The Source of the Title: The Legend of Pygmalion and Galatea
Shaw took his title from the ancient Greek legend of the famous sculptor named Pygmalion who could find nothing good in women, and, as a result, he resolved to live out his life unmarried. However, he carved a statue out of ivory that was so beautiful and so perfect that he fell in love with his own creation. Indeed, the statue was so perfect that no living being could possibly be its equal. Consequently, at a festival, he prayed to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, that he might have the statue come to life. When he reached home, to his amazement, he found that his wish had been fulfilled, and he proceeded to marry the statue, which he named Galatea.
Even though Shaw used several aspects of the legend, most prominently one of the names in the title, viewers, writers, critics, and audiences have consistently insisted upon there being some truth attached to every analogy in the myth. First of all, in Shaw's Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins is the most renowned man of phonetics of his time; Higgins is also like Pygmalion in his view of women — cynical and derogatory: Higgins says, "I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance." And whereas in the myth, Pygmalion carved something beautiful out of raw stone and gave it life, Shaw's Higgins takes a "guttersnipe," a "squashed cabbage leaf" up out of the slums and makes her into an exquisite work of art. Here, however, the analogies end. Shaw's "Galatea," Eliza, develops a soul of her own and a fierce independence from her creator.
In the popular film version and in the even more popular musical comedy version (My Fair Lady), the ending allows the audience to see a romantic love interest that blends in with the ancient myth. This, however, is a sentimentalized version of Shaw's play. Shaw provided no such tender affection to blossom between professor and pupil.
Preface to Pygmalion
Shaw ultimately wrote a preface to almost all of his plays that he considered important. In fact, sometimes the Prefaces, the Prologues, and the Afterwords exceeded the length of the original dramas. In one of his prefaces, he comments that most dramatists use the preface to expound on things that have little or no importance to the drama. Here, Shaw's preface does not comment upon the drama that is to follow, but instead, since the play deals with phonetics, and since the character of Henry Higgins is based largely upon a man named Henry Sweet, and since Shaw ultimately did leave a large sum of money upon his death for a thorough revision of English spelling rules, he uses this preface to comment upon the absurdity of English spelling in connection with English pronunciation. Finally, Shaw sarcastically refers to those critics who say that a successful play should never be didactic; this play is obviously didactic, and it has been immensely popular ever since it was first presented.