The Perfection of Levity
In 1897, when Shaw was planning Caesar and Cleopatra for Johnston Forbes Robertson and Mrs Patrick Campbell, he wrote to Ellen Terry that he had been temporarily distracted: ‘Caesar and Cleopatra has been driven clean out of my head by a play I want to write for them in which he shall be a west end gentleman and she an east end dona in an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers.’1 It was fifteen years before he wrote a line of Pygmalion, but when finally written it was still a vehicle for Mrs Patrick Campbell (though she had changed her leading man from Forbes Robertson to Beerbohm Tree) and the hat with three ostrich feathers remained a feature. Once again it is remarkable how clear and how unchanged Shaw could carry the idea of a play for years before execution. But the prevision of Pygmalion glimpsed in the letter to Ellen Terry serves also to highlight the play’s formal relation to the earlier period of his career. In 1897 he was still working within the popular forms of the time, writing melodrama and romance to challenge the audiences’ melodramatic and romantic expectations. In many ways Pygmalion is a Pleasant Play, a Play for Puritans, written out of its time. In the major trilogy of 1901–5, Man and Superman, John Bull’s Other Island and Major Barbara, Shaw had developed his own discursive form of comedy of ideas.
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