This act opens in Mrs. Higgins' drawing room on the day that she is receiving guests. She is frustrated and upset to find that her son has paid a call on her during her "at-home day." He promised her never to come when she had company because he and his manners always offend her guests. Today is no exception. He distresses his mother immediately by telling her that he has invited a girl to call on her, a girl whom he "picked up" and taught to speak properly in the matter of only a short time. Higgins wants his mother to notice not only how the girl pronounces her words, but also what she pronounces as she speaks.
The parlor maid enters and announces the arrival of Mrs. and Miss Eynsford-Hill, whose accents Higgins remembers, but he cannot remember where he actually met them. After introductions, Colonel Pickering is shown in, and he is followed shortly by Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Higgins is delighted that the company has expanded so that Eliza will be better tested in front of a moderately large group. After some brief exchanges, Miss Doolittle is announced, and Eliza, exquisitely dressed, enters with remarkable poise and distinction, exuding an air of complete self-possession. She has been warned to speak about only two subjects — the weather and health. (This will be especially comic later when she does indeed confine herself to the topic of her aunt's health, but her aunt's health is indeed bizarre.)
As Eliza is introduced, she greets each person with an elaborate "How do you do"; her pronunciation is uttered with impeccable precision. When the subject of the weather is mentioned, Eliza volunteers her observations in such an erudite and precise manner that it astonishes everyone. To the simple question, "Do you think it will rain?" Eliza answers: "The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move slowly in an easterly direction. There are no indications of any great change in the barometrical situation."
Having exhausted the subject of the weather, she thus ventures onto her other restricted subject — health — and announces the circumstances surrounding her aunt's death in the most precise English. The precision of her diction, of course, only heightens the lurid aspects of her aunt's death as Eliza narrates her tale in perfectly enunciated slang terms from the slums, exposing all of the bizarre and extraordinary aspects of her aunt's death. Higgins tries to cover some of Eliza's mistakes by referring to her language as the "new small talk," but Freddy, however, is delighted with the entire performance. He is clearly anxious to hear more and to accompany Miss Doolittle home, but Eliza, noticing Higgins' "Ahems," announces that she must go, that she must catch a taxi. "Suffering from shock" (Shaw's phrase), Mrs. Eynsford-Hill sighs, "Well, I really can't get used to the new ways."
After Eliza leaves, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill continues to expound on the younger generation's way of talking, and her daughter Clara maintains that it is really quite up-to-date to talk in such a manner. Higgins mischievously encourages the young lady to try out some of the new slang on some of her mother's friends.
After the Eynsford-Hills leave, Higgins is exhilarated about Eliza's performance, but his mother points out that Eliza is not yet presentable — that is, Eliza is merely a "triumph of your art and of her dressmaker's," but that she reveals her social origins in every sentence that she speaks. Part of the trouble, she says, is that Eliza is adopting Henry's mode of speech, a mode which is acceptable on a canal barge, but one which is not proper for a garden party.
Mrs. Higgins then inquires into the nature of the household arrangement, or more specifically, where does Eliza live? Higgins bluntly and openly confesses, "With us, of course." Mrs. Higgins then points out to the two men a problem that neither of them has considered: what is to be done with Eliza after they have finished their little experiment? They are giving Eliza "the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady's income." Soon Eliza will be so well trained and be such a lady that no one will hire her, and she will have nothing to live on — and no job. Mrs. Higgins is assured by both men that there is nothing to worry about; they will do whatever is right by her. After all, Eliza is such a mimic that she keeps them constantly laughing by her imitations of other people's accents and affectations. As her son and his friend leave, Mrs. Higgins returns impatiently and angrily to her work at her writing table, but she cannot concentrate. "Oh, men! ! men! ! men! !" she exclaims.
Between Act II and Act III, an undisclosed amount of time has elapsed, enough time to allow Eliza to master some of the basics of pronunciation but not enough time for her to master proper subject matter or the theme of discussion. When she appears at Mrs. Higgins', there is an obvious contrast. No longer is she the flighty Eliza of the first two acts; now, she is the reserved Eliza; she is "exquisitely dressed," and she "produces an impression of such remarkable distinction and beauty" that everyone is quite taken aback. The contrast on stage has to be tremendous or else the Eynsford-Hills would recognize her as the flower girl from the encounter in the first act. Accordingly, we, the audience, are delighted that they are so inept that they do not recognize her. The new Eliza seemingly fits in well in these new contrasting surroundings; that is, Mrs. Higgins' drawing room is described as being very formal with exquisitely refined furniture of the Chippendale style, furnished with excellent oil paintings and other art objects. Thus, the artificial formality of Eliza's speech blends well with the stiff formality of the highly decorative setting.
