Educating Rita by Willy Russell 1980

If Rita and Frank were being choreographed in contemporary dance, they would move together in synchronisation, the movement of their bodies an electric force, expressing a rare connection that tells the story of a character’s personal transformation. In another scene, they would pull apart energetically, creating distance from each other. It’s an emotional dance of closeness and separation, a motion that’s repeated with forceful interactions, the distance growing as the play’s momentum gathers speed. Frank moves through a series of complicated roles: from teacher to mentor to father figure to friend. The dynamics of their relationship and interaction are as intricate as one might find between a psychotherapist and client. Rita moves from her position of working-class hairdresser to cultured female, escaping from a constrained world she loathes. Frank also feels controlled in his middle-class life, a life he feels is artificial. Both Rita and Frank are learning from each other and enriching each other’s lives. They break the traditional rules of University teacher and pupil when their relationship becomes a friendship. Due to the age difference, each stand at a dramatically different point in life, Rita in her twenties, Frank in his fifties. Both bring their own biases and life experiences into the relationship. Yet despite this, they are both gifts to each other, entering each other’s lives at just the right moment. Frank, once a poet, a man whose enjoyment came with the construction and beauty of words, is unable to put pen to paper. When he describes the fate of Macbeth, how Macbeth strides ahead despite all warnings, Frank could be talking about himself and his addiction to drink. In many ways, Frank has accepted his fate. He knows his end. Yet, despite his moments of melancholia, he’s funny, witty and his vulnerability and frankness touch the reader. He doesn’t hide his inner turmoil with the British mask of politeness that society often expects. One of the plays questions is ‘Can Frank’s ending be changed?’ The play is funny, interesting and has many fascinating themes.

You laugh with both characters, you feel their pains and you see the way they try to escape pain. Frank enables Rita to transform herself, even though his input is reluctant.

There are many complex themes in this play. One strong theme is identity: Rita’s identity changes throughout the play, her beliefs, her very appearance, even her name. Rita changes her name frequently by the end of the play. The name changing is a powerful way that she is removing herself from her past identity. She wants to leave her working-class background completely behind. She does not want to be reminded of the person she once was. Even though Frank tells her that the working-class background she came from has its own culture, that it is important to who she is transforming into, this cultured young woman who can talk about literature. Her background is not only part of her, but he feels it has allowed her to look at the world of literature in a unique way that someone from a middle-class background might not appreciate with the same rigour.

Frank despises the middle-class culture he was born into, he finds it stifling and unreal, that is why he finds Rita such a wonderful student. She is completely refreshing from the other students he interacts with every day. Frank does not enjoy teaching but has been forced into that role to earn money, to pay bills and to get by. Yet as we see as the play continues, he is a good teacher.

Another theme is escape. In emotional pain human beings will always look for an escape, and although Rita is studying to create a better future for herself, studying can also be a form of escape. Through learning she is forced to think about complex subjects that put her emotional pain in the background.

Frank is escaping into drink. He did not become the writer he imagined by his fifties. Once a poet he can no longer write. This inability to do the one thing that he loved causes him both shame and inner turmoil. He cannot fit into the academic world and does not enjoy teaching, this is conveyed in humour, with him stating he’d like to throw some students out of the window.  Both characters in the play use humour as a way of interacting and sharing their lives.  In many ways, Frank has accepted his fate. He knows his end. It’s an image he sees with clarity every day. Yet, his hands still reach for the whisky hidden on the bookcase to numb the pain. When he describes the fate of Macbeth, how Macbeth strides ahead despite all warnings, Frank could be talking about himself.  

Another theme throughout the play is social class, both the working classes, and the way that it can trap people into a life with very few choices, and middle class, that can also, in Frank’s case have negative pressuring problems. People expect Frank to behave like the ‘middle classes’ socially and he struggles to conform to the social rules of the class he is in.

Despite the darkness suffered by both characters the play is very funny. The language used by Rita in dialogue is colloquial and the mistakes Rita makes at the beginning of the play when discussing literature allow for many funny moments, even though both characters are stuck in unhappy relationships and lives.

Another theme is the lack of choice available to working class women and the way that education can change a person’s entire life-choices. Rita describes secretly taking the pill as her boyfriend wants her to have a baby and she does not. Rita wants to find out who she is before she has a baby which is why she is studying. Willy Russell shows that by attaining an education Rita has more choices than many women stuck in a working-class background. That education is about power and choice. Rita studies part time with the Open University, the open university was set up to give everyone a chance for education despite their background. Though the Open University has changed radically since its beginnings.

Some criticisms could be the unrealistic situation of Rita and Frank’s situation as tutor and student. Having private tuition would be very unlikely these days, so the play is dated in some ways. Though, the play would not express the emotion nor Rita’s profound transformation with such clarity if one didn’t have the personal close interaction of both characters. Placing Rita in a busy classroom in a tutorial would have taken away the strength of both characters and their complex interaction.  Rita does at times seem to be implausibly ignorant of some subjects, but again, this is due to the comedic elements of the play, the play is a comedy drama. Rita’s comments at the beginning of the play create the funniest moments.

It’s a wonderful play, with very complex fascinating themes.