'The Road Less Travelled': A New Series of Articles by Julie Blake Begins Here, Focusing on Texts Which Deserve More Popularity, Having Much to Offer Both Teachers and Students

By Blake, Julie | NATE Classroom, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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'The Road Less Travelled': A New Series of Articles by Julie Blake Begins Here, Focusing on Texts Which Deserve More Popularity, Having Much to Offer Both Teachers and Students


Blake, Julie, NATE Classroom


PYGMALION by George Bernard Shaw

Play first produced 1913, first published 1916

Key Stage 3/4 'Writers from the English literary heritage writing in the twentieth century'

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George Bernard Shaw was a legend in his own lifetime, a household name and a writer with an adjective (Shavian) formed to describe his unique brand of ironic wit and humanity. He is the only writer to have won both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar for the screenplay of his play Pygmalion (1938). He wrote five novels and a number of short stories; 63 plays; many essays, speeches and critical reviews; and more than 250,000 letters. His work included helping to establish the London School of Economics and advocating for a new alphabet to overcome the vagaries of English spelling. And there he is, nestling in the National Curriculum orders for English at Key Stage 3 and 4; but if an old lag's experience and a random straw poll of half a dozen teachers around the country is anything to go by, his work is very rarely taught. A Nobel Prize!?! An Oscar!?! It's time to brush the dust off your stock cupboard copies of Pygmalion and show the man some respect.

Why teach it?

1. Because the play foregrounds issues of accent and social class and, although both language and society have changed since 1914, these issues remain highly pertinent to young people's lives, as can be seen in Ben Rampton's ethnographic observation of the use of 'posh' and 'Cockney' voices in a contemporary London school (Language in Late Modernity: Interaction in an Urban School (Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics, Ben Rampton, Oxford Univ Press, 2006).

2. Because a secondary issue is gender: the roles, expectations and behaviours considered appropriate to men and women; and the power dynamics between men and women in relationships and wider society. The play provides an opportunity to explore social changes (and continuities), as well as to tap into popular interest in changing 'deviant' female behaviour as evidenced in popular TV programmes such as Ladette to Lady.

3. Because it's funny, and there is also much fun to be had with drama activities, the 1938 film version and the musical adaptation My Fair Lady.

The 30-second guide

Pygmalion 'describes the transformation of a Cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a passable imitation of a duchess by the phonetician Professor Henry Higgins, who undertakes his task in order to win a bet and to prove his own points about English speech and the class system: he teaches her to speak standard English and introduces her successfully to social life, thus winning his bet, but she rebels against his dictatorial and thoughtless behaviour, and 'bolts' from his tyranny. The play ends with a truce between them, as Higgins acknowledges that she has achieved freedom and independence.' (Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature)

Class reading

This outline below uses page number references for the very dusty stock cupboard Penguin Books illustrated edition of 1978. It does some of the legwork needed to decide how many lessons you might want to spend on a class read-through, and how many readers you need when. Of course, it all depends what balance of straight read-through, drama and other activities you think best for your class.

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Ten ideas towards a scheme of work

The Pygmalion Myth

You could start off with the Pygmalion myth of the sculptor who fell in love with the statue he made. Check out this index http://www.pygmalion.ws/stories/index.htm for the myth, as well as art, films and plays based on it, including Hollywood films such as Pretty Woman and She's All That.

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