Women in Limbo: The Convert and Pygmalion

The Convert playwright Danai Gurira has cited George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion (1912) as an influence and inspiration for some of the female characters in her play, including her central character of Jekesai as well as the character of Prudence.

Pygmalion is named for a myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has made. In Shaw’s version, phonetics professor Henry Higgins takes in a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, and makes a bet that he can pass her off as a duchess by teaching her to speak with an aristocratic accent. After she successfully wins the bet for him, however, Eliza’s future is uncertain—she does not really fit into upper class society, but she has changed so much that she cannot simply return to her old life. Higgins wants things to go on as they have been, but Eliza is deeply hurt by the way he takes her for granted, and resolves to take back her independence and learn to support herself.

The mentor-protegé relationship depicted in The Convert is analogous to that in Pygmalion, albeit with higher stakes. Much like Higgins, Chilford takes Jekesai away from her Shona roots and teaches her a new way of being under the white Christian faith, renaming her Ester and asking her to reject her family and their traditional ways. Her very identity seems divided. Is she Ester or Jekesai? As the Shona rebellion against the white settlers escalates, with people she cares about on both sides, we see her try to navigate this division. Much like Eliza, she would like to find harmony between the two aspects of herself, but she does not fully belong in either world.

Pygmalion reflected Shaw’s feminist leanings—particularly in the ending, which was unpopular with early audiences and critics who craved a conventional happy ending. Directors and producers made the end more crowd-pleasing, beginning with the 1914 West End production and culminating in the 1956 musical adaptation My Fair Lady (and its 1964 film version), which ends with Higgins and Eliza falling in love. The fact that Shaw’s intentions were not honored even fifty years later shows just how far ahead of his time he was.

As Shaw looked ahead, Gurira now looks back, finding cultural and gender issues in history that still resonate deeply today. In an interview for American Theatre magazine, Gurira discussed the character of Prudence, another educated African woman who functions as a role model for Ester:

At that moment there were very few women, especially in what was then Rhodesia, who were as educated as [Prudence]. She is this mixture of having a strong understanding of everything that’s going on, and hence really feeling the hopelessness. She has such an affinity toward Western traits, languages, education, but at the same time is connected to what it means to be an African. She doesn’t want to go back to living traditionally, but she sees the injustices of what the Westerners are doing.

Much like Eliza Doolittle, Prudence and Ester each face a choice between two worlds. As independent and highly educated African women in an era when such education was rare for both Africans and women in general, they are in limbo between the colonial and traditional cultures, neither of which will accept them as they are. Both of these women are almost anachronistic—not in the sense that they could not have existed (as some reviews have suggested) but in the sense that they did exist in a time and place that made it impossible for them to realize their full potential. The stakes are much higher for them than for Eliza; every option is problematic, and the ramifications of those choices continue to resonate with the Zimbabwe of today.