Plato, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady

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In our time, the best-known of these include William S. Gilbert, who wrote about two characters he named Pygmalion and Galatea. Set to music by his equally famous partner, Arthur Sullivan, their stage-play was the comic-opera success of 1871 in London.

The renowned Irish writer George Bernard Shaw took the idea into the realm of high art with a play titled ‘Pygmalion’ for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. Shaw’s play has been successfully staged in numerous productions at the West End and on Broadway. In 1938, he won the Oscar for his screenplay of the film adaptation titled ‘My Fair Lady.’

One of the earliest versions of the story involves a long-ago king of Cyprus who became infatuated with a statue of Aphrodite, known to us as the goddess of love. Perhaps this was even the original that set our man Ovid off on the chase for a best-seller tale of immortal romance conquering common sense. ‘Metamorphosis’ is Ovid’s parable about what is called ‘the Pygmalion effect.’

The theory is that the more parents and teachers expect of a child, the better that child will perform. In my own childhood experience, I saw the opposite result. Our father’s highest expectations were laid on my older sister’s shoulders. An intelligent girl with excellent powers to memorize data, she eventually found the burden of expectation too great to bear. Nothing much was expected of me and so, I sailed through life never thinking of failure.

As a child, I first came across the story of the sculptor and the statue in illustrated books of Greek and Roman myths that my parents may never have examined too closely. Back then, the coloured illustration plates were all that interested me. When I was able to read the stories to myself, they opened a window on the oddities of human perceptions. In particular, these ancient stories laid bare the non-event called ‘The Battle of the Sexes.’

Perhaps because of my random choice of reading, based on which books held the best illustrations, I never got the idea of female inferiority properly settled in my mind, or in my expectations of the life ahead of me.

It came as no surprise to discover that Plato credited a woman with being the teacher of Socrates. Diotima was a priestess who appears in one of the ‘Dialogues’ in which Plato shows Socrates introducing his method of asking questions of a student, rather than just delivering information.

This method of teaching, by bringing out from ‘pupils’ the wisdom already available to them by exercise of their reason, is called the Socratic Method. Plato, like all of us, held a mixed bag of theories and opinions. One that resonates in today’s world, is his statement:

  • ‘A state that does not educate and train women is like a man who trains only his right arm.’
  • Personally, I’ve never been able to treat the basic idea of the Pygmalion tale with anything more respectful than a belly-laugh. For me, it raises these fanciful questions:
  • What happened after Galatea came to life?

What happened when the Body aged, without any of the compensations of a developed Mind?

Did she and Pygmalion live happily ever after?

Or did he end up strangling her for her dog-like devotion to her creator?

Did he hang himself in despair at the emptiness of her conversation?

Did he try again – this time attempting to endow his Ideal Body with an Ideal Mind?

  • OR

If Galatea – like Athena – sprang into life imbued with a clarity of thought to match the perfection of her form, was she disappointed, even disgusted with her human creator?

Did her sense of compassion and gratitude, lead her to try re-educating Pygmalion to a higher plane of thought? Not likely.

There could be no discourse or debate. After all, she was man’s Ideal Woman: mute.

  • Was she tempted to pull Pygmalion’s own trick and entreat a likely god – Loki, perhaps – to turn him into a pet poodle?

Probably not, because even the female gods – having been invented by human men – rarely granted the prayers of women.

Also, I doubt she’d seriously contemplate taking petty revenge for the human mess into which he’d dragged her. Maybe she became a philosopher and wiped the slate clean.

  • Or, just maybe, she put the Body on the catwalk, became history’s first super-model and giggled all the way to the bank.

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Source by Dorothy Gauvin

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