On September 6th, running through October, the Old Vic is hosting performances of Shaw’s brilliant play ‘Pygmalion’. A play studying language and class, written in 1912. It will star Patsy Ferrans and Bertie Carvel. Ferrans is already established as one of the brightest stars of her generation, with huge recognition for her 2022 Blanche du Bois in “Streetcar”. I saw her, also at The Old Vic, in 2021, when she played ‘Her’ in ‘Camp Siegfried’, and it was a remarkable performance. I am very excited about what she will bring to Miss Doolittle.
Carvel, may be best known for playing Tony Blair in The Crown, but has also shown his versatility in playing Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s play ‘Ink’. For me, his outstanding stage performance to date was in “The 47th”, when he played a wickedly funny, deranged President Trump. Trump and Blanche as Henry and Eliza is quite an invitation!
Pygmalion has always been one of my favourite plays. It may be because of the many hours I spent watching my nan working in her florist shop in Canning Town. I knew that my grandad often woke very early to get to Covent Garden to buy stock for the shop and somehow that gives me a sense of connection when the play opens. We see Eliza and Henry, in their different ways, sheltering from the elements in the portico of St.Paul’s, nearby what was the fruit and veg market in those days.
It is possible that this version of the play will work hard to illustrate and exemplify what has become known as the ‘Pygmalion Effect’, which is the way people tend to perform up to the level that others expect of them. It explains why our relationships can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Once you set expectations for somebody, that person will tend to live up to that expectation; for good or ill.
I hope it explores what I see as the psychoanalytic lens for the play. In my reading, and in the productions which I have seen, Shaw allows us to understand the protagonists as two people with unresolved Oedipus Complexes. We get insight to the narcissistic wound carried by Eliza, and the whole play is an example of transference, with Henry as analyst to Eliza’s analysand. I shall develop these ideas, and I also note that Shaw and Freud shared a view of the world based on that of the outsider.
One was an Irishman in English society and the other an often-excluded Jew, in Vienna. Both saw themselves as ‘men of science’ with Freud especially keen to establish psychoanalysis as a science. Freud was brilliant in considering the hostilities acted upon those who were ‘othered’, and in Eliza, Shaw creates a character ostracised merely for the circumstances of her birth. Shaw uses Pickering and Higgins to place people, in London to within two streets, and in India to regions, thanks to dialect, pronunciation and enunciation, and asks us to think about how this contributes to othering, to creating a ‘them and us’.
As Shaw completed Pygmalion, Freud was writing his Papers on Technique and about to complete Totem and Taboo. His body of work, likely very well known to Shaw, had already seen Studies on Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, The psychopathology of everyday life, from which one might attach some of Shaw’s Pygmalion thinking, as well as Three Essays on Sexuality and Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious.
Shaw had infamously attacked Pavlov, but conceded that he was “well-meaning, intelligent and devoted to science” – something one might argue as applicable to Freud. I like the fact that Shaw and Freud were both born in 1856. I can find no record of their meeting, but it seems highly unlikely that such erudite, well-educated men, with a fascination for philosophy, politics and ideas, would not have been aware of one another. Indeed, the coincidences stretch to the fact that Pygmalion is first performed in Vienna (Hofburg Theatre) in October 1913. Otherwise, the play was first produced in 1914 (London and NY).
In the directions to Act 2, Shaw gives great specificity to Higgins’s appearance and demeanour. Freud, at this time was determined to, and perhaps struggling a little, to establish psychoanalysis as a science. It is a dozen years since the groundbreaking The Interpretation of Dreams. Shaw describes Higgins as “of the energetic scientific type, heartily, even violently interested in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject, and careless about himself and other people, including their feelings”. The final part of this is the antithesis of a psychoanalyst, but we know from the work on dreams that fantasies are often represented by direct opposites.
To the play: What do I mean by the unresolved Oedipus Complexes? It is the attachment of the child to the parent of the opposite sex – in early infancy, a need ‘to possess’ the object, that remains unresolved. The infantile sexual impulses get repressed and often a fear of displeasing the object leads to aggressive or envious feelings. Hanna Segal described it as “the central conflict in the human psyche”, so it is hardly surprising that a dramatist as great as Shaw found it. Freud himself noted how whenever he discovered something, that the poets and philosophers had got there first.
Segal noted how Melanie Klein saw the father, both real, and phantasies about the father, as central to the child’s life from birth. This is why Shaw’s dramatization of the moment when Eliza has been bathed and cleaned by Henry’s housekeeper, and meets her father, who fails to recognise her, as critical to understanding her vulnerability and her wish to both please Henry, her substitute father, but also to hate him, in what psychoanalysts recognise as transference.
Her neglect, from her parents, is her narcissistic wound. I like the idea of Doolittle ‘blind’ to his own daughter because it plays with, and inverts, our understanding of the Oedipus story. Oedipus, we know, tragically comes to understand how he has usurped his father, in his mother’s bed, and puts his own eyes out.
