Pygmalion and Galatea was Gilbert's greatest success of 1871. Rehearsals began in October and the play was produced on 9th December at the Haymarket Theatre.
Gilbert based his plot on Ovid's tale about a sculptor who is vowed to celibacy but who falls in love with a female statue to whom Venus grants life. These were popular figures in the nineteenth century: Morris wrote a poem on the subject, they were the subject of paintings by Burne-Jones and Watts and Suppé wrote an opera on the based on the story.
At the beginning of the play, Pygmalion has been married to Cynisca, formerly a votary of Artemis (who gave each of them the power to strike the other blind should their partner be unfaithful in thought or deed), for ten years. He has created a beautiful statue resembling her as she was when they met. Whilst Cynisca is away, the statue, Galatea, comes to life but she is totally ignorant of social and moral conventions. She does not understand why she may not fall in love with the sculptor who created her. When she hears that another character, Leucippus, is a professional soldier, she calls him a paid assassin and when he accidentally shoots a fawn she tells his fianceé that he is a murderer. She drives Pygmalion's rich, vulgar patrons away by calling them statues sculpted by a clumsy beginner.
When Cynisca returns and hears Galatea's innocent comments on the sculptor's lovemaking, she blinds her husband and his sight is only restored when he declares that he curses the hour that brought Galatea to life.
Gilbert had Galatea's statue modelled on Madge Robertson who played the part of Galatea and the set was 'realised with archaeological fidelity', but the costumes were less historically accurate.
The play was produced in New York on 1st October 1872 and in Boston on 23rd December with Carlotta Leclerq as Galatea. It was revived at the Haymarket in 1877 and with Mary Anderson as Galatea in 1883 and 1888 and was still being revived in the early years of the twentieth century. This was Gilbert's most profitable play apart from the operas with Sullivan.
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