Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw and Sigmund Freud’s Relief Theory
The Father of psychology, golden siggie, a pervert. All of them well deserved, Freud never lacked any nicknames in his lifetime, or post his passing. Introducing vast theories on sexual relations, tension, psychoanalysis, or relief theory – he backed them up with very strong arguments. In this article, we are going to concentrate on his relief theory. It states that all laugh-producing situations are enjoyable because they save psychic energy. The excess spare energy is relieved by the act of laughter, relating to our dreams. We subconsciously find hidden pleasures in comedy, releasing the energy through positive emotions – laughter. Laughter becomes our way of releasing tensions that are created within us. As we struggle to cope with our emotions and thoughts, we need to cleanse our system from all of the built-up tension. In this case the laughter is referred as the relief laughter. Whether in real life, literature, or other forms of art we find a way to release our tense psych. In this article, we are going to specifically explore the relief theory in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), concurring with Freud’s theory. Laughter in comedy is always related to built up inner tension of the audience, concentrating on the soft spots and struggles of every type of personality.
The issue of social standing, assumptions in relationships, insecurities of low class… They are often portrayed in old literature, usually concentrating on low-class trying to fit in with the higher class. George Bernard Shaw does a spectacular job of depicting all of these matters in his five act play Pygmalion. Two high class scientists, Higgins and Pickering, decide to play a bet on a low class flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, saying that Higgins should turn this “raw material” of a girl into a duchess. The play concentrates on these three characters, showing the development of this girl, both superficial (speech, body language, etc.) and moral (self-respect). But besides from us witnessing this development, we also stand to witness the society whose members have rigid relations to one another. Though we don’t see the actual training of Eliza and her moment of glory at the embassy, we see the sidelines – meaning we see the inside psych of the characters.
Freud plays a huge role in this play. Besides from his Oedipus Complex being clearly presented though Higgin’s love for his mother, viewing other women as “blocks of wood”, Higgins plays with his doll as though he’s trying to play god, while in the end he makes no change other than superficial. Besides from the Oedipus Complex, there’s a very heavy comical relief in this play.
The most important would be the speech presented in the first act. Where Higgins (note taker) continues to insult Eliza (flower girl) and her only responses end up being mockery of his language in the form of “ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” (p.8) Definitely introduced by the author as a comical act, the relief theory fits in the sense that the reader ends up laughing at the “low-class mockery” by this girl. To release inner psych at this line, would constitute to two aspects of the reader: 1. Inner insecurity of language chaos in arguments. Not everyone can be as wise as Higgins, especially in unanticipated arguments, and introducing a humanly character like Eliza, the reader feels relieved, releasing their inner tension through laughter on such a silly “comeback”. 2. The childishness of this response makes the reader laugh – whenever adults acts as children, it’s comical. Whichever was the intention of the author, the comical relief is pretty obvious. The simplicity of Eliza’s initial language is clearly a laughing matter.
Mr.Higgins’ arrogance and self-respect are a big factor in the play. In the second act, Higgins and Pickering are having a conversation about who has more abilities in pronunciation of different distinct vowels. Higgins is chuckling over the fact that he can pronounce a lot more that Pickering, coming off as conceited. Here we can see the character’s comical relief, built up due to the arrogance of being a scientist of high class. To back up this argument, we can look at his character alone. He chooses to play a bet with his friend on a human being, saying he can turn this block of wood into a duchess. The arrogance is still very fake, since in the end he is not the one that changes the girl, but rather it’s Pickering’s sweet and gentle side. Higgins knows this deep inside, but decides not to show it. He creates an image of a very “heartless” man, due to his own insecurities created by his Oedipus complex, which are slowly building up inside of him, taking him over. This man was taking notes about people in the streets, he sees everything as an object of science and study, and due to this the tension built up within him needs psych release – he chooses to do it through arrogance. The most important part to mention would be the last sentence of the final act:
Higgins: Pickering! Nonsense: She’s going to marry Freddy. Ha ha! Freddy! Freddy!!
Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!! (He roars with laughter as the play ends) (p.89)
It’s important to analyze this part of the play, since it shows his arrogance more than anything. Only after he started to view Eliza as an eligible woman, she turns his back on him wanting to marry Freddy. He laughs it off, since he has no other way of releasing his tension. He obviously started to care for this woman, but he can’t do anything about it anymore. He offers her to marry everyone but himself, and she says she wouldn’t even marry him. He instead laughs off her decision to marry a “dumb-man” as Freddy, releasing his inner built up tension through laughter. Freud would definitely agree that this was due to his own insecurities built up deep inside, needing a release though laughter.
Everyone has problems, everyone has insecurities, everyone struggles with decisions. That’s why we all need a good laugh every once in awhile, and fictional characters are always our easiest way out. Whether it’s a silly TV Series such as Friends, or something as serious as a novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves, we release our built up tension through the most enjoyable emotion – laughter. Freud created a theory introducing a different perspective on laughter, it’s not just humans making a loud noise, it helps us feel relieved and happy – even just for a split moment, due to us releasing our deepest psychic tension. There’s enough negativity in life, so when we stub our toes on the edge of the bed – let’s laugh.
Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. New York: Brentano, 1916; Bartleby.com, 1999. Print.