You are here: Archive Home > Gilbert's Plays > Pygmalion and Galatea > Article
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Pygmalion and Galatea


[Grand Magazine, April 1905, pp. 484 - 491]

Last month we published an article by Mr. St. John-Brenon discussing the question as to how far Mr. W. S. Gilbert's play "The Palace of Truth" deserved to be termed original.
This is an article by the same author, who now analyses another and much better known play of Mr. Gilbert's—"Pygmalion and Galatea"—from the same point of view.

OF all classes of writers those who are the greatest libertines in their dealings with the works of obscure predecessors and equally obscure contemporaries of foreign nations are our dramatists. They more than others are pardoned for that which is usually called plagiarism or plagiary which if they embellish in choicer language the thought or idea appropriated; and if I understand Milton aright he, with other "good authors,"' only considered such borrowing as "plagiary" when the author failed to better the matter he borrowed. We know that Shakespeare was a cormorant in his appetite for appropriating the situations and ideas of other playwrights, and did not hesitate to steal scenes upon scenes from dead authors, incorporating them in his own, and then presenting them on the stage as his own work. If, however, Shakespeare did this, he, by doing so, added to the wealth and splendour of our, literature; for all that he thus took and welded to his own work on the anvil of his mighty genius, with the cunning of a marvellous artificer, became choicest poetry under the magic influence of his pen and illuminated by the dazzling glories of his imagination. Had he not done so, many of the not altogether valueless works of his predecessors would have been lost in the vortex of forgotten dramatic literature, or relegated to oblivion by indifferent, unappreciative, or ignorant contemporaries.

The French drama is the general, or more common, quarry of our dramatists; for the knowledge of the French language being more diffused in England than any other, every aspiring playwright who has industry and ambition, without, however, real dramatic genius or inventiveness, has immediately recourse to the dead, and limbo-consigned, writers of that country, always so prolific in literature of every quality. Mr. W. S. Gilbert himself in one of his eccentric libretti musicked by Sir Arthur Sullivan tells us that all our plays, or certainly most of them, have a French origin.

If a drama be wholly a work of the imagination, and the invention of the author, even though the text contains ideas and situations that are the replication of others, he is unquestionably justified in calling it an "original" play; but, on the other hand, if the plot be suggested in part, or in its entirety, by someone else, though the text be replete with brilliant thoughts clothed in apt language and rich in metaphors which appeal to the understanding, it call with no sense of consistency be said to be original. But where both text and plot are suggested by another writer it is surely a grave misapplication of epithet to advertise to the world that such a dramatic composition is "original."

In a previous article on Mr. Gilbert's plays in this magazine I showed that in the "Fairy Comedy: The Palace of Truth" there was, as far as I could perceive after a most careful comparison of the play with Madame de Genlis's tale of the same title, little, if anything, in Mr. Gilbert's work (excepting the humorously false accusation of Azèma concerning the meeting of Queen Altemire and old Gélanor) that could reasonably allow him under any conditions to call that play original. But where Mr. Gilbert says, in the "Note" which laconically does the duty of preface to the first series of his collected plays, "that if a dramatist use the mere outline" (the italics are mine) "of an existing story for dramatic purposes he is at liberty to describe his play as ' original,'" he accuses himself. As this "Note" only alluded to two of the plays contained in the volume—viz.. "The Palace of Truth" and "The Princess"—those reading it naturally had a right to assume that all the other plays were "original," in the unqualified significance of the word. How far they were justified in doing so I will demonstrate by an examination of Mr. Gilbert's pleasing, and popular comedy "Pygmalion and Galatea."

Mr. W. S. Gilbert describes this play as "an original mythological comedy"—that is to say, a play whose subject, though drawn from mythology, is treated on absolutely original lines as regards the construction, treatment, and plot. Here, however, our author again seems to draw his inspiration from the fount of Madame de Genlis's rich if somewhat unequally regulated imagination. In the sixth volume of the edition of her "Contes Moraux" (Moral Tales), in which collection is also to be found "The Palace of Truth," and which was published in Paris in 1815, appears a mythological comedy entitled "Pygmalion et Galatée; ou, La Statue Animée" (Pygmalion and` Galatea; or, the Animated Statue). From the preface attached to this play we learn that Madame de Genlis intended her comedy to be a continuation of John Jacques Rousseau's once celebrated but now forgotten monologue entitled "Pigmalion."1 In this prose poem, with the passionate eloquence of which Rousseau was master, she makes the sculptor, after contemplating his finished statue of Galatea with all the raptures of a lover, rail against the gods because, though they had given him genius to create such a beautiful work of art, they had jealously denied him the power of giving it life and the love which comes with life to make life endurable, and without which the loveliest statue is but a cold—"cold as death"—and senseless block of stone.

