The play educating Rita was written in the 1980’s, a decade of massive social, political and cultural upheaval during which the social fabric of Britain changed forever. At the time, Margaret Thatcher was in dominance as Prime Minister. As a result of the Conservative’s rise to power, confrontation between the government and the trade unions lead to strikes and bitter, angry disputes such as the miners strike in 1984 to 1985, in which massive numbers of workers refused to toil any longer. This was dramatised in the play Billy Elliot and the attitudes of the men were portrayed as bloody and vicious.
To follow up the disaster, there were riots in the inner-city areas of British cities like Brixton in London. They involved ethnic communities, which were the result of tension and unhappiness in society. When huge numbers of businesses became bankrupt, millions of people were unemployed, levels reaching the highest yet. These were not however the only disasters. Invasion of the Falkland Islands resulted in the start of a war between British and Argentinean troops in 1982. In 1984, an assassination attempt was crushed when a bomb was found in the Grand Hotel, Brighton.
The aim of the bomb was to annihilate Margaret Thatcher. On Black Monday, October 19th 1987, the stock market crashed leaving Britain’s economy in ruins. And the Hillsborough disaster, when 94 football fans were crushed in a stampede towards the pitch in the stadium. On the other hand, masses of people united to support Live Aid and raise forty million pounds for protecting and caring for the poor people in Africa, suffering from famine. The play, Educating Rita, is set in Frank’s study and never leaves the room.
The study is in a northern University in which Frank teaches mainly students although Rita is an exception. She is a middle-aged woman looking for an education. She is confronted with Frank and sets about getting the education she wants while making new discoveries, good and bad, about life. Setting the play in one room, means that the audience experience a very close dramatisation of the characters and how their relationship develops. They are continually confronted with just Frank and Rita, being the only two characters in the play, changing and introducing their own backgrounds and close family and friends.
We do not meet Denny, Rita’s husband and we do not meet Julia, Frank’s wife. However these two characters do not appear once in the play. This dramatic device, keeping the play in one room, between two characters allows the audience to appreciate that the relationship between Frank and Rita goes through very clear and separate phases. At first Rita is dependant on Frank, however as Rita learns more of her new life, her idealistic life, she begins to realise that she no longer needs to be dependant on Frank and the balance tilts leaving Frank in almost the same position as the former Rita.
As their lives become more complicated, as Denny gets angry ad Julia leaves Frank, as Rita goes to summer school and makes friends with student, they begin to drift apart until finally, there is a reconciliation and an acceptance of their new circumstances. Frank is the tutor giving lessons to Rita and has a decent knowledge of literature and of the class that he comes from. His status is middle class, however this is not his dream, and finds himself revelling in the new, exuberant, social Frank that alcohol gives him.
The language he uses, the language that Willy Russel has given him shows that he is middle class, educated and professional. It also shows the serious side of his character and defines his nature. This is shown by the deliberate avoidance of slang words and bad grammar. When Frank repeats Rita’s exact words he has a way of reforming them to proper English and they are correctly pronounced and grammatically accurate.
However, as the play progresses, Frank’s language changes and he begins to relax his pronunciation and he begins to echo Rita’s way of talking very occasionally: It wouldn’t have mattered if you’d walked in with a bottle Of Spanish plonk. ‘ This shows his acceptance of Rita and his gradual decline as the drink becomes more of a problem interfering with his life as a professor and as a tutor. The language that Frank uses right from the start is formal, standard English, and full of well-expressed, fluent vocabulary, much of it connected with education, teaching and English literature and language: You mean that over the years it’s acquired a certain patina.
This implies that Frank chooses his words with thought and whatever he wants to say, he has a grander way of saying it even if it’s the greenish crust that grows on copper and brass, in this case the picture frame. He uses his higher-class language to appear well influenced and educated. In this way he control over Rita and the situation. Rita, however uses very different language and generally tends to cut the endings off of words and use the slang versions, where Frank uses the posh versions.
