Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Consider the source: Pygmalion
On the island of Cyprus, in ancient Greece, the daughters of Propoetus refused to worship Aphrodite. Incensed, the goddess of beauty made them the world's first hookers.
According to Ovid, the Roman poet, the oldest profession began when they "prostituted their bodies and their reputations in public, and losing all sense of shame, they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks." And soon they turned to stone.
Pygmalion, sculptor and goldsmith, also lived at Amathus, on Cyprus. The daughters' sinful behavior repelled him so much that - assuming all women were alike - he chose to live "without a wife for a long time."
He became so lonely he sculpted a companion, "a statue of ivory, white as snow, and gave it a beauty surpassing that of any woman born."
When Michelangelo finished carving his Moses, it looked so real he kicked the marble and shouted, "now speak!"
When Pygmalion finished his statue, the "art concealed the art" so effectively he couldn't believe she was mere ivory. "He ran his hands over his creature to test whether it was real flesh and blood." His work was so perfect he feared "a bruise might appear as he pressed her close."
He brings her gifts - shells, smooth pebbles, "flowers of a thousand colors" - and clothes her like a toy doll, only to realize that "she looked no less beautiful naked."
His love became so ardent, he almost turned to stone.
At the festival of Aphrodite, every Cypriot made an offering. When his turn came, Pygmalion gave a quiet prayer: "If you gods are able to grant everything, I desire for my wife..."
Ovid hastens to add: "He did not dare to say, 'my ivory maiden.'"
A strange, slender "tongue of flame" rose from the altar and burned bright.
Pygmalion went home, lay next to the statue, and kissed it repeatedly. "She seemed to be warm" and somehow less rigid. He became "dubious of his joy and fearful he is wrong" - and losing his mind.
But she returns his kisses and "as she raises her eyes to meet his she sees both her lover and the sky."
Nine months later, they have a son, Paphos. But even after the child is born, she doesn't say a word. In fact, Ovid never lets her speak.
In later versions, and they are legion, the statue-woman becomes Galatea and always has her say. Local theater's offering two versions in January.
In Willy Russell's Educating Rita (North Coast Rep, January 12 through February 3), Pygmalion becomes Dr. Frank Bryant, an alcoholic university prof. who decides to tutor Rita, a working-class hairdresser, to fund his addiction to strong drink. Comedy ensues.
The Old Globe is staging George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (January 16 through February 17), where Professor Henry Higgins bets he can turn Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower-girl, into an "up market" socialite.
If these names sound familiar, Shaw's play was the basis for the musical My Fair Lady, in which once again Galatea turns the tables on her creator.
More like this:
- Shaw's back in town — finally! The Old Globe stages Pygmalion — Jan. 23, 2013
- Educating Rita at North Coast Rep — Jan. 13, 2013
- Robert Smyth: Lamb's 12 most important shows (nine through 12) — Nov. 10, 2012
- The Source — March 12, 2011
- Movies reviewed this week: Venus, Le Petit Lieutenant, The Hitcher — Jan. 25, 2007