Early in the scene, the issue of Eliza’s payment comes up. Freud (1912) had views on payment expressed in On Beginning the Treatment, which apart from “a medium for self-preservation and for obtaining power” had “powerful sexual factors in the value set upon it”. Eliza proffers a shilling, “take it or leave it” and Higgins, who Pickering expects to be insulted, rapidly appreciates that it is a generous offer. He defines it by its percentage of her income, “it works out as fully equivalent to sixty or seventy guineas from a millionaire…it’s the biggest offer I ever had”.
Money and sex is important in the play because of Shaw’s focus on morality and on hypocrisy. Eliza reminds us, almost ad nauseum, “I’m a good girl, I am”. What sex does to people, especially those damaged by infantile experiences, is emphasised by Eliza’s attempt to repress her sexual drive. Taken to the guest bathroom she finds a ‘looking glass’ for the first time and she feels a need to cover it up, so unused is she to seeing her own body naked. Later, Henry gives a nod to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious and to repression, “do any of us know what we are doing? If we did, would we ever do it?”
His own Oedipus resolution is far from achieved and visiting his mother, in Act three, to tell her he has “picked up a girl”, he tells us, “Oh I can’t be bothered with young women. My idea of a loveable woman is somebody as like you as possible”. As the scene progresses we get a nudge that Mrs. Higgins is more familiar with the psychoanalytic world than her apparently worldly son, when she responds to his comment that Eliza is to stick to two conversational subjects, health and the weather with “Safe! To talk about our health! About our insides! Perhaps about our outsides…”
And so, the possibility of inner worlds, her’s, Henry’s and Eliza’s is hinted at, as is the realisation of the sometimes conflicting demands of the conscious and the unconscious. She adds later to both Henry and Pickering, “don’t you realise that when Eliza walked into Wimpole Street, something walked in with her”.
After the successful outcome of Higgins’s bet/experiment, Eliza senses that he might now drop her and discard her, as her father had done many times, and it ignites the ‘murderous rage’ deep in her unconscious, which surges into the room as she throws his slippers; “I wanted to smash your face. I’d like to kill you, you murderous brute”, before wailing like any neglected infant, “what’s to become of me?”
The second psychoanalytic feature the play addresses is the narcissistic wound, specifically Eliza’s. A narcissistic wound is a form of abandonment – Freud maintained that “losses in love” and “losses associated with failure” often leave behind injury to an individual’s self-regard. We learn from her, “I ain’t got no mother. Her that turned me out was my sixth stepmother”, a perfect complement to the father who failed to recognise her. Eliza, confronted by an awareness of a lack of something, in this case maternal love, is like an analysand clinging on to their neuroses, “if only I’d known what a dreadful thing it is to be clean I’d never have come. I didn’t know when I was well off…”
It comes together with ‘orality’ – the focusing of sexual energy and feeling on the mouth – so perfectly captured in the musical film adaptation of the play, ‘My Fair Lady’, when Higgins (Rex Harrison) is placing marbles into his powerless (Audrey Hepburn) student’s mouth. The play begins with something coming out of the mouth, and this is about what gets taken in. It is no great stretch to consider the pleasure for Eliza of what she expresses in giving out, and what she appreciates in her taking in.
Later, at the peak of her achievement, winning the bet and having satisfied Henry’s ego, she notes that “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I am not fit to sell anything else”. As she has told us repeatedly, she’s a good girl. She is.
Lastly, the play is set up as an illustration of the psychoanalytic concept of transference. Freud understood that transference existed outside the clinic, but that it changed shape in the clinic and acquired an intensity uncommon in more social and conscious settings.
What is transference? – Jean Arundale, in Transference and Countertransference wrote it was “broadly conceptualised as manifestations of conscious and unconscious aspects of object relationships and psychic structures within the analytic process”.
Freud had observed it initially in the work between his colleague, Breuer, and the patient who came to be known as Anna O, who famously described her therapy as “the talking cure”. Her feelings for Breuer, which he found too disturbing to tolerate, were Freud’s first insight to the concept of transference. In his 1938 paper The Technique of Psychoanalysis, he was even clearer. Transference was a “factor of undreamt-of importance”.
Freud came to understand, after initially seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome, that transference, the emotional quality of a patient’s feelings towards an analyst transferred from more developmental relationships, could be used as a tool. Indeed, it provided him with the material for understanding the way patients invariably repeat past relationships, especially maladaptive relationships.
Shaw may not have been thinking directly about Freud, but in Eliza, we see the ambivalence of her feelings to her alcoholic and rejecting father emerge in her wish to both have Higgins, but also to be able to push him away. It was Klein, some thirty years later, (1946), who developed the idea of transference as a re-enactment, as an expression of unconscious phantasy, in need of interpretation.
Klein understood how the analyst can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and that integrating the two feelings in one person, just as the baby does with the mother, was the most profound of feelings and that the ‘negative transference’ was especially valuable. Later still, Winnicott developed what was happening to the analyst, in my case the Higgins figure, as countertransference.
