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Pygmalion - Act Three


Pygmalion is a comedic play written by George Bernard Shaw. It's the tale of a conceited professor of linguistics, Henry Higgins, and the brash, incorrigible young woman named Eliza Doolittle. The following synopsis focuses on the events of Act Four.

Read the plot summary of Act One.

Read the plot summary of Act Two.

Act Three of Pygmalion:

The third act of George Bernard Shaw's comedy takes place in the home of Prof. Henry Higgins' mother. She is quite dismayed when her son arrives unexpectedly. She does not want him to stay because she has invited friends over for a visit, and Prof. Higgins always says offensive things in social situations.

Higgins tries to explain that he has "picked up a girl" but not for romantic reasons, which disappoints his mother. Prof. Higgins argues that he will never fall in love with a young woman because they are "all idiots." Returning to the subject of Eliza Doolittle, the professor explains that he has been teaching the girl to speak like a refined lady and he wants his mother to evaluate her choice of words.

The Upper Class Guests:

Before Higgins can continue his explanation, Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her daughter enter. These are the two women who were waiting for a taxi during the rainy opening of Act One. Freddy, the young gentleman who fetched their taxi, joins them.

While they wait for the arrival of Eliza, Higgins and Mrs. Eynsford Hill discuss the fact that they are not good at small talk. She wishes that people would frankly speak their minds. On the contrary, Higgins argues that people of society know very little about subjects such as art, philosophy, and science, and so they may as well remain quiet.

Eliza enters, "exquisitely dressed," and when she speaks the audience realizes that the lessons have been working. The tone of her speech has "great beauty" and her accent is no longer the dialect of the lower class.

Eliza Speaks:

There is a fatal flaw in the plan of Professor Higgins. Eliza has learned the appropriate tone and pronunciation; however, she does not use proper grammar. Also, she talks about unsavory topics such as her belief that her mother was murdered by a relative.

ELIZA: (darkly) My aunt died of influenza: so they said.

MRS. EYNSFORD HILL: (clicks her tongue sympathetically)!!!

ELIZA: (in the same tragic tone) But it's my belief they done the old woman in.

MRS. HIGGINS: (puzzled) Done her in?

ELIZA: Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you! Why should she die of influenza? She come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.

MRS. EYNSFORD HILL: (startled) Dear me!

LIZA: (piling up the indictment) What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.

The juxtaposition between Eliza's refined tone and her crude topics of conversation generates one of the funniest moments in the play.

Those Idiotic Men:

After Eliza leaves the social gathering, the audience can tell that Freddy is smitten by her usual qualities. After the guests exit, the professor's mother demands to know what will become of the girl.

Colonel Pickering and Prof. Higgins are cavalier in their response, insisting that Eliza will be fine, that her life will be improved by her transformation. The two men leave the scene, excitedly discussing where they should next "show off" Miss Doolittle. Like Mrs. Pearce, Mrs. Higgins is one of the few characters to show genuine concern for the future well-being of Eliza.

Questions to Consider:

What does Freddy's positive reaction to Eliza reveal about human nature? (Consider his dismissive reaction to her during Act One, when he scarcely noticed her.)

Have Higgins and Pickering become obsessed? If so, what is the motivation behind their obsession?

Aside from her obvious appearance and speech, what else is changing for Eliza?

Read the plot synopsis of Pygmalion, Act Four.

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