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SCENE SUMMARY AND NOTES
Act Three is important in terms of plot development, as quite a bit of time has elapsed for Eliza to shed her flower girl origins and become a lady. Therefore, the third act contains the "test" scene to which all the preceding acts have been leading up to.
The setting has shifted from Higgins' dull Wimpole Street laboratory to Mrs. Higgins' bright and genteel at-home. The light and freshness of the setting is symbolic of the spiritual inspiration of Eliza. Yet the Eliza who arrives at Mrs. Higgins' at home still has a long journey before her. She has adorned the mask of gentility rather than acquiring a new character. As such, she is no more than a live doll, an automaton without a mind of her own. The mask of gentility fails to hide her lower class origins. Like the Chippendale furniture in Mrs. Higgins' house, Eliza has a polished and formal look. Yet she is simply a triumph of the art of phonetics and the dressmaker as the content of her speech reveals.
Her meeting with the Eynsford Hills plainly demonstrates that "you have to consider not only how a girl pronounces, but what she pronounces." Eliza's conversation is crude and parrot-like yet the Eynsford Hills do not detect Eliza as being the same girl they encountered at St. Paul's because she is wearing nice clothes and speaking as a member of the upper class. Yet it is obvious that correct pronunciation and fine clothes are not the only requirement for passing into the upper class although this is lost on everyone but Mrs Higgins and the Professor. While Eliza knows "how" to say things, she still does not know "what" should be said in social gatherings. She gives her class background away by saying all the wrong things with the right accent. Shaw proves that wearing fine clothes and having the right accent do not necessitate gentility.
This is a comic scene but also quite touching. Eliza's conversation is entertaining for its mechanical adherence to correct grammar. She gives a stilted scientific report about the weather - "The shallow depression in the west of these islands..." - and then enthusiastically proceeds to deliver Lisson Grove gossip about her aunt with a perfect upper class accent. She uses the slang lexicon of the lower classes to tell about how her aunt was cured of diphtheria by consuming large quantities of gin and proceeds to air her suspicion that her aunt was most likely murdered for her new straw hat. While the absurd inappropriateness of Eliza's conversation undoubtedly generates laughter, the readers must notice the deeper meaning underlying this playful scene. Shaw portrays the inseparable gulf between the world of the flower girl Eliza and the world of the Eynsford Hills. Eliza's conversation makes the audience realize the drudgery of slum life where a mere straw hat is a tempting enough object to murder someone for.
The ingredients of Eliza's conversation - poverty, theft alcoholism and murder - shock the Eynsford Hills but they construe it as new small talk. In fact, Clara excitedly repeats Eliza's slum expletive "bloody" because she wants to be part of the latest fashion trends. Eliza is a success not because she has attained good manners and bearing but because of the opacity of the Eynsford Hills. The fact that she is now fit for the society of Eynsford Hills denotes that the majority of the middle class seldom evolve beyond a superficial stage and are devoid of true humanity.
The masked problems of the Eynsford Hills points to the problem of genteel poverty. Mrs. Eynsford Hill is a well-bred lady who desperately clings to genteel society. She lives in the fashionable Earls Court but lacks the financial means to support the kind of lifestyle expected of a lady. She is a misfit in society who wants to be accepted and her children add to her miseries. Her son, Freddy, although a good-hearted soul, lacks financial backing as well as any occupation. His social standing as a gentleman prevents him from entering into trade since it would be below his dignity to do so. Financial constraints have restrained him from acquiring the education befitting a gentleman. He is thus disqualified for any professional occupation. The poor chap is caught in a catch-22 situation and it seems his only recourse is to marry a woman with fortune. Her daughter, Clara desperately attempts to follow the latest fads and small talk in order to appear reasonably fashionable. Her aspirations are far greater than can be fulfilled by her means. Consequently she is dissatisfied and frustrated. Her excited repetition of Eliza's expletive reveals her affected and pretentious nature.
Mrs. Higgins is the only person who criticizes Eliza for lacking any substance. Unlike Higgins, she is not blinded by undue enthusiasm for Eliza and thinks she is not presentable and simply a triumph of the art of phonetics and her dressmaker's abilities. She displays a great knack in managing an awkward situation when Higgins spontaneously brings Eliza into her drawing room. She represents sophistication, gentility and good manners and provides a measuring rod against Eliza's accomplishments. Mrs. Higgins sternly accuses the Colonel and her son of being, "A pretty pair of babies, playing with (their) live doll." However this charge strikes Higgins as unjust. He claims that he is not merely teaching Eliza to speak correctly but is in effect attiring her soul: "But you have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It's filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and should from soul." It is obvious that Higgins attaches great importance and value to his phonetic training and sees Eliza purely as an experiment.
Here again the myth of the Pygmalion is echoed. Eliza is metaphorically speaking the piece of art that the sculptor Higgins has worked upon and created with his skill. But there is an important difference between the legend and the plot of this play. While the legendary Pygmalion falls in love with his creation and gets married to her, this 'Pygmalion' does not receive her affection nor is he attracted to her other than as an experiment. Instead, she asserts her independence and ultimately takes charge of her soul. Here there is a reversal of the legend as the creation revolts against the 'creator'.
Mrs. Higgins, like Mrs. Pearce, foresees the accompanying "problem" that will be faced by Eliza in the near future. While Higgins has managed to create for Eliza an excellent exterior, which is new and pleasing, her interior is still as vulgar and unrefined as it was. There is not much that Higgins has carved on this front.
Act three contains the crucial "test" scene. This is the critical moment for which all the previous scenes had been preparing. However the show does not accord much importance to Eliza's debut at the Ambassador's ball and instead focuses more on Eliza's consequent dissatisfaction and unhappiness now that she has been made a lady. She has evidently acquired the requisite social poise and feels quite at ease in society yet she sees that she has been used solely for the purpose of a wager and now her future is uncertain.
The fantastical nature of the 'romance' is seen in this scene when Higgins bluntly states what he has done with Eliza to the upper class people at the party and they see his story as a falsehood. That they see his story as highly unlikely speaks to the rigid codes that define class in British society at the time. What could be more impossible than someone from the working class who acquires the trappings of class despite her being poor and uneducated? Shaw is playing into the preconceived notions that people have of perceiving class as a birthright rather than a set of values and manners. Therefore, more respect is given someone like Higgins despite his uncouth manners because of his class as opposed to Eliza when she was a poorly spoken flower girl despite her ability to perceive what is and is not good manners.