Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is first and foremost a play about voice, particularly about the voice of flower-girl-tumed-lady Liza Doolittle. Though the voice is not Liza’s true self, it is the way the Liza’s identity can be expressed, and thus an important marker of identity transformations in the play. This work explores three different ways in which Shaw discusses voice in the play: as singing instruction, scientific methods for recording voice, and vocalizing automata and dolls.
First, the play is deeply influenced by Shaw’s background in singing instruction from his childhood. Shaw learned voice study from his mother’s beau, a singing teacher named Vandeleur Lee, whose treatise on voice informed Shaw’s Irish nationalist sensibilities, his own writer’s voice, and most importantly, his ideas about how voice could be systematically transformed. Like music, science provides ways to understand and discuss voice; through engineering feats such as phonograph recordings and laryngoscope inspections, scientists could analyze and observe the voice. Pygmalion's male lead Higgins embraces and even idolizes such scientific devices, which allow him at once to transform and control his subject. Furthermore, the use of this science in Edison’s invention of the talking doll is a clear source for Pygmalion, in which the language of automata is specifically used. Shaw understood voice in terms of its applications in singing instruction, engineering, and robotics, and presented each of these concepts in his play.
The transformations in Pygmalion are accomplished primarily through the science of voice study. Shaw knew how singing and voice training transformed his own family in its social connections and structure, and he metaphorically explores this in Liza’s transformation from flower girl to lady. Voice had the ability not only to transform, but also to animate. As such, voice manipulation, through training and recording, was considered powerful in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly to Shaw, who dealt intimately with science as his hobby and music as his family’s occupation. Voice meant identity, and voice analysis meant an ability to control and change the voice—an ability which Liza actively practices.
Shaw’s portrayal of Liza as a “talking doll,” is herein placed in its 1912 context by examining European and American interest in vocalizing dolls and automata. Shaw was knowledgeable about talking dolls and actively shaped Pygmalion as a narrative about automata. This kind of scholarship provides new opportunities for reading Pygmalion. Combining literary and historical approaches and exploring topics in the histories of both music and science, this work gives voice to some previously underdeveloped topics in Shavian studies.
Scimone, Nicole L., "The Transformative Power of Voice in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion" (2013). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 974.