Act I opens in Covent Garden under the portico of St. Paul's Church during a heavy summer rain immediately after a theatrical performance has let out. All types and levels of society are huddled here to avoid the rain. Mrs. Eynsford-Hill is complaining to her daughter Clara that her son Freddy has been gone an intolerably long time in search of a cab. When he suddenly returns with the announcement that there is not a cab to be had for love nor money, they reprimand him for not trying other places and quickly send him off to try again in another direction.
As Freddy reopens his umbrella and dashes off, he accidentally collides with a flower girl, who is hurrying for shelter, and knocks over her basket of flowers. In a heavy, almost incomprehensible, Cockney accent, she familiarly calls him by his name (Freddy) and tells him to watch where he is going. She then sits and begins to rearrange her flowers, mumbling to herself about the carelessness of such people who knock others about.
Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, who has heard the entire episode, is consumed with curiosity as to how this low-class, badly dressed ragamuffin with such a dreadful accent could possibly know her son well enough to call him by his first name. The flower girl (Liza or Eliza) asks, first, if the lady will pay for the flowers that Freddy just ruined, and against Clara's objections, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill pays the girl generously and then learns that Eliza merely calls all strangers either Freddy or Charlie.
At this moment, "an elderly gentleman of the amiable military type" rushes in for shelter. Eliza immediately tries to sell him some flowers, but he refuses because he has nothing smaller than a "sovereign." Eliza badgers him by insisting that she can change a large coin. Suddenly, a bystander warns the flower girl to be careful because there is a stranger who is taking down everything she says. Frightened that she might be accused of soliciting for immoral purposes, Eliza loudly maintains her right to sell flowers "if I keep off the kerb." Her loud and continual protestation attracts everyone's attention until finally the notetaker (Professor Henry Higgins) tells her to "shut up." He resents the fact that she mistakes him for a policeman or a spy for the police. Eliza wants to see what he has written, and when she can't read the "shorthand," he reads off what he has written. It is an exact Cockney phonetic rendition of her own speech patterns.
At this point, the elderly gentleman (Colonel Pickering) and others take the girl's side, and as the group begins to talk to the notetaker, he (Professor Higgins) begins to identify where each of the speakers was born and where they live. He can even identify their locality inside the city of London. When Mrs. Eynsford-Hill complains about the weather, the notetaker (Higgins) points out that the rain has stopped, and everyone disperses except the gentleman (Colonel Pickering) and the flower girl (Eliza).
When the gentleman inquires about the notetaker's talents, he discloses that he is a student of phonetics; in fact, his profession is teaching wealthy people who aspire to climb the social ladder to speak properly. While he explains his profession, Eliza continually makes unutterable, horrible sounds, even though Higgins constantly tells her to cease making these "detestable" noises; he then brags that "in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party." (In the next act, the time is "six months, three if she has a good ear.")
When the elderly gentleman identifies himself as a "student of Indian dialects," by the name of Colonel Pickering, author of Spoken Sanskrit, Higgins then introduces himself as Henry Higgins, author of Higgins' Universal Alphabet. It turns out that Pickering came to England to meet Higgins, and that Higgins was about to embark on a journey to India to meet Pickering. As they are about to leave together to discuss their mutual interests, Eliza interrupts with a plea for money saying, "I'm short for my lodging." Higgins reminds her she is lying because she had previously said that she could change a half-a-crown; nevertheless, he throws her a mess of coins which she excitedly scoops up, accompanied by all sorts of unintelligible Cockney sounds.
At this point, Freddy Eynsford-Hill returns with a cab, but doesn't know what to do with it since everyone has left. Eliza, thanks to the sudden windfall of money from Higgins, engages the cab to take her home, leaving Freddy alone and perplexed.
Pygmalion is perhaps Shaw's most famous play and, ironically, it is among his most abused and misinterpreted ones. Almost everyone knows the basic outlines of this story of the Cockney flower girl who is almost magically transformed into a duchess by taking speech (phonetic) lessons from her famous professor. The abuse comes partly from the fact that Shaw subtitled his play, "A Romance." In the popular adaptations (the film of 1938 and the musical My Fair Lady), "romance" was written into the script and inserted into the relationship between Higgins and Eliza — in fact, the title of the play, Pygmalion, being based on the legend of a person who fell in love with his creation, could easily give rise to this wrong interpretation. In fact, one advertisement claims that the play is one of the most "beautiful love stories" that the world has ever read. Yet, as noted elsewhere, Shaw used the term "romance" in its more restricted form, meaning the implausibility of actually transforming a flower girl into a grand duchess by the simple means of using phonetic instruction. Yet, in spite of Shaw's own pronouncements and in spite of all the evidence in the play, readers and audiences still continue to sentimentalize over the outcome of the play and refuse to recognize the anti-romantic aspect of the drama.
