Shaw wrote the part of Eliza Doolittle—'an east-end dona with an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers'—for Mrs Patrick Campbell, with whom he had a passionate but unconsummated affair. From the outset the play was a sensational success, although Shaw, irritated by its popularity at the expense of his artistic intentions, dismissed it as a potboiler. The Pygmalion of legend falls in love with his perfect female statue and persuades Venus to bring her to life so that he can marry her. But Shaw radically reworks Ovid's tale to give it a feminist slant: while Higgins teaches Eliza to speak and act like a duchess, she also asserts her independence, adamantly refusing to be his creation.
A brilliantly witty exposure of the British class system, it is, as Nicholas Grene comments in his Introduction, 'the wonderful inventiveness of its comedy, the force of what it still has to say to us, and the light playfulness of tone with which it is said', that ensures that Pygmalion continues to entertain us.