She uses language that demonstrates her lower class existence with very little education but plenty of humour, and liveliness. I know I take the piss an’ that but I’m dead serious really. ‘ Rita uses the language that she has grown up with. She has not had an education and has not been skilled enough to have a high paid, high-class job. She works as a hairdresser, where the skill of her hands is worth far more than her skill with words and grammar. Her language is crude and uneducated but she does have a talent at catching on to new meanings She is intelligent, very much so but he intelligence needs to be shaped so she can grasp new ideas.
She is not particularly well educated beyond a basic level. ‘If I’d started takin’ school seriously I would have had To become different from me mates, an’ that’s not allowed. ‘ Rita did not have a very good school life, and she is not shy to tell Frank about it: ‘Ripped up books, broken glass… knives an’ fights’ She uses slang language all the time, showing where she originated from- lower class areas with bad schooling. She uses language in a lively, colloquial way and she has a wide range of informal vocabulary that she uses without hesitance: ‘Tch. Oh sod off. ‘
Rita swears frequently implying that she is quite confident about what she is saying and has no qualms with swearing in front of her new educated, professional tutor, until she gets to know him and starts to feel insecure about how she is so lacking in knowledge. When Rita meets Frank for the first time, she struggles to open the door because the doorknob is jammed and she has to call out to Frank to ask how to get in. This is a dramatic device used by Will Russel to symbolise the struggle that Rita will have to overcome before she can get herself into Frank’s world and all the difficulties she will have to face.
Some time after she enters, Frank casually states that she is a breath of fresh air into his office and this can symbolise the life that Frank leads. He does not enjoy life like he should do and he stays bunged up in his office and when Rita joins him, she blows him clean off his feet and reminds him of what he should be enjoying, because the life that he has is so well sought after. When they have the conversation about the picture, Frank’s language shows how cynical he has become and how he has topped looking at things properly, pictures, but also people.
Frank knows that he has the control over the conversation as soon as she enters the room because he is what she wants more than anything to be and hangs onto his words trying them out for herself and generally wanting to be able to use the language that frank uses. ‘I wanna know’ She states when Frank asks her what she wants to know. ‘I wanna know everything’ This shows her complete dedication and determination to her course but it also shows a certain naivety in her views about everything. Everything’ cannot be just learnt, but Rita starts the course wanting to know ‘everything’. She is witty, sharp and humorous. She has a unique way of turning Frank’s phrases to laughter and has a certain spontaneity that identifies her as Rita who wants to know everything.
Frank and Rita’s language throughout the play dramatises their developing relationship because as soon as they meet, Frank and Rita engage in close, open dialogue very quickly, for example when Rita begins to ask about Frank’s private life including Julia: Do you live on your own then? ‘ This shows how interested Rita is in Frank and how uninterested she is in the text that Frank is trying to show her. She is providing a challenge for Frank to work on and although she insists that she wants to know everything she is proving to be very informal, uneducated and blunt. There is also the example of the conversation about the picture. Rita sees a picture in Frank’s office and states very clearly that it is rather rude, with naked people in it.
Frank however dismisses it and says that it has been there for a long time and he has never really looked at it properly before but yes it does have a rather crude appearance. Frank is educated but he has started to lose the self-respect that he should still have. He has stopped thinking about what it really means to him. Rita is almost the opposite and she continually asks questions and is not nervous to appear uneducated, which is exactly what she is. Rita has very different attitude towards life and different expectations.
She is a middle class hairdresser and she is a practical woman, however she wants to ‘Sing better songs than those’ that her husband and family sing when they are in the pub and have had a drink. She is serious about wanting to learn, but needs Frank to take her seriously. ‘I take the piss because I’m not, y’ know, confident like, But I wanna be, honest. ‘ Rita also had bad experiences at school and she wants more than anything to move on from that level of teaching and move on to real literature and the only person who can give her that is Frank.
