her speech, hygiene and social etiquette. The play confronts serious issues that were present in England during the early 20th century. Poverty and class divisions are presented in a light-hearted way through the use of humorous scenes, such as Eliza first taking a bath and refusing to remove her clothes. Accepted behaviour and morals between the classes are explored. An example is the repetition of Eliza insisting she’s a ‘good girl’. It shows that, despite being an ill-educated flower girl, she clings to what little she has – dignity and reputation.

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They also reflect aspects of Shaw’s life and his socialist viewpoints. Hence the transformation of Eliza into a lady is used to convey his ideas about England’s rigid class structure and the artificiality of class divisions. To confront the issue of working-class poverty, Shaw emphasizes cultural context in terms of social divisions through characters and setting. The setting of Eliza’s bedroom, with hot water meters and peeling wallpaper, is compared to Higgins’ house’s luxuries. Characters are also contrasted with reinforcing such ideas and values. The first scene contrasts Eliza’s cockney accent and unkempt appearance to the well-dressed Eynsford Hills. The contrast in terms of characters and setting reveals the extent of social divisions and poverty and thus reflects Pygmalion’s historical and social context.

Henry Higgins’ character is appropriated from the artist Pygmalion, and there are many similarities between the two. Higgins shares the same distaste for women as Pygmalion in the myth. This is evident when he describes them as ‘nothing but a damned fool of a fashionable woman’ (Act IV). The differences in their attitudes show how women have changed over time. Higgins also has the same passion for creation as Pygmalion, as he is obsessed with Eliza’s transformation. Just as the artist Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, so too does Higgins. Although he is not romantically in love with Eliza, he is dependent on and fond of her. This is shown when Eliza is leaving, and he admits, ‘I will miss you Eliza’ (Act V p98). Shaw has appropriated Higgins, an accessible character with defined humanity and individuality.

A realistic character like Higgins allows audiences to understand issues in society reflecting contexts, such as the role of women, social status and class. In the Myth, the concept of an object such as the statue being owned by its creator is appropriated to be relevant to the play’s context. Higgins ‘owns’ Eliza as he has bought and paid five pounds for her. There are also references to the myth to support this, such as when Mrs Higgins tells Henry that Eliza is ‘a triumph of your art’ (p62). Higgins also treats her as an object, as he has made a bet on her with no regard for her feelings. This is clearly shown when Eliza exclaims, “I am nothing to you – not so much as them slippers”.

The transformation of Eliza is presented through language, which didactically reflects Shaw’s own ideas on social distinctions caused by phonetics. Through her lessons with Higgins, Eliza’s cockney accent is eventually transformed into perfect English in terms of pronunciation and grammar. An example of this is from ‘T?-oo branches o violets trod into the mad’ to perfect English like ‘Queen Victoria’. This aspect of her transformation suggests the possibility of people improving their station in life. It relates to the context of the play, where successful people from poor areas were sometimes raised to middle-class status.

Shaw’s Pygmalion is not the only appropriation of the ancient Myth. Garry Marshall appropriates the Myth into a modern film, Pretty Woman. Whereas Pygmalion is a social critique of its time, Pretty Woman falls under a Romantic Comedy genre. Set in Hollywood in the 1990s, it no longer has the English class divisions of Shaw’s Pygmalion, as the division now lies between the wealthy and the poor. The opportunity for wealth and a better life is available for those determined, such as Vivian, a prostitute on the streets. Vivian’s transformation begins with Edward Lewis, who requires a female partner for business purposes. He does not hesitate to allow her to fulfil that role, despite being a prostitute. This would not have happened earlier and clearly reflects open, late 20th century values and changing morality.

In Vivian’s case, prostitution is where intimate sexual relationships are cheapened and commercialized. The importance of relationships is further diminished by suggestions in the film that relationships are secondary to money and business. In the film’s opening scene at Edward’s party, money is part of a magic trick. This gives the impression of modern society involving wealth, business and the tricky associated with the two. The setting of Hollywood Boulevard is dramatically contrasted to Edward’s world of money and business. An example is a black hustler in the streets who hollers, “This is Hollywood where people come to fulfil their dreams!” Ironically, his comments are juxtaposed with shots of drug dealers, an ambulance rushing past and prostitutes to represent aspects of social decay. Nevertheless, the film presents serious issues in society in a light-hearted way as common to Hollywood cinema.

