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SHORT PLOT/SCENE SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Act one opens with a group of people seeking shelter from a heavy downpour of summer rain under the portico of St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden. This assorted group includes a lady, her daughter and son, a note taker (Higgins), a military gentleman (Colonel Pickering) and a flower girl (Eliza) among other pedestrians and the after theatre crowd. While they wait for the rain to stop Higgins takes note of the interesting Cockney accent of the flower girl who wheedles some money out of the Colonel. A bystander who sees Higgins take notes suspects him of being a police informant and warns the flower girl to give the Colonel some flowers in return. This alarms the flower girl who begins to loudly protest her innocence. The crowd is sympathetic enough to take the side of the flower girl. Higgins tries in vain to allay her fear. He claims that he is able to place any man within two miles in London solely by virtue of his speech patterns. Higgins displays his phonetic prowess and correctly guesses the origins of several people.
When the rain stops the crowd disperses and Higgins is left alone with the Colonel and the flower girl. Higgins explains to the Colonel that he is a phonetician by profession and asserts that he can teach anybody any dialect, including how to speak correctly. The flower girl is still hysterical about the imagined harm to her respectability and Higgins loses his temper. He declares that he can transform her into a duchess and even get her a place as a shop assistant. It so happens that the Colonel and Higgins know each other by repute and strike up an acquaintance. As they leave together Higgins throws some money into the flower girl's basket. Delighted by this unexpected fortune the flower girl boldly summons a cab to take her home.
The second act opens the next day at Higgins' Wimpole Street laboratory. Higgins is engaged in a technical discussion about vowel sounds with Colonel Pickering when Mrs. Pearce (Higgins' housekeeper) announces that a common flower girl has come to see him. Excited by this stroke of good luck, Higgins eagerly asks Mrs. Pearce to show the girl up. He knows that this will enable him to demonstrate to Pickering how he can make records. However to his utter disappointment the girl turns out to be the same flower girl whom he had met last night. The girl introduces herself as Eliza Doolittle and says that she wants to be a lady in a flower shop, but cannot get a job unless she can "talk more genteel." She wants Higgins to teach her correct pronunciation. After indulging in some playful banter, Higgins seizes her as an excellent subject and vows that he will "make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe." within six months and she is entrusted to his housekeeper.
A little while later, Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, a dustman, arrives with the explicit intention of inquiring about his daughter. However in reality he does not care about Eliza and his sole concern is not to let her go for nothing. Higgins cunningly foils his plans and tells him that he may take Eliza away at once. Doolittle confesses that all he wants is five pounds in return for which Higgins gives a long discussion about middle class morality. Anxious to leave quickly with his booty, Doolittle fails to recognize his own daughter who is dressed in a clean kimono. There is an angry exchange of words between the father and daughter before Doolittle leaves. The act draws to a close with a typical lesson where Higgins teaches Eliza correct pronunciation.
The third act opens at Higgins' mother's house on her at-home day. A few months have elapsed since the last act. Mrs. Higgins is dismayed when her son shows up unexpectedly, since his social clumsiness always offends all her friends. Higgins informs her about his latest phonetic project to pass off a common flower girl, Eliza, as a duchess in six months. He also tells her that he has invited Eliza to her at-home. Before Mrs. Higgins has any time to voice her objections they are interrupted by the arrival of two guests - Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill. Soon Freddy Hill and Colonel Pickering also arrive. Higgins who has had a lingering suspicion that he has seen Mrs. and Miss. Eynsford Hill somewhere before now recognizes them as the mother and daughter who were under the portico in Covent Garden. Soon Miss Doolittle is announced and Eliza enters exquisitely dressed. She however fails to restrict herself to the topics prescribed by Higgins (health and weather) and the conversation takes a dangerous turn.
A short time later, taking Higgins' hint, Eliza rises to leave. At the same time Freddy, smitten by her beauty, offers to take accompany her while she walks across the park. It is here that Eliza responds with the famously infamous words, "Walk! Not bloody likely!" which shocks everybody present. Soon the at-home breaks up and the Eynsford Hills leave. Higgins and Colonel Pickering excitedly discuss Eliza with Mrs. Higgins. They agree with her that Eliza needs to undergo more training before she is presentable. Mrs. Higgins rebukes the men for their unconcern about Eliza's future. She accurately foresees that the advantages imparted by Higgins will transform Eliza into a lady, which would disqualify her from earning her own living without giver her a lady's income. However Pickering and Higgins do not consider this as any significant problem and Mrs. Higgins can only exclaim in frustration "Oh men! men!! men!!!"