That Mr. Gilbert caught much of his inspiration from monologue of Rousseau is evidenced in the early part of his "Pygmalion and Galatea" for, when Pygmalion tells Cynisca that he "can do more than work for wealth," the following dialogue ensues:

CYNISCA: Such words from one whose noble work it is
To call the senseless marble into life!
PYGMALION: Life ! Dost thou call that life?
  (Indicating statue of Galatea)
CYNISCA:   It all but' breathes!
PYGMALION: (bitterly): It all but breathes—
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *
  No, no, my love, the thing, is cold dull stone, Shaped to a certain form, but still dull, stone, The lifeless, senseless mockery of life.
The gods make life: I can only make death.

Now, Rousseau makes Pigmalion, when he views the statue, say

There is nothing there either of soul or life; there is nothing but stone.2 I never can make anything out of all that. Oh, this genius of mine! Where art thou? and my talent, what art thou become? All my ardour is extinguished; my imagination is frozen.

All the fires of my nature are concentrated in my heart, and yet the cold of death rests on that marble.

Even where Mr. Gilbert's Pygmalion states that he will work for wealth, a note in the same strain is struck by Rousseau when he makes him speak contemptuously of himself and say, "Pygmalion, make no more gods; thou art only a vulgar artist"; and this because he cannot put life into his statues.

In the first act, when Galatea, who has come to life, makes inquiries of Pygmalion as to whether the woman (his wife) who has stood model for her is as beautiful as she, Pygmalion answers:

  No, Galatea; for in forming thee
I took her features—lovely in themselves—
And in the marble made them lovelier still.
GALATEA (disappointed): Oh ! then, I'm not original?3
PYGMALION:   Well—no—
  That is—thou hast indeed a prototype;
But though in stone thou dost resemble her,
In life the difference is manifest.
GALATEA: I'm very glad I'm lovelier than she.
And am I better?
PYGMALION:   That I do not know.
GALATEA: Then she has faults?
PYGMALION:   But very few, indeed;
  Mere trivial blemishes, that serve to show
That she and I are of one common kin.
I, love her better for such faults !
GALATEA (after a pause): Tell me some faults and I'll commit them now.

Now Rousseau's Pigmalion, when he first contemplates his statue, wonders if there be any faults in his work which he has failed to notice and later on soliloquises thus:

What wouldst thou change? Look, what new charms wouldst thou bestow on her! ... Ah! it is her perfection which makes her faulty. Divine Galatea, wert thou less perfect thou wouldst be wanting in nothing.

I must not fail to point out that in this excerpt Mr. Gilbert has also borrowed from the text of Madame de Genlis's play as well as from that of Rousseau; for in de Genlis we have Euronome explaining to Galatea how statues are made; that, for example, for a Venus different women were obliged to sit as models for the sculptor, that he might select the most perfect feature of each and incorporate them in one, so as to get as near perfection in art as he could. On hearing this Galatea inquires:

  But is it thus that he (Pygmalion) makes all his statues?
EURONOME: Assuredly.
GALATEA: Oh, heavens! What! There exists a woman after whom he formed me? Then I am only a copy? . . . and if the original came to dispute with me his love, she would have a right to do so!

The awakening to life of the statue, however, was obviously wholly suggested by the conclusion of Rousseau's monologue, which ends thus:

PIGMALION: Immortal Gods! Venus! Oh, Galatea!
Weird fascination of a maddening love!
GALATEA (touches herself and says) : I.
GALATEA (touching herself again) : 'Tis I.
PIGMALION:     Illusion ravishing
  That passes near to my enchanted ears!
Ah! should my senses be bereaving me.
GALATEA (takes some steps and touches a piece of marble ) : It is no longer I.
PIGMALION: What do I hear?  
GALATEA: Even me (with a sigh).  
PIGMALION:   Yes, loved and charming object, yes;
  My hands, my heart, and the Gods' masterpiece;
'Tis thou,. 'tis only thou; I've given thee all
My existence; I have naught but what is thine.

