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In this essay, I would like to examine the respective educational theories of the two men: Professor Higgins Pygmalion and Governor Phillip Our Country’s Good. Both men believe in the process of amelioration: that is, both believe in the redemptive power of ‘fine language’; if people speak fine language, they will find themselves morally or socially improved. Both believe that people, who are born into the lower classes, are not doomed to live their lives at a disadvantage. Moreover, if given the opportunity to use the ‘divine gift of articulate speech’, then they can achieve a degree of upward mobility.
I should like to look first at the relationship between Professor Higgins and Eliza in Pygmalion, which is set in an era of social mobility and depends for its effect upon the English class system. In particular, I would like to examine the idea that a person’s position in society can be accurately measured by her speech-style. Henry Higgins, a professor of linguistics, believes that Eliza Doolittle (‘draggletailed guttersnipe’) can be transformed into a ‘duchess. ‘ Higgins is a scientist conducting an experiment. He wants Eliza to talk genteelly.
His precise ambition is to ‘pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party’. Higgins is extremely selfish (‘What does it matter what becomes of you’) and professes not to be interested in Eliza’s personal progress at all, in fact only teaching her to win a bet between Pickering and himself: THE NOTE-TAKER (HIGGINS): Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. PICKERING: I’ll say youre the greatest teacher alive if you make that good. I’ll bet you all the expenses of the experiment you cant do it.
As this exchange shows, Pickering has just given Professor Higgins the incentive to teach Eliza. Higgins is very vain (‘I can place any man in London’) and is teaching Eliza to stop using cockney dialect: ‘Lisson Grove lingo’ such as ‘Garn! ‘ and ‘you ought to be stuffed with nails, you ought! ‘ She also uses double negatives in her speech: ‘I aint got no parents’ where, grammatically, it should be ‘I don’t have any parents. ‘ In Act Two, Eliza goes one step further by saying, ‘I dont want never to see him again I dont’ which is in fact a triple negative.
During his ‘experiment in teaching’, Higgins encounters ‘the difficulty’ of getting Eliza to talk grammatically. Teaching her to pronounce the words properly is ‘easy’ enough, but teaching her to understand English grammar is more complicated. When she comes to Higgins, her grammar is atrocious (‘I wont stay here if I dont like’), for she is using adjectives instead of adverbs. However, she is aware of her social standing. Although she knows that she is not a lady (‘I couldnt sleep here, its too good for the likes of me’), she also knows that she is not a tramp and regularly states she is not a prostitute (‘Im a good girl I am’).
This chorus is her motto and shows that she has a sense of decorum. In Act Three, about three months into the experiment, Eliza undertakes what we make call a half-term test. She goes to Mrs Higgins ‘at home day’. There, she does well in her greetings of Mrs Eynsford Hill and her daughter, Clara; her four syllables ‘how do you do? ‘ are said with ‘pedantic pronunciation and great beauty of tone’. Then, however, the topic of conversation begins to turn towards incongruous subjects: ‘My Aunt died of influenza, so they said…
but it is my belief they done her in’. Higgins explains away Eliza’s inappropriate remark by saying that it is the new ‘small talk’. Shortly afterwards, he gives the signal to Eliza that she should leave. When asked by Freddy if she is walking, she replies with the best remark in the play: ‘Walk! Not bloody likely. Im going in a taxi’. She departs, much to the shock of the genteel folk. The conflict in this exchange is between Eliza’s ‘perfectly elegant diction’ and the crude adjective that she uses.
This example of ‘Lisson Grove lingo’ or ‘kerbstone English’, when spoken in an upper-class accent, sounds incongruous and creates uproarious laughter. When we next catch up with Eliza, she has made a successful transformation from a ‘flower girl… as clean as she can afford to be’ to a ‘princess … in opera cloak, evening dress, diamonds, fan, flowers and all accessories’. She is at her final test, an International party at ‘an Embassy’ in London. Neppomuck, Higgins’ first student, attends, working as an interpreter: ‘I speak 32 languages… You place a man anywhere in London,
I place any man in Europe’. The hostess of the party instructs Neppomuck to use his skills on Eliza: ‘I have found out all about her, she is a fraud’. As Higgins thinks that he has failed and it is all over, Neppomuck reveals: ‘She is of Hungarian origin and of Royal blood. She is a Princess! ‘ Higgins, as is shown, has succeeded in his mission to transform Eliza’s speech from that of a ‘common flower girl’ to that of an ‘aristocrat’. Later, when Eliza asks Pickering if she had won his bet, he replies: ‘Won it my dear, you have won it 10 times over’.
