Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Learning to live

While in London, I attended a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. The play was the basis for the more famous musical, My Fair Lady. Both play and musical tell the story of Liza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl in London whom the great professor of diction, Henry Higgins, adopts as a project to prove his pedagogical prowess. As one might expect, the musical has a happier ending than does the play, yet in both Higgins succeeds as a catalyst for the transformation of the flower girl into a proper English lady.

Also unsurprisingly, characters in the play have greater depth than they do in the musical, because the play does not interrupt the plot or character development for music. In the play, the transformed Liza recognizes Henry for the selfish, manipulative, and unfeeling brute that he is. She poignantly admires and prefers her treatment by Higgins’ colleague, Colonel Pickering, who treated her from the beginning as a lady, to Higgins’ rudeness in spite of her attraction to Higgins.

Watching Pygmalion prompted me to wonder how many well-intentioned efforts to transform people – organized programs by government, schools, and churches as well as personal endeavors – suffer because of arrogant presumptions of superiority on the part of the would be transformers. Liza Doolittle’s encounter with Henry Higgins does transform her from a flower girl into a lady. Much more importantly, Liza also experiences and recognizes a second transformation from a self-centered person into a person who selflessly cares about and for other people.

Is that not one of the real goals of organized religion?

I do not know if Shaw conceived Pygmalion as a critique of religion, but the play is a moving social commentary on the Victorian Church that sought to perpetuate what Shaw called “middle-class morality.” This is a morality of form over substance, a morality that does not promote human flourishing.

Too often, religion has sought to create “cardboard characters,” one-dimensional people who exhibit a certain set of characteristics (diction, dress, and manners – that is, the type of transformation Higgins anticipated for Liza). I’ve witnessed the legacy of this type of missionary activity in Hawaii; examples abound in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Religion becomes an excuse to export culture and to justify exploitation rather than a means of transformation from selfishness to unselfishness, from individual into community, and from less to more aware of the ultimate.

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