The opening scene of the drama captures many of the diverse elements running throughout the play. Brought together by the common necessity of protection from a sudden downpour, such diverse types as the impoverished middle-class Eynsford-Hills, with their genteel pretensions and disdain, a wealthy Anglo-Indian gentleman (Colonel Pickering), who seems quite tolerant, a haughty egotistical professor (Higgins), who seems exceptionally intolerant, an indistinct group of nondescript bystanders, and a pushy, rude flower girl who embodies the essence of vulgarity gather. These diverse characters would never be found together except by the necessity of something like a sudden rain shower. This serves Shaw dramatically because he needs a variety of accents so that Professor Higgins can demonstrate his brilliance at identifying dialects and places of birth, according to his science of phonetics. Note also that his performance arouses both antagonism and appreciation in the crowd. The antagonism is based upon the fact that the crowd, at first, believes that he is a spy for the police, and second, even after identifying where they come from, he is intruding upon some private aspect of their lives which they might want to cover up — that is, due to false pride or snobbism, many people want to disguise the place of their birth; thus, Professor Higgins, they think, in identifying the backgrounds of some of the members of the crowd is also revealing something about their pasts. Ironically, Professor Higgins' occupation is teaching wealthy people how to speak properly so that they can conceal their backgrounds. In the next act, Eliza will come to him so that her own origins can be concealed from the public.
Shaw is also dramatically exhibiting two types of vulgarity here: first, the vulgarity of the lower class, as seen in Eliza, and second, the "refined" vulgarity of the middle class, as seen in Clara Eynsford-Hill. We should remember that one of the aims of the play is an attack (through the character of Alfred Doolittle) on middle class morality and restrictions. Eliza's vulgarity is a result of necessity, forcing her to wheedle a few coins from bystanders; it is both comic and pathetic. Her vulgarity is comic as she tries to cozen money out of the bystanders, and it is vulgarly pathetic when she is suspected of soliciting as a prostitute. Unjustly, Eliza can be falsely accused of prostitution because she belongs to a class of society where prostitution is an assumed practice, and she can also be pigeonholed in a class of society which cannot afford a lawyer for protection. Consequently, Eliza can only prove her innocence of such a charge by loudly proclaiming to everyone "I'm a good girl, I am." Ultimately, the most vulgar thing about Eliza is her disgusting and animalistic use of the English language, a habit that elicits the wrath of Professor Higgins and thus sets up the dramatic premise for the rest of the drama.
In contrast to Eliza, Clara Eynsford-Hill would superficially seem to be without a trace of vulgarity. But she represents aspects of the middle class which Shaw and Doolittle reject — that is, Clara is pushy, unfriendly, and disdainful of people whom she considers beneath her, and she is offended unnecessarily by strangers (such as Higgins) who speak to her (notice her hypocrisy later in Act III when she meets Higgins socially and is sycophantly obeisant to him). Ironically, in the next act, Eliza will want to become very much like Clara and will come to Higgins to take lessons for that purpose.
It is Higgins who ultimately occupies center stage. At first, he is only the bystander at the edge of the crowd. Then he slowly takes charge because of his talent, his wit, and his domineering character. In a play that will focus a great deal on the varying concepts of manners, Higgins is first noted for his lack of manners. On first sight, he is as rude in his outspokenness as Eliza is crude in her pronunciation. He seems to take pleasure in bullying other people, especially people who are socially beneath him, even though he maintains that he is not a snob. He can spurt out a tirade of venom when he hears the English language so completely and disgustingly vilified, and he directs his venom directly at Eliza:
A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting
sounds has no right to be anywhere — no right to live.
Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the
divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is
the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and
don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. [We have
standardized Shaw's unique grammar and spelling.]
Whether or not Higgins is right in his appraisal is not the point here; even though he is amusingly right, a man who would publicly utter such derogatory comments about another human being for the purpose of showing off in front of a crowd of people is certainly no gentleman. To the contrary, he is another type of vulgarian; he is a person without consideration for the feelings of others, one who is totally lacking in social manners, and his absence of manners will become the subject of Mrs. Pearce's concern in the next act, when Higgins decides to take Eliza into his house.
After the above speech, Higgins boastfully announces to the gathered crowd that "in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party." Consequently, this sentence provides the impetus for the remainder of the play, and it will evoke the larger questions of the drama — that is, do speech patterns determine the quality of a person's manners and nature? Higgins will be able to teach her to pronounce words as a duchess would, but how important are phonetics in determining the true nature of a person's worth? Thus, as noted in the preface, Shaw somewhat misled the reader when he suggested that the play was about phonetics. Instead, Shaw is using phonetics only as a basis for a comment on manners in general. And Shaw's final comment on manners involves the comic display of manners as Eliza affects the manners of a grand dame in engaging the cab to take her home.