Higgins, is bemused by his feelings for Eliza – in the final act he stormily says that he “can do without anybody”, thanks to his “own spark of divine fire”, yet “I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance. I like them, rather”. When she points out that he has her voice on his recording discs and that he has photographs of her, he laments that he cannot turn her soul on.
This is consistent with Sandler’s (1976) later work on countertransference and the ‘role responsiveness’ of the analyst, who has been pulled into a role, a way of being, that he does not recognize as being characteristic of himself. Freud wrote in Dynamics of Transference (S.E 12) “it is a perfectly normal and intelligible thing that the libidinal cathexis which is held ready in anticipation, should be directed as well to the figure of the doctor (analyst)”. The transference which exceeds anything “which could be justified on sensible or rational grounds” is a consequence of both conscious and unconscious material.
He states that whilst transference is most intense in an analytical couple, it exists outside of analysis and paradoxically is regarded as the “vehicle of cure and the condition of success”, ie when we transfer our earliest sexual attractions (parental) to a new love object outside the family. The “characteristics of transference are therefore to be attributed not to psychoanalysis but to neurosis itself”. The ego has “remained in possession of infantile imagos”.
“Originally (the baby) we knew only sexual objects; and psychoanalysis shows us that people who in our real life are merely admired or respected may still be sexual objects for our unconscious” – this is what Pickering represents for Eliza.
Freud concludes his dynamics paper by referring to the struggle between doctor and patient, “between intellect and instinctual life, between understanding and seeking to act, is played out exclusively in the phenomena of transference. It is on that field that the victory must be won” and we sense that Eliza is seeking her mother about whom we know little, but also something of a repair to the lost love that an alcoholic father provided? She transfers her ambivalence of her father, wary affection matched with scorn and contempt, to Higgins.
The fact that transference is so tied to infantile sexuality is why Freud wrote of ‘transference love’ and today there is wide usage of the term ‘erotic transference’. Rosenberg (2011) might be describing Higgins’s drawing room in her paper Sexuality and the analytic couple, “The care invested in the setting, the quality of listening, the reliability of the analyst – all these elements enhance a process that simultaneously mobilizes and erodes repression in the analysand, and contribute to the emergence of sexual feelings”.
She also mentions how the analyst, (or Higgins) fears marking the transference with their “own sexual feelings and fantasies”. She anticipates this – Pygmalion as erotic transference interpretation – when writing, “unrecognized sexuality gives way to enactments, as, for example, the emergence of an unconsciously collusive alliance in the repudiation of an analysand’s sexual partner, or vicarious and blinding gratification derived by the analyst from the achievements of a successful analysand.”
Shaw provides this with Henry’s contempt for Eliza’s beau: “Marry Freddy, what a preposterous idea” and with his rejoicing when she wins his bet, but especially when she deceives his former protégé, the outrageous fraud, Nepommuck.
In his paper, Transference Love, Freud asserts that the patient’s attraction to the doctor is “an inescapable fate” and switches between ‘Transference Love’ and the term erotic transference; “love consists of new editions of old traits…it repeats infantile reactions”. Shaw had an answer for that in a few pages that he wrote to summarise, after the end of the play, letting us know that Eliza does marry Freddy, and they have a florist shop that adds some greengrocery. She treats Higgins scornfully, like a wounded child. The reaction of the infant unable to integrate their Object.
We can only truly love something or someone we may also hate. As Shaw understood, “She knows that Higgins does not need her, just as her father did not need her”; she was “no more to him than them slippers”.
Freud’s (1910) view was that countertransference was inimical to the analytic treatment. It should be repressed. In Pygmalion, Higgins has repressed his sexual drive, but Eliza wakens it. Towards the end of the play he notes how she has become indispensable, and he is acting out his need. Shaw, in my interpretation, pre-empted plenty of psychoanalytic literature of the past hundred years through Henry and Eliza.
As David Mann (1999) writes in his introduction to Erotic Transference and Countertransference, “As psychoanalytic thinking has been able to contemplate the deep layers of relationship between analyst and analysand so the question of unconscious eroticism has needed to be addressed by more and more authors as the century progresses. This brings analytic thinking back full circle to its origins in contemplation of the erotic”, by which he means Freud’s understanding of what happened between his mentor Breuer and his patient, Anna O.
Henry may wish to deny his sexual attraction to Eliza, but from the outset we are reminded of Eliza’s own repression of her sexuality. She sees it as something to resist, because of her sense of morals, later derided by her father as “middle class morality”, and confirmed when he tells Pickering that he was never married to Eliza’s mother. For Eliza, who may have unconsciously absorbed her mother’s shame, it is important to protest her own good behaviour and innocence, “I’m a good girl, I am”.
Nonetheless as Henry and Eliza discover and as Mann writes, “the erotic connects people at deeply unconscious levels, driving them into relationships at least at the level of fantasy”. He goes on to add, “the closer people become the greater the activation of erotic material in the unconscious”. Poor Henry, poor Eliza! Who knows what Ferran and Carvel will find in these timeless characters, but it should be memorable.