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The Greek Myth of Pygmalion, about a sculptor and the woman he creates and falls in love with, has been appropriated into various texts of different times and made relevant to a wide range of audiences. In particular, George Bernard Shaw’s English play Pygmalion and the American film Pretty Woman have adopted certain language, form and values, in order to communicate this same story to different audiences in specific cultural contexts.
The universal themes addressed in the myth of Pygmalion characterize its suitability for these appropriations. Issues like beauty, prejudice, the search for perfection, relationships, and dreams are applicable to virtually everyone, and these themes are what give way to appropriations relevant to almost any cultural context. For example, the idea of the creation of a beautiful, living woman from a block of ivory, that is, the creation of something considered as a ‘nothing’ into a real and true person, has been applied to two other contexts. In Shaw’s Pygmalion the ‘nothing’ of this time is a poor flower girl, while in Pretty Woman’s cultural context a ‘nothing’ is a prostitute. Another example of a universal issue is the idea of society’s expectations and what is considered appropriate. In Pygmalion the sculptor is embarrassed to be in love with a mere statue, in Shaw’s time a flower-girl could never mix with high society, and in Pretty Woman, Edward keeps the fact that Vivien is a prostitute as quiet as possible. It is these underlying themes that are the basic links between the three texts, each with a different interpretation of the story and each conveying messages relevant to their cultural context.
The aim of the play appropriation very much reflects the cultural context in which it was composed. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was set in 1912, a time when social barriers were extremely prominent and when a new class was emerging – the middle class. The lower class struggled while the upper classes looked down upon them. Shaw was aware that people were being judged largely on their class origin, their amount of money or how they looked, not their true worth as people. His second criticism was that “it is impossible for an Englishmen to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him”. He believed the English language and alphabet was in dire need of reform and that if all sounds were legitimized then all speech would be acceptable. This would in turn aid in breaking down the social barriers that existed during his time. Having observed these problems of his society, Shaw was determined to open the eyes of the people around him through the play he wrote. Therefore Pygmalion has a somewhat didactic purpose and a pointed restraint from romance, which would detract from the message.
One of the ways in which this message is communicated is through the use of varied speech throughout the play. From Pickering’s gentle politeness to everyone, “Excuse the straight question, Higgins. Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?” to Eliza’s cockney “Oo-ow, eez yo-ooa son, is e?” the speech is used to make us aware of these barriers and, in scenes such as the ‘at home’, language is a powerful tool. Mrs. Higgin’s guests partake in general chit-chat, which is gradually ridiculed when Eliza begins to join in. With her new accent she is now carefully listened to and admired, the guests thinking the strange meaning of the words are only part of a new fashion. “The new small-talk, you do it so awfully well!” says Freddy to Eliza. Shaw heavily ridicules this class when Eliza begins to discuss the “barometrical situation” in great depth. The use of humor draws closer attention to Shaw’s comments on the society of his time; that society engages in meaningless chit-chat and bases opinions only on someone’s appearance. Shaw also felt the need to use the first ‘bloody’ on stage, something which gained him publicity, as it was considered a swear-word with which he was pushing the limits. This humor was his way of conveying his message to society, an almost shock-reaction, as when the swear-word was first uttered “the play stopped for a full minute till the audience had done laughing” said the Daily Sketch the day after. The clever use of such language would have been relevant only to the audience and cultural context of that time – ‘bloody’ is barely considered a swear-word with the audience of today.
The choice of medium strongly reflects the cultural context in which this text was composed. He felt the theatre was “growing in importance as a social organ” in the early 1900s and that drama must be concerned with conflict and ideas. So whilst choosing this popular and entertaining form, he was intent on writing plays that weren’t trivial and meaningless like many of the others. He felt that it was important for plays to make comments on society and often left the audience feeling a little uncomfortable watching performances. In Pygmalion, it was necessary that his criticisms of society and class barriers had to reach the people, particularly stuck in these classes, and in 1912 the theatre happened to be the most effective vehicle.
The values communicated in these texts are probably one of the strongest reflections on the time period in which they were composed. Appearances, particularly beauty, and good manners are held in high regard. For example, in order for Eliza to be accepted into the upper classes/Ambassador’s garden party, she is dressed in jewels and beautiful gowns, conforming with society’s expectations. The idea of treating people in the correct manner is also referred to many times by various characters such as Eliza “I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will” and Higgins’ comment that “You shouldn’t cut your old friends now that you have risen in the world. That’s what we call snobbery”. This reflects the way this society places importance on manners and the way people are treated. Money often dictates status in this society and we see this through Alfred Dolittle’s thoughts on his fast encounter with a fortune: “A year ago I hadn’t a relative in the world except two or three that wouldn’t speak to me. Now I’ve fifty, and not a decent week’s wages among the lot of them”.
George Bernard Shaw has taken the myth of Pygmalion and made it appropriate to his time through the adaptation of a ‘nothing’ to a flower-girl, a sculptor to a phonetician, and a Greek Myth to a didactic play on the downfalls of his society and its values. In the second appropriation of Pygmalion into Pretty Woman, the statue is a prostitute, the creator a businessman, and the form a feel-good Hollywood film created to rake in the millions.
The aim of the film appropriation Pretty Woman strongly reflects the cultural context in which it was composed. The director’s main aim in this case was much less to make a social comment, more importantly to create an optimistic, almost fairytale (yet within reach) type story leaving the audience with both their hearts and their wallets open. This time the text must be something popular, that the widest audience possible will want to view. A huge reflection on the culture of this time is that in order for this to be popular, it is essential to have romance, comedy, and of course, a happy ending.
The various forms of language used also place this film very clearly in the 90s cultural context. From Vivien’s “Man, this baby must corner like it’s on rails” car jargon, to Edward’s business talk, to the hotel concierge’s relentless courtesy to “Miss Vivien” One’s language does not immediately dictate class quite as much, although Vivien uses inappropriate language in various different situations, for example at the theatre “It was so good I almost peed my pants!” The use of language in this appropriation is more to emphasize the fact that the two are from different worlds.
The form of film was obviously the smartest choice to make as the director’s aim in this case is to make money. Film is the medium of the masses, especially the Hollywood style, “everyone has a dream” feel-good film. This is definitely a reflection on society’s cravings for some kind of happiness and order within their lives, and perhaps to arouse that element of hope that their fairytale dream may just come true like Vivien’s. The use of popular music to add to this style of movie further enhances the effect and reflects this cultural context.
The values in this film are related to money and success. The desirable position is to lead a rich, powerful life with a beautiful woman and a great car. Professionals and those who are educated lead comfortable lives and use appropriate behavior for various situations, while some people are treated as possessions or just on face value, in this case Vivien. She is told as soon as she enters a shop, dressed inappropriately, that “I don’t think we have anything in your size”. While society believes it has broken down the social barriers of the early 1900s, there are still strong elements of snobbery and class systems operating even today, and the values communicated in this film are a reflection of this.
Both appropriations have used different language, form and values to make the myth of Pygmalion relevant to their own cultural contexts. However, it is still remarkable to observe how the simply story about the creation of a beautiful woman can be molded into both a critical attack on English society and an optimistic American film from Hollywood.
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