Pygmalion: Shaw’s Psychic Flight from Rosmersholm

By: Frank Stringfellow

Abstract: Тhis intertextual, psychoanalytic study shows that, on the basis of deep-structural similarities between Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and Shaw’s Pygmalion, Pygmalion appears to be an unconscious rewriting of Rosmersholm, with Shaw turning Ibsen’s tragedy of repression into his own comedy of repression. Ibsen’s play, which shows the failure of repression/sublimation to contain erotic impulses and oedipal guilt, represented a psychic threat to Shaw, which Shaw countered by reversing the logic and outcome of Rosmersholm. In Pygmalion, Shaw follows Ibsen in showing two protagonists living together chastely and pursuing higher purposes despite strongly repressed erotic feelings. But he modifies the nature of the sublimations, repressions, and guilt feelings enough so that they can be maintained in a comic compromise, instead of leading to a tragic failure of repression as in Rosmersholm. Both plays thematize and re-enact the process of repression among the characters, and Shaw’s play serves as an attempt to repress Ibsen’s.