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Free Study Guide-Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw-Free Book Notes
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ACT SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

ACT ONE

Summary

The act begins at a quarter past eleven at night in London during a heavy downpour of summer rain. A group of people seeks shelter under the portico of St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden. Among them are a lady and her daughter in evening attire and a man who is preoccupied with taking notes. The lady and her daughter are irritably waiting for Freddy (the lady's son) to fetch them a cab. A bystander remarks about the impossibility of getting a cab until half past eleven since the cabbies will only return after dropping off their theatre fares. This serves to further aggravate the lady and her daughter Clara, who dismiss Freddy as a worthless fellow who could not get even get them a cab at the theatre door itself.

As the mother defends Freddy, he rushes in and declares that he has been to Charing Cross and nearly to Ludgate Circus but a cab is not to be had for "love or money." Clara accuses him of not having tried at all since he has not been to Trafalgar Square. The mother and daughter force the reluctant Freddy to go and try again and not to return without a cab. As he opens his umbrella and dashes off, there is a flash of lightening and he collides with a flower girl who is hurrying in for shelter. He knocks her basket out of her hands and the flower girl remarks in Cockney, "Now then, Freddy: look where you are going dear." Freddy apologizes and rushes off, somewhat scandalized that she knew his name.

As she picks up her scattered flowers the flower girl remarks on his offensive manners. A strikingly unromantic figure, she sits down on the plinth of the column and sorts out her flowers. She is eighteen or perhaps twenty but not older. Her clothes are coarse and grimy. The lady's curiosity to find out how the flower girl knew Freddy's name gets the better of her and she gives the flower girl six pence to compensate for her damaged flowers. But her generosity is futile since it turns out that the flower girl had merely addressed the lady's son as Freddy when he collided with her because Freddy and Charlie were popular names. Clara is quite disgusted by her mother's suspicions regarding Freddy and retreats behind a pillar.


Just then an elderly gentleman rushes into the shelter, closing a dripping umbrella. Seeing that the rain is unlikely to stop, the lady sadly joins Clara behind the pillar. The flower girl (Eliza) attempts to ingratiate herself to the military gentleman and coaxes him to buy a flower. The gentleman apologizes and says that he has no change. But as the flower girl is persistent in her pleas, the gentleman fumbles in his pockets and finding three pence, gives it to her and retreats to the other pillar. Although the flower girl is disappointed she consoles herself with the thought that three pence is better than nothing at all. At this point a bystander warns the flower girl that she had better give the gentleman a flower in return since there is a person who is taking down every word she speaks. This turns everybody's attention towards a man who is busily taking down notes. The flower girl is terrified and protests her innocence. There is a general hubbub in favor of the flower girl. The flower girl is quite frantic and appeals to the military gentleman to help her.

In the meanwhile the note taker steps forward and assures the flower girl that he is not going to harm her. The bystander also attempts to calm the flower girl by telling her that the note taker appears to be a gentleman by his boots and not a "copper's nark", i.e. a police informant. The note taker's interest is piqued by the phrase "copper's nark" and he asks the bystander to explain it. The flower girl, however, protests her innocence. The note taker tries to reassure her in a light manner but her fears are far from dispelled. She demands to see what he has written about her. The note taker opens his book and holds it steadily under her nose. The flower girl however is unable to make any sense of it since the notes are in phonetic script. The note taker reads out a sentence reproducing the flower girl's cockney accent perfectly. The flower girl appeals to the military gentleman for help, who in turn tells the note taker to mind his own business. All the bystanders also join in the general condemnation of police espionage.

The note taker then proceeds to display his knowledge and correctly guesses that the bystander is from Selsey and the flower girl form Lisson Grove. The popular interest in the note taker's performance increases as he continues to accurately gauge the origins of people from their speech patterns. For instance he correctly deduces that the military gentleman is from Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge and India. The general public opinion turns in favor of the note taker.

Meanwhile the downpour subsides and the crowd begins to disperse. Impatient at Freddy's inability to procure a cab, Clara declares that she shall surely get "pneumonia" if she stays in this draught any longer. The note taker makes a note of the pronunciation of "mownia" and remarks that she is from Earls Court and her mother is unmistakably from Epsom. The lady confirms that she was indeed brought up in Largelady Park near Epsom and requests him to find them a cab. He blows a shrill whistle to summon one and this provokes some discussion that the note taker is indeed a policeman. The note taker irritably reminds the bystanders that the rain had stopped about two minutes ago and that they should leave. The lady and her daughter decide to take the bus since the rain has stopped. Soon the note taker is left alone with the military gentleman and the flower girl. On being asked the secret of how he makes his deductions the note taker explains that he is a phonetician by profession and can place any man in London within two miles. He claims that he can teach anybody any dialect, including how to speak correctly. The flower girl is still crying out aloud about the imagined harm to her respectability. The note taker irritably denounces her as an "incarnate insult to the English language". He declares that he could transform the flower girl with her Cockney accent into a duchess within three months, that he could even get her a place as a lady's maid/ shop assistant.

The military gentleman turns out to be Colonel Pickering, the author of Spoken Sanskrit, and the note taker introduces himself as Henry Higgins, the author of Higgins' Universal Alphabet. The two men know each other by repute and strike up an acquaintance. As they leave together, there is the sound of church bells and Higgins throws a handful of money into the flower girl's basket who is delighted by her unexpected fortune. Freddy then arrives with a cab only to find that his mother and sister have taken a bus instead. The flower girl grandly declares that she is going home in the cab. When the driver refuses to let her in she shows him a handful of her money to assure him that she can pay the fare. She tells him to drive her to Buckingham Palace. As soon as they are out of Freddy's earshot she tells the cabbie to drive her home to Angel Court, Drury Lane, next to her Uncle John's oil shop. On reaching her destination the flower girl is appalled that the fare is a shilling for only two minutes. The cabbie condescendingly forgoes the fare.

The act draws to a close in the flower girl's small room with the barest minimum of necessities. Eliza is excitedly counting her new riches and planning what to do with them until the gas goes out. She then enjoys being able to put in another penny without begrudging it. She decides to go to bed since it would be more economical than sitting up without a fire.

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