The plot of the play revolves around a bet made by a Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, to a friend, Pickering, that he can transform a rough, cockney flower girl to pass for a well-bred lady. The flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, appears at his home the next day offering to pay for lessons, so that she will be able to improve herself enough to work in a proper flower shop.
Higgins is rude and taunts Eliza, but he agrees to the project and sets about training her how to speak and behave ‘properly’. He teaches her correct pronunciation and enunciation and tries to calm her fiery personality. Eliza attends Higgins’ mother’s home as a test of her abilities and is introduced to some family friends, charming the son, Freddy, despite her tendency to slip back into her cockney speech. Higgins’ mother is concerned that the experiment will end badly.
When Eliza attends an ambassador’s party, as a final test of whether or not Higgins has won the bet, her performance is a great success and Higgins wins. He and his friend, Pickering, discuss the ‘case’ as though Eliza isn’t a real person, and Higgins appears perfectly happy to forget her now that the bet is won. Eliza is understandably angry, worrying over her future now that she has the manners and speech of a class that she doesn’t have the money to join. She hints that her only option is prostitution. The argument escalates to the point where Higgins almost hits Eliza.
Eliza leaves Higgins’ home and he finds that he is quite lost without her, even considering calling the police. She has only been at his mother’s house, however, and when he finds her, they argue again, with Eliza angering Higgins by giving Pickering the credit for her transformation. Higgins angers Eliza with his joyful response to her slipping back into her old, cockney screech when her father shows up.
The play ends with a discussion of Eliza’s options: Higgins asks her to go home with him; offers to arrange a marriage for her to dim-witted Freddy; or a return to her father. Higgins expects her to return to him, while Eliza asserts her independence and says she will not see him again. The play’s ending is very different to the musical and film versions, which see Higgins and Eliza fall in love.
Professor Henry Higgins
Freddy Eynsford Hill