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ACT SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The subtitle of the play - 'A Romance' is significant as it reveals Shaw's attitude toward one of the main character's (Higgins) ambitious venture. Note that romance here is not used in the contemporary context as being about love but in the more traditional literary definition of a romance having a plot that is highly improbable. Shaw uses the term "romance" to refer to the impossibility of transforming a simple flower girl into an elegant duchess by phonetic education. This fantastical quality gives Pygmalion its romane epithet.
The opening act performs an expository function by supplying the necessary Background Information essential for understanding the play. Shaw provides these expository details imaginatively. From the very beginning the interest of the audience is caught by the credible and lively characters and the dialogue exchanged by them. Act One introduces the principal characters of Higgins, Colonel Pickering and the flower girl (Eliza) as well as the minor characters - Freddy, Clara and Mrs. Eynsford-Hill.
The setting of the act is replete with naturalistic imagery and is symbolic of the physical as well as chaos and confusion into which Eliza is soon plunged. The act opens late at night during a heavy downpour in a church portico. The crowd that gathers under the portico to seek shelter from the rain are fairly representative of the diverse classes of England from the working poor of Eliza to the genteel Eynsford-Hill family to the well-mannered and well- spoken Colonel. These people would never be caught in the same room otherwise and so it is this random gathering that allows Higgins to dissect their accents and place them within a socio- economic context. They are treated to an exquisite performance by Higgins, very much like a sideshow or music hall performance although they are antagonistic as well as enthralled by his powers to detect dialects. Yet at the same time Shaw's skilful dramaturgy is able to focus attention upon Eliza's plight rather than upon the rudiments of phonetics. She becomes the main draw in this discussion of phonetics as she becomes a target of Higgin's derision because she is so poor spoken.
Certain background elements, like the church setting, the flash of lightning and thunder that accompanies Eliza's bumping into Freddy, and the church bells that remind Higgins of Christian charity, are symbolically suggestive and introduce the element of the medieval morality play in the opening act. A morality play, popular during the Middle Ages, depicted the fierce battle between the forces of good and evil for the possession of the soul of the individual character. The medieval world picture believed in a chain of being which determined each individual's position in the scale of social hierarchy. At the end of act one Eliza is shown as challenging and violating that rigid social hierarchy by hiring a cab. She dares to challenge the commonly held notion that poor flower girls do not hire cabs. This element of the morality play is continued and reaches its climax in Act II when Higgins "tempts" Eliza by offering her some chocolates.
The opening act operates on the principle of contrast. For instance, it explicitly contrasts the characters of Higgins and Colonel Pickering as well as Eliza and Clara. Shaw indicates that Pickering is "the military gentleman" while Higgins is only "the note taker." Thus right from the beginning Shaw emphasizes the gentlemanly traits of the Colonel which serves to highlight Higgins' more volatile boorish mannerisms. But at the same time it is significant that it is Higgins and not the Colonel who performs an act of Christian charity by giving Eliza (whom he had mercilessly denunciated earlier) a handful of money. Furthermore, there is a subtle contrast between the socially refined Clara and the uncouth Eliza. Compared to Eliza, Clara appears to be ill mannered. She has evidently had the civilizing benefits accorded by wealth and education and yet displays bad manners. She represents the worst traits of the middle-class. She is quickly distressed by Eliza's presence and wants to avoid any interaction with her. She speaks peremptorily to strangers and rebukes Higgins for his audacity to speak to her - "Don't dare to speak to me." Yet later when she discovers who Higgins is, she becomes obsequious towards him. While Eliza's vulgar wheedling of money from prospective customers is necessitated by her poverty stricken circumstances, Clara's high-handedness has no excuse whatsoever. Yet ironically, Eliza expresses her desire to be as lady-like as Clara, in the next Act itself.
Act One introduces the idea of what defines being a 'gentleman' and 'lady.' For instance, a bystander says of Higgins, "E's a gentleman: look at his boots", while Eliza says of him, "He's no gentleman, he aint, to interfere with a poor girl." For the bystander clothing and general appearance is the distinguishing mark of a gentleman while for Eliza manners is the essential criterion of gentility. This preoccupation about what constitutes a 'lady' and a 'gentleman' continues throughout the play. It also provides the background to Eliza's speech in Act Five about ladies and gentlemen when she distinguishes between Higgins and Pickering.