An example is when Edward suspects Vivian of using drugs when she is actually using dental floss. Despite the humour in the situation, its underlying issues deal with stereotypical views of prostitutes and drugs to reflect cultural context. The transformation of Vivian is presented visually through film devices such as body language, costume and camera. An example of this is before her first night out with Edward, wearing a new dress. The changes are apparent, as Edward is unable to recognize Vivian waiting in the hotel lobby. Marshall uses a camera to present the extent of this transformation through a dramatically paused shot of Edward’s surprised expression. Transformation in her body language is also presented visually as Vivian no longer fidgets and walks with more grace after a few days.

The way also shapes our perception of Vivian’s change others view her. For example, when shopping at Rodeo drive, stereotypical views towards prostitutes are conveyed when shop assistants refuse to serve her, as she is dressed inappropriately. However, she later returns dressed as a rich woman, and we see the contrast in their attitude towards her, now polite and helpful. A similar situation occurs between people in the hotel lobby. Their prejudice towards prostitutes is shown visually through expressions of distaste. However, after her transformation, it shows the same people staring in awe of her beauty as she walks past. This demonstrates the way wealth and class are associated with appearances to reflect values and attitudes of the 90s.

The jewels Edward borrows for her are another element of appropriation from the Myth and are also used in Shaw’s Pygmalion. However, whilst Pygmalion adorns his statue with jewels, Higgins with Eliza and Edward with Vivian. However, it is appropriated as Vivian is transformed into a rich woman through such jewels, typical to the context of Hollywood in the ’90s. Edward Lewis falls in love with Vivian just as Pygmalion did with his ivory statue. The sexuality of their romance is somewhat muted, as their love scenes are neither vulgar nor crude. It is filmed through latticework with filtered light and accompanied by music.

These filmic devices serve to highlight the romantic atmosphere as appropriate to the genre and reflect context. Unlike the Myth, problems arise in their relationship, as shown by Vivian’s uncertainty about what will become her future. This is evident when Edward wants to buy an apartment and provide her with luxuries, but Vivian replies sarcastically, ‘What else? You leave some money by the bed every time you pass through town?” Their relationship is an appropriated element so that the audience gains a realistic view of modern relationships instead of the idealistic world of the myth.

There is a reversal of roles between Edward and Vivian in the film compared to Pygmalion and Galatea in the Myth. Vivian transforms Edward’s attitudes and beliefs towards business, allowing him to realize his actions have been unethical. Edward’s changes are shown by how he takes a day off work and decides to help Mr Morse. Gender roles are also reversed, and there is less male dominance. Despite her prostitution, Vivian is an independent woman, and it is she who gives Edward directions when he is lost and drives his car to the hotel. Vivian is an example of the changing role of women in modern society, and her character allows audiences to understand the social context of the film.

The form of each text also reflects the context of each composer’s time. For example, Shaw’s Pygmalion is in the form of a play, to be performed in theatres to the middle and upper classes as entertainment. On the other hand, Pretty Woman takes the form of a Hollywood romantic comedy, and its medium is film. Many visual aspects are used to reflect the appropriated elements from the Myth, such as Vivian’s transformation. Its suitability for a modern, visually attuned audience reflects the culture of today. The film also allows meaning to be conveyed through sound. An example of this is their opera night, and the song ‘Fallen’ by Lauren wood accompanies their trip by plane. This not only sets the romantic atmosphere by also reflects context.

Shaw’s Pygmalion and Pretty Woman by Garry Marshall are both texts appropriated from the Pygmalion Myth. Written almost a century apart, there are significant differences in terms of language, form and values. Each of these has been used to convey values and attitudes relevant to the culture of that time so that their audience readily relates to and accepts them. Despite using some elements from the Myth, the composer has uniquely appropriated to reflect its context.

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Pygmalion Essay-Appropriation of a Key Text from the Past. (2021, Aug 31). Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/pygmalion-essay-appropriation-of-a-key-text-from-the-past/