Finally, Eliza's successful social appearance as a duchess is witnessed. This happens at an embassy in London one summer evening. A considerable period of time has elapsed since her appearance at Mrs. Higgins' at-home and in the interim, Eliza has lost her coarse way of speaking and plays her role to perfection. She impresses everybody present and the hostess is convinced that she is of royal blood. The act draws to a close with the Colonel congratulating Eliza for winning Higgins' bet for him ten times over.
Act four constitutes the climax of the play. It opens at midnight at the Wimpole Street laboratory. Higgins, Pickering and Eliza have returned after her successful appearance as a duchess. Eliza sits silent and brooding on a bench while the men voice their relief and happiness now that the whole affair is over. Unmindful of Eliza's feelings, Higgins declares that he would have abandoned the silly project much earlier had he not wagered a bet. After Pickering leaves, Eliza becomes furious at Higgins for his insensitivity and lack of concern. She throws his slippers at him and demands to know why he had bothered to pick her out of the gutter if he wanted to throw her back again. She is worried about her future since now that she has been made a lady, she is fit for nothing else.
When Higgins suggests that she might marry somebody, Eliza sarcastically remarks that as a lady she isn't fit to sell anything but herself. Higgins loses his temper when Eliza returns all the jewels and even the ring, which Higgins had bought her in Brighton. She is hurt because she has fallen in love with Higgins while she is nothing more than an experiment for him. Higgins throws the ring violently into the fireplace and leaves. Eliza kneels to look for the ring and after finding it she flings it down on the dessert stand and furiously goes upstairs to change her dress and leave. She meets Freddy and reciprocates his kisses since she needs to be comforted. They take a taxi and Eliza resolves to call on Mrs. Higgins in the morning for some advice.
In the fifth and last act, a flustered Higgins arrives at his mother's house to tell her that Eliza has run away. He does not know that Eliza has fled to his mother for support. Shortly thereafter Alfred Doolittle, who has been sent from Wimpole Street, arrives. He accuses Higgins of having delivered him into the hands of middle class morality. He complains that he had been left a legacy of three thousand pounds a year by an American language fanatic, Ezra D. Wannafeller and holds Higgins responsible for suggesting his name as the most original moralist present in England. He dramatically mourns his loss of freedom. He is however unwilling to add to his burdens by taking the additional responsibility of providing for Eliza. Higgins points out that Doolittle had already received five pounds in return for Eliza and he has no claim over her. Soon Eliza enters and torments Higgins by telling the Colonel that it was his genteel manners and kindness that really made her a lady and not Higgins who merely taught her to speak correctly. Alfred Doolittle leaves to marry the woman he has lived with as Eliza's stepmother. Higgins is at last left alone with Eliza.
There follows a remarkable encounter that depicts the fundamental incompatibility of their views. Higgins practically begs Eliza to return to Wimpole Street because he has become used to having her around, and is dependent on her for all sorts of little services. He would obviously miss her if she would go away. However Eliza goes on to accuse him of creating Duchess Eliza without thinking about the trouble that it could bring. To Higgins's surprise Eliza reveals that Freddy loves her and would make her happy. Higgins tells her that her choice is between the cold unfeeling world of Science and Art and the life of the gutter. Eliza revenges herself by stating that she will advertise in the papers that Higgins's Duchess is only a flower girl that he taught and that she will teach the same to anybody for a hundred guineas. Although hurt Higgins is at the same time happy that he has made "a true woman" out of Eliza since she is so outspoken and has broken away from her subjugated position. He says that now they can live together like three old bachelors instead of only two men and a silly girl. The play concludes on an ambiguous note with Eliza leaving along with Mrs. Higgins to attend her father's wedding ceremony.
The audience or readers are left guessing whether she might indeed marry Higgins. However, Shaw does provide a resolution to the action in his anti-romantic epilogue where he states that Eliza weds Freddy and settles down with him.