Summary of Act III
It is the social at-home day of Mrs. Higgins, Henry's mother, in her flat in Chelsea. Suddenly, Henry Higgins throws open the door and enters. Mrs. Higgins scolds him for coming on her at-home day because he is rude and chases her guests away. He explains he came on purpose for a phonetics job. He is bringing a girl to see her and her company. He admits she is a common flower girl, but he has taught her to speak properly. He has told her to stick to two topics, the weather, and everyone's health. He is enthusiastic about Eliza's progress because in a few months she has picked up everything he and Pickering have taught her about language and manners.
Just then, guests arrive, Mrs. and Miss Clara Eynsford-Hill. They are the two women who were waiting in the rain at Covent Garden where Higgins met Eliza. Higgins is rude and blunt during the introductions, and then, Pickering is announced, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill makes his appearance. Mrs. Higgins keeps correcting Henry for being so direct in his speech, but Miss Eynsford-Hill, warming up to him as an eligible bachelor, sympathizes that it is hard to speak small talk.
Eliza Doolittle is announced and enters as an elegant beauty. They all rise. Liza speaks slowly, distinctly, and correctly. Freddy is totally infatuated with her. Mrs. Higgins tries to get conversation going by asking her if she thinks it will rain. Liza replies with one of her phonetic exercises: “The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move in an easterly direction” (p. 75). Freddy laughs. Mrs. Eynsford-Hill says she hopes it will not get cold, as her family is subject to influenza.
This sets Liza off on her own direction, and she tells the story of her aunt who supposedly died of influenza, but she knows “they done the old woman in” (p. 76). Mrs. Eynsford-Hill asks, what does it mean, to do someone in? Higgins interrupts, saying it is the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them. Mrs. Eynsford-Hill is horrified, asking, do you mean your aunt was murdered?
Liza continues telling about her father's drinking and how many women keep their men drunk so they will be cheerful and easier to live with. Freddy starts laughing and says Eliza does the new small talk so well. Higgins decides it is enough and gives the signal to leave. Freddy, not wanting to part with her, asks if she is walking across the park. Liza replies, swearing, “Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi” (p. 78).
After Liza leaves, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill is shocked and says she will never get used to the new ways, but Clara scolds her mother, because she wants to be up to date in society. Higgins tempts Clara to say the new word herself. Clara laughs and says, “What bloody nonsense!” (p. 79).
When the company leaves, Higgins asks his mother if Eliza is presentable. Mrs. Higgins says of course she is not; she gives herself away with every sentence she utters. She warns Liza will never learn polite language under Henry's care.
Mrs. Higgins begins to drill the men on what Eliza does in Wimpole Street. The three live together without worrying about appearances, because the professors are teaching her to speak and dress, as their experiment. She handles all Higgins's appointments and completely organizes his life. The two men take her to cultural events and love to hear her reactions to everything. Mrs. Higgins says they are children playing with a “live doll” (p. 81). They begin to praise Eliza's ability to learn language, to play the piano, to appreciate music as if she had been born to it.
Mrs. Higgins predicts they have a problem on their hands. They are changing Eliza but into what? She is half way between a lady and a servant.
A row of asterisks announces a scene change, and the stage directions tell us that Eliza learned her craft well enough to pass at the ambassador's party. In several prose paragraphs, we get a picture of the embassy and the sort of people there. Dialogue begins again when the character of Nepommuck, one of Higgins's former pupils from Hungary, comes in and boasts to Higgins that he is there to unmask any imposters to the host and hostess. It seems he himself has become a phonetics teacher, teaching all the Europeans English who want to pass as something better than they are. He makes them pay royally to keep their secrets. The hostess has asked him to spy on this party. Pickering worries that the man is a blackmailer and will find Eliza out.
When Eliza comes in she makes a sensation with her beauty and bearing, and the hostess asks Nepommuck to find out who she is. Nepommuck returns to tell the hostess Eliza is a fraud; her English is too good. She is obviously a foreigner. He decides she is a Hungarian princess. Higgins tells the hostess the truth: she is a flower girl from Drury Lane. No one believes him, but Eliza tells Higgins she wants to go: “nothing can make me the same as these people” (p. 95). She is discouraged, but they tell her she has won the bet.
Commentary on Act III
We see Eliza's rise to stardom. She is able to “pass” for a lady. Already, however, her discontent is showing, confirming the warnings of Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins that Eliza's future is uncertain. She can converse with high society but realizes that inside, she is not the same. The character of Nepommuck contrasts with Higgins, for the Hungarian uses language to blackmail and control, rather than to improve lives.
The scene at the embassy proves Higgins's point that society is a big humbug, with everything built on illusion and fraud. Nepommuck is sure that Eliza is a genuine Hungarian princess, even though Higgins tells the truth to the hostess. People put on the charade they want and believe what they want.
At Mrs. Higgins's gathering, Eliza looks elegant but tells shocking stories about her father's alcoholism and aunt's death in a polite tone. Higgins is able to cover for her by calling it “small talk” or some current slang, but he cannot convince them when she utters the worst swear word for the British, “bloody,” a word no lady would utter. No one seems to agree on what is so terrible about the word “bloody,” but it may be a sacrilegious reference to the blood of Christ, as though swearing on the blood of Christ in vain (“God's blood,” or “God's body” is frequently a swear word in Shakespeare's plays). It is a little like the shock value the “F” word used to have for Americans. Mrs. Pearce had warned Higgins earlier against using the “B” word around Eliza, but she seems to have picked it up from him.
The long passage between Pickering, Higgins, and Mrs. Higgins is important for many reasons. It foreshadows the thoughtless way the men are treating Eliza, but at the same time, they admit what they do not tell her, that she is fascinating as a person, and brilliant of mind, able to pick up anything they teach her. They are having fun experimenting with changing her life without looking ahead to where it might lead her.
A point is made about the Eynsford-Hills that will be important later as well. Mrs. Eynsford-Hill complains to Mrs. Higgins that they are poor, and Clara is invited to few parties. Freddy falls in love with Eliza and will want to marry her, but he is a gentleman, unused to work, and has no money of his own. Certain hints about Eliza's future prospects are thus sown in this scene. She is competent and organizes Higgins like a secretary. She can amuse gentlemen of a higher class, and even make them want to marry her. As we see in the next scene, Higgins and Pickering have not been thinking of her future at all, but Eliza has been worried about it all along. The triumph at the embassy is the end of her dream and the beginning of what will become of her now.