When this scene is compared with Mr. Gilbert's version, which I quote, no one will venture to deny that he took it from Rousseau; Pygmalion in a soliloquy rails against the narrow bounds which circumscribe the art. He says that he can go to a certain point, as far as the outward form goes, adding:

  But there's my tether! I can go so far,
And go no farther! At that point I stop,
To curse the bonds that hold me sternly back,
To curse the arrogance of those proud gods,
Who say, "Thou shalt be greatest among men,
And yet infinitesimally small be."
GALATEA: Pygmalion!
PYGMALION: Who called?
GALATEA: Pygmalion!
[PYGMALION tears away curtain and discovers GALATEA alive.
PYGMALION: Ye Gods! It lives!
GALATEA: Pygmalion!
PYGMALION: It speaks!
I have my prayer! My Galatea breathes!
GALATEA: Where am I? Let me speak, Pygmalion;
Give me thy hand—both hands. How soft and warm!
Whence came I? [Descends.]

Here Mr. Gilbert leaves,Rousseau and evidently takes his cue from Madame de Genlis; for in reply to the above query of the animated statue Pygmalion says:

    Why, from yonder pedestal!
GALATEA: That Pedestal? Ah, yes, I recollect,
There was a time when it was part of me.
PYGMALION: That time has passed for ever, thou art now
A living, breathing woman, excellent
In every attribute of womankind.

And Madame de Genlis makes Galatea in the opening scene of her play use almost the same words; indeed, so closely do they resemble each other that one can scarcely believe the resemblance accidental. These are Galatea' s, words:

Then, I got down from the pedestal, I detached myself from that insensible marble (she points to it) which a few moments before formed part of myself.

Though Mr. Gilbert made use of de Genlis's "Pygmalion et Galatée" he elaborated the plot; but whether in this elaboration he took advantage of other dramatists and librettists who used this mythological romance is not a matter of immediate concern, nor would the space at my,disposition permit of so irksome and laborious an analysis even were I inclined to make it. The following are the characters in Madame de Genlis's comedy: Pygmalion; Galatea, an animated statue since twenty-four hours, wife of Pygmalion; Nireus, a child of six years of age, one of Pygmalion's models; Euronome, an old woman, Pygmalion's nurse; An Old Man; Euphrosine, a young coquette; Myrine; and Leucippus, a young man. Of these Mr. Gilbert only adopts the names of four: Pygmalion, an Athenian sculptor; Galatea, an animated statue; Leucippus, a soldier; and Myrine, Pygmalion's sister. The two, slaves, Agesimos and Minos, who are very insignificant characters, and Chrysos, an art patron; Daphne, Chrysos's wife, and Cynisca, Pygmalion's wife, may be said to have been interpolated by Mr. Gilbert; but he does not hesitate to put into Daphne's mouth much that is said by the Euphrosine in the play of Madame de Genlis; and in the scenes where Chrysos4 appears he is made to say much that is spoken by Euronome. In Madame de Genlis we have the following scene between Galatea and the child model Nireus when she first sees him:

GALATEA: But who are you?
NIREUS: I am Nireus.
GALATEA: Nireus. What a curious being! That is not a man; nor is it a woman. . . .
I am bewildered.
NIREUS: But I am a child.
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *
  Shall I go and look for Euronome?
GALATEA: Who is this Euronome?
NIREUS: She is the nurse of Pygmalion.
GALATEA: A nurse! .  .  .  Is she a woman?
NIREUS: Of course, Euronome is a woman.

Now this little episode is adjusted by Mr. Gilbert to his plot in this fashion:

PYGMALION: I have no words to tell thee (Galatea) of my joy.
O woman—perfect in thy loveliness!
GALATEA: What is that word? Am I a woman?
GALATEA: Art thou a woman?
PYGMALION: No; I am a man.
GALATEA: What is a man?

Later on we have a scene between Chrysos and Galatea; for she, after "having examined him in great wonder," eagerly inquires of him:

    Tell me, what are you?
CHRYSOS: What am I?
GALATEA:   Yes, I mean, are you a man?
CHRYSOS: Well, Yes; I'm told so.
GALATEA:   Then believe them not;
  They've been deceiving you.