Following through with the Pygmalion legend, this act shows us Pygmalion's work of art — his Galatea of mythology — emerging in the figure of Eliza. Here is the beginning of the artistic creation making her first appearance, and everything about the creation suggests that it will be, in its finished form, a true masterpiece. Even at this point, Freddy Eynsford-Hill is totally smitten by Eliza's beauty and her superb uniqueness.
At the beginning of the act, the relationship between Mrs. Higgins and her son is humorous because the mother's attitude toward her son is so eccentric and because she expresses herself with as much forthright honesty as does her son. The depiction of Mrs. Higgins is that of an excellent personality filled with tolerance, intelligence, and imagination. Like Mrs. Pearce, she is immediately concerned over the fate of this "living doll" that Higgins has created. This depiction is important because Shaw maintains later in his epilogue that one of the reasons for Eliza's rejection of the possibility of marriage to Higgins is that she could never live up to Mrs. Higgins' standards, that she could never equal Mrs. Higgins' grasp of life.
Part of the dramatic humor of this act lies in the fact that we, the audience, know who the Eynsford-Hills are, but that Professor Higgins can't remember where he might have seen them, which makes us superior to the very superior Higgins. Throughout the scene, Higgins lives up to Mrs. Higgins' expectations — that is, he is too outspoken, "rather trying on more commonplace occasions," he uses improper language, and, in general, he has an amazing lack of manners.
With Higgins' failure in the realm of manners, we are then presented to Eliza, who will now perform in this same setting. Higgins has, we hear, coached her on not only how to pronounce her words, but also on "what she pronounces." This anticipates Eliza's vulgar narration of the death of her aunt. This scene, with Eliza demonstrating her newly acquired knowledge, is the central scene of this act. It is in this scene, while Eliza is discussing the weather, that in both the film version and the musical comedy version, Eliza pronounces her now-famous line: "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." The comedy of this scene relies upon the contrast between Eliza's mode of speech and her subject matter. She has been trained to pronounce words with impeccable perfection, but as Higgins feared, she has not learned what is proper to discuss and what is not. Higgins thought wrongly that he was safe in confining her subject to the weather and to one's health. It is, of course, humorously comic that Eliza does confine herself to these two supposedly safe subjects, but naively, she narrates some rather bizarre details of her aunt's death, using the terminology of the slums, yet pronouncing the unsavory words with complete precision. Her enunciation of improper words makes the entire narration comically incongruous. As a result, behind the outward, new facade of Eliza lies an uncarved interior which remains on the vulgar side.
In spite of the squalid, if beautifully spoken, narration of her aunt's death, Eliza possesses an element of sincerity in contrast to the silly affectation of Miss Clara Eynsford-Hill's attempt to duplicate the "new manner of small talk." After Eliza leaves, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill asserts that she cannot become accustomed to young ladies using such words as "bloody," "beastly," and "filthy," and so forth. Actually, Shaw himself was put off by "proper" young ladies, such as Clara, attempting to use common expressions; he once maintained that "a flower girl's conversation is much more picturesque, [and has] much better rhetoric, [is] much more concise, interesting, and arresting than the conversation of the drawing-room, and that the moment she begins to speak beautifully she gains an advantage by the intensity of her experience and the strength of her feeling about it."
After Eliza departs, Mrs. Higgins also comments on the disparity between Eliza's speech and her subject matter. As noted, part of Eliza's problem is that she is learning the English language anew from Professor Henry Higgins, who (despite the fact that he is a professor) uses speech which is not fit for the drawing room. Mrs. Higgins then returns to Shaw's original Pygmalion theme when she points out that Eliza is a triumph of Higgins' art and the art of the dressmaker; but that Eliza is not yet a presentable person. She is only partially carved. The thrill of the experiment for Higgins is also part of the Pygmalion theme; as he tells his mother: "You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her." Higgins, then, is clearly the artist, Pygmalion, and Eliza is Galatea: The only difference between life and the myth is that here the artist is not falling in love with his creation and, ultimately, he will not be able to control his own creation. Ultimately, Eliza will have a soul and a will of her own, completely independent of her creator. At present, however, her creator is content to be amused by his creation since Eliza loves to mimic all sorts of people, especially all of these people after she, Higgins, and Pickering return home.