This speech by Colonel Pickering makes Eliza feel successful and when, after the party, Higgins makes an entirely selfish analysis of the ‘ordeal’ through which Eliza has been going, (‘No more artificial duchesses. The whole thing has been simple purgatory’) she passes moral judgement on him (‘you selfish brute’). When we see Eliza at Mrs. Higgins’ house we are shown that neither Higgins nor Pickering has any concept of mental cruelty, for they think that the way they have treated Eliza (who is ‘naturally rather affectionate’) by ignoring her and saying how glad they are that it is all over, is perfectly acceptable.
In Act Five, Eliza realises that her ‘real education’ is not in phonetics but in manners. Eliza explains how she acquired ‘self-respect’ and has ‘risen in the world’. Shaw then puts in her mouth a political speech critical of class-differences in England in 1916: ‘The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated’ This declaration brings us on to discussing Our Country’s Good and Governor Phillip. At the heart of Governor Phillip’s educational theory is the belief that, if the convicts are treated as talented individuals, they will acquire self-respect.
Arthur Phillip has been made ‘governor-in-chief’ of a penal colony in 18th century Australia. The criminals have been transported – a form of punishment at that time – on a convict ship to Australia, which was the most frequent destination. Excluding the convicts, there are several other men, of various ranks, with Phillip. Among these are Captain Watkin Tench and Judge David Collins, both of whom lack sensitivity. Phillip is a humanitarian and thinks it unnecessary to ‘cross fifteen thousand miles of ocean to erect another Tyburn’?
: that is, to go to the other side of the Earth to hang people who could have been hanged in Britain. Tench, on the other hand, thinks that the convicts ‘laugh at hangings’ and it is ‘their favourite form of entertainment’. Phillip wishes to be humane and considers lashing as an alternative, but because the punishment is ‘unobserved’, Collins deems it useless for it ‘will not serve as a sharp example’: that is, it will not deter the other convicts. Tench agrees with him by saying that ‘justice and humaneness have never gone hand in hand’.
When the discussion turns to plays and preferred authors, Phillip has the idea of the convicts putting on a play ‘for the good of the colony’. This is our first notion of the differences between Governor Phillip and Professor Higgins; Higgins is teaching Eliza for his own ‘good’, to improve his reputation, not for her benefit nor ‘our country’s good’. The only play they have is George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706), which is a Restoration comedy.
In Act One Scene Five, Phillip asks Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark to organise the play. He doesn’t really want to do it and to begin with is not very enthusiastic, but he is hopeful of promotion and so does it to please the Governor. He hears that a convict called Mary Brenham can read and write, so he roots her out. She is with her friend, Dabby Bryant, when he comes to talk to her. When he asks her questions to discover if she can read and write, Dabby interrupts and tells him: ‘She used to read to us on the ship. We loved it. ‘
This disclosure reveals Mary’s human potential; it reveals also that some convicts are sensitive to those who have been desensitised through brutal treatment. When Dabby says, ‘Mary wants to be in your play’, she is telling us that Mary wants something to look forward to, something to anticipate. When Ralph Clark starts reading some lines with her from the play, she reads the line: ‘Whilst there is life, there is hope’ This is a perfect example of a syntactically balanced ‘sentiment’. This proverbial saying comments exquisitely on their situation within the colony.
In Act One Scene Six, ‘The Authorities Discuss the Merits of the Theatre’, Major Robbie Ross shows his contempt for the play (‘we’ll all be struck with stricturing starvation – and you – you – a play! ‘) Ross is a reactionary figure; he adopts a hostile manner towards the idea that the convicts may be capable of ‘sentiment’ and rehabilitation. He believes that they are incorrigible, beyond redemption; he has no confidence in the redemptive power of Farquhar’s language. Ross wastes no opportunity to vituperate against the convicts (‘vice ridden vermin!
‘), especially the women, whom he considers lower forms of life (‘Filthy, thieving, lying whores’). He scoffs at the fact that they are allowed to perform a play of ‘fine language, sentiment’ (‘Plays! ‘). In the same scene as Ross’ accusations, we find that these are actually civilised men: ‘The sky of this Southern Hemisphere is full of wonders. Have you looked at the constellations? ‘ Astronomy seems to be a reasonably intelligent pursuit. Phillip now shows his enlightened position– ‘We are indeed here to supervise the convicts who are already being punished by their long exile. Surely they can also be reformed? ‘