Educating Rita seems like a modern tale (or, at least “modern” in terms of being set in working-class England during the 1980s) but it actually has very deep roots in mythology and literature. It is most closely related to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion but that work itself was based on a story from the Roman poet Ovid as well as related Greek myths. We will look at the various incarnations of this classic tale of an older, civilized man taking an uncouth young woman under his wing and molding her into an ideal female.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains the story of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion, who carves a woman out of ivory and falls in love with it due to its incredibly realistic beauty. When he returns home from a festival celebrating Aphrodite, he kisses the statue and it comes to life -a gift from the goddess of love.
Shaw’s play, first staged in 1913, borrows directly from this tale. It concerns the relationship between a professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, and a young flower girl, Eliza. The two meet when Eliza tries to sell flowers to Higgins’s friend, Colonel Pickering. When Higgins boasts that he could pass Eliza off as a duchess, she asks if he will actually do so; she is interested in remaking her own life as well and becoming more polished and mannered. Eliza’s studies eventually progress to the point where she proclaims she has left her “gutterspeak” behind, but upon encountering her shiftless father sees it return. She and Higgins have a falling out by the end of the play when she decides to marry a man named Freddy and not come back to her lessons; he objects that he has made her a “consort for a king”. By the end Higgins continues to struggle with Eliza’s decision.
The play, while remarkably popular, reached an even wider audience with its beloved 1956 musical adaptation and 1964 film, now entitled My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison starred as Henry Higgins in both the film and the play for a time, and Audrey Hepburn was lauded for her role as Eliza in the film. The title came from one of Shaw’s provisional titles for Pygmalion, 'Fair Eliza'. The film won eight Academy Awards.
The Pygmalion story has been told in other film, television, and radio versions as well, reinforcing its enduring charm, complexity, and resonance. Most currently, the teenage film The Duff (2015) and the television-show Selfie (2014) are interpretations of the story.