From this it would seem that the personal appearance of Chrysos did not tally with the description given to her by Pygmalion of what a man was, hence her manifest incredulity as to his being one. A like misunderstanding occurs in Madame de Genlis's version of this mythological comedy; for when Galatea sees Euronome, who is a very old. woman, she cannot, bring herself to believe that she is a woman as Pygmalion had given her a very different description of what one was. This is the little scene where this slight misunderstanding occurs. As soon as Euronome comes upon the stage, Galatea says:

  I pray you, tell me what sort of being are you!
EURONOME: What do you mean? Perhaps you take me for a man?
GALATEA: Oh! no; for don't resemble a bit,.Pygmalion; neither do you resemble Love (little Nireus), so I can see that you are not a child. But  .  .  .
EURONOME: You not a find, either, that there is great similarity between you and me?
GALATEA: In reality—
EURONOME: Ah, well; I am nevertheless a woman, just like you.

The introduction of Cynisca as Pygmalion's wife, instead of marrying him to the statue, has a better dramatic effect, but it can hardly be said that the speeches which Mr. Gilbert has given her are replete with original thought. Much that she is given to speak could with little trouble be found substantially in speeches allotted by Madame de Genlis to characters in the play. The character of Leucippus, the soldier and sweetheart of Myrine, has very much in common in both the French and the English plays. For example, we have the following scene in Mr. Gilbert's comedy:

Enter LEUCIPPUS with a fawn that he has shot.

LEUCIPPUS:   A splendid shot.
  And one that I shall never make again!
GALATEA: Monster! Approach me not! (Shrinking into corner.)
LEUCIPPUS:   Why? who is this?
  Nay, I'll not hurt thee, maiden!
GALATEA:   Spare me, Sir!
  I have not done thy country any wrong!
I am no enemy.

Leucippus, in de Genlis, is also credited with having shot a fawn; but the news is brought to Galatea by the child-model Nireus. He rushes in upon Galatea and Euronome, and calls upon them to come out and see the return from the chase. To which Galatea asks:

  What is that?
NIREUS: They have killed a fawn  .   .   . there's a lot of sportsmen   .   .   .
Oh! it's lovely, it's lovely.
GALATEA: What! killed, taken away life?
NIREUS: Of course, the fawn is dead; it was Leucippus who killed it:
Oh! he is delighted!
GALATEA: A fawn! was it not the gentle and pretty beast that I saw this morning in the wood?
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *
  Ah! the monster! what incredible cruelty  .   .   . Euronome, let us save ourselves—hide ourselves—lest those wicked people come here.

Again, Madame de Genlis gives Mr. Gilbert the keynote on which to start a short disquisition on soldiers; for when Euronome explains to the innocent and miraculously-born Galatea that,

  Custom an universal authorises that act which appears to you so cruel,
All men love the chase.
GALATEA: All men are then brutal?
EURONOME: (aside) Unhappy and innocent Galatea! What will happen to her when she learns what is a warrior, a hero, a conqueror? When she will hear belauded, admired, all the crimes produced by ambition . .  . You will weep then, Galatea.

This idea with Mr. Gilbert is recast thus:

PYGMALION:     Leucippus comes,
  And he shall comfort thee till I return;
I'll not be long!
GALATEA:   Leucippus! Who is he?
PYGMALION:       A man
  Who's hired to kill his country's enemies.
GALATEA (horrified): A paid assassin!
PYGMALION (annoyed):   Well, that's rather strong
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *
  The soldier's social rank is in itself
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *
  Almost a patent of nobility
GALATEA: He kills! And he is paid to kill!
PYGMALION:     No doubt,
  But then he kills to save his countrymen,

Some of Mr. Gilbert's apologists may say that he was justified in having appropriated that which he considered the best in the authors upon whom it is apparent he copiously drew for some of the material for those plays which have helped bring him fame. With these I am, after all, not disinclined to agree; for the works of Madame de Genlis have for the most part been consigned to the limbo of discarded literature, and only two volumes, so far as I can discover, now find a place on the shelves of a French library.

1. Cette petite pièce fut composée pour être jouée en societé, à la suite de Pigmalion de Rousseau.
2. Mr. Gilbert makes Cynisca say, "The thing is but a statue after all". Which Pygmalion repeats and soliloquises on with considerable bitterness.
3. Here we have in Mr. Gilbert's own words an off-hand exposition of "original."
4. Chrysos—"the Art-patron"—may have been adapted from an amusing comedy on the same subject, published in Amiens in 1854, where one of the characters is called Mydas—"a dealer in works of Art"—and whose speech when he sees the animated statue of Galatea is in substance given to Chrysos by Mr, Gilbert.

   Page modified 17 August, 2017 Copyright © 2017 Paul Howarth All Rights Reserved.