The opening act contains a detailed exposition of Eliza's character. The audience is shown a brief glimpse of the chaotic world which she occupies as a flower girl as she attempts to wheedle a few coins in return for her violets from the group of people seeking shelter from the rain. When a bystander warns her about the note taker who is recording her words she thinks that she is being suspected of soliciting as a prostitute simply because she belongs to a class that cannot afford lawyers and that often relied on prostitution as a way to earn money. Eliza has to fend for herself and is understandably alarmed about being arrested. She attempts to protect her rights as a citizen and her virtuous character by declaring that she is a good girl. Her loud and hysterical assertion about the virtue and sacredness of her character earn her the sympathy of onlookers but only succeed in irritating Higgins who proceeds to make a magnificent display of his phonetic arts. Thus Shaw manages to effectively contrast the pathos of poverty with the privileges of the rich. Higgins hurls a torrent of witty invectives at Eliza and calls her a "squashed cabbage leaf", "a bilious pigeon" and an "incarnate insult to the English language." Eliza is nonplussed by this denigration of her character and can respond in an inarticulate manner that reinforces her vulgar ways.
A little later when she receives a handful of coins which Higgins off-handedly flings into her basket, Eliza goes almost wild with delight. This small amount of money evidently represents a huge fortune to one for whom a half-a-crown is a day's earnings. However even in this pathetic state Eliza is not totally depraved. She is self-sufficient and capable of earning her livelihood by selling flowers. She exhibits cleverness and a degree of resourcefulness to get the maximum possible value for her flowers. She has enough self-respect, dignity and pride to defend her character against the imagined harm to her honor. But what is most significant is that she reveals a desire to elevate herself to a higher level in society by hiring a cab from the money that Higgins has flung into her basket. This act of hiring a cab constitutes the first small step in her quest for self-awareness and improvement. The cab parallels the golden coach of the Cinderella fairy tale that whisks the waif-like maiden away from the drab dull realties of poverty to the glories and comforts of a genteel life.
Higgins, on the other hand, also reveals a coarse side but it is not directly related to class origins as it is with Eliza. He is from a well-to-do family yet his manners reveal otherwise. He shows a complete lack of respect or compassion by censuring Eliza and he also seems to enjoy revealing people's origins much to their dismay. He is antagonistic and rude despite his intelligence and keen sense of phonetics. He lacks any awareness of how his unkind words affect people. His lack of manners and how it affects Eliza will be an object of concern for Mrs. Pearce, his housekeeper in the upcoming acts.
Act One is the most overtly didactic part of the play. Shaw remarked in his preface to the second volume of Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant that his drama seeks to humanize a shallow society instead of letting a shallow society dehumanize the drama. Shaw points out how language creates divisions in society. Higgins' articulateness is starkly contrasted against Eliza's ignorance yet who is the more coarse is debatable as what Eliza lacks in proper pronunciation, she makes up for in consideration and social awareness. Professor Higgins is busy showing off his phonetic prowess by identifying the origins of each of the speakers, however many take offence to this because some have worked hard to hide their origins in order to succeed in society. Higgins is in fact engaged in instructing people to speak in a standard dialect so that they can hide their origins with a respectable veneer. Moreover, it may be noted that although Higgins claims not to be snooty himself, he enjoys ridiculing those with a pathetic accent, especially those from poorer sections of society, like Eliza. Therefore, the use of phonetics in the play is used as a trope to explore the dynamics of manners in a society that assumes that speech patterns determines social behavior and nature.
A note of social conscience enters the comedy near the end of the act when Higgins flings a handful of coins into Eliza's basket when he presumes the striking of the church clock as a rebuke for his lack of Christian charity. This again reveals the hypocrisy of the middle class. Here he is not so much doing it out of a genuine act of selflessness or generosity but in order to placate a higher order and guarantee his salvation.
Shaw conveys his social message, provides the expository details and ends the act with a climax whereby the poor flower girl triumphantly asserts her rights as an individual by hiring a cab.