She wants to move on because she is sick of her life as it stands at the moment. She is fed up because her class ahs no culture and she wants to be able to watch TV programmes and understand what they mean and go to the opera and the theatre. ‘We’ve got no culture’ This shows her opinion on her neighbours and family who live in the same class as she does but what infuriates her is that they have no incentive to go off and do something intelligent and interesting with their lives. She wants to change and se does not want to be herself any more.
She thinks that education will change her. ‘I don’t wanna be charming and delightful: funny… I don’t Wanna spend the night takin’ the piss… I don’t wanna be Myself. ‘ This implies that Rita is determined to lead the life she dreams of and she knows that it will change her completely and that’s what she wants but standing in her way is Denny, her family, the working class status.
When she returns from summer school, Frank notices a change in her and she seems so much more confident and aware of herself and her new found intelligence. I havin’ the time of me life’ Frank starts to lose his control over her and becomes insecure as his relationship with her begins to diminish, as she needs him no longer. She can now open his door with ease and even offers him a can of oil with which to grease it. This implies that even after the struggle she has wormed her way into Frank’s life and is now in control over it. She can think for herself and she will even talk to the students who sit in the sun outside Frank’s office, whom she has always been shy of and will avoid them at all costs.
Now she lives with a flatmate called Trish who seems to be influencing her as well. When Rita enters Frank’s office she starts to talk in a very posh voice and this exasperates Frank. Especially when she dumps her bag on his desk and moves her chair to sit right next to him. When they first met, Frank used his desk as a means of gaining control over the conversation and the building relationship. Now however, the desk is imprisoning him when Rita uses it, in the same way as Frank did. However Rita has lost a part of herself, and this is shown when she cannot open the window to Frank’s office.
She has lost her strength as a person and her new job requires her to do less and she does not talk to so many people. In one way, she has been accepted, when she can walk through the door, but she also still has to struggle with the window. The language that Willy Russel gives to Rita reflects her new personality and her new found confidence because she now has her own ideas and thoughts about what she reads and learns. ‘There is not a lot of point in discussing literature in an Ugly voice. ‘
Rita’s voice is very unlike her former self and Frank is put off by it and here begins his struggle to hold Rita still. She knows that she doesn’t really need him so much any more and she lets him know bluntly: ‘I don’t need you to hold me hand… I can have a mind of Me own can’t I? Rita does revert back to her old way of peaking but it has lost the spontaneity and humorous touch. She uses less slang and has reached her dream of being able to talk like Frank: ‘After consulting a wide variety of opinion, I came up With those conclusions. ‘
Here her language has changed drastically form the former slang words, bad grammar and missed off endings of words. She knows now how to voice her opinion properly and understand what other people say and do, whether on the television or on stage or, most importantly, the students that was formerly so timid of. When Frank gives her some of his own poetry, she tells him it is brilliant but he becomes angry and believes that she has turned into someone who is pretentious and shallow: ‘This, this pile of self-conscious allusion is worthless Talentless shit… It is pretentious, characterless and without
Style. ‘ Frank could be referring to his poetry, but he also gives an impression that he is meaning Rita. He has lost his control over her now that she no longer needs him and he cannot bear it any longer ‘I don’t think I can bear it any longer’ He is not scared to tell her but she only become irritated and calls him ‘Mr Self-Pitying Piss Artist’. She is so pleased with what her hard work has gained and has begun to realise that she now does have what Frank has but she enjoyes it. Frank hates it. He despises his status and class. Rita reminds him: ‘I’ve got what you have but you don’t like it’
Her words mock him; She wanted what he had and now she has got it, he is sad and angry because he hates what she is now but knows that he was the one who made the new Rita. Rita can sing a new song but Frank despises it. Frank’s language reflects his hatred when he talks about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: ‘Done a fine job on you’ By this, he is implying that he has done a very good job, but what he has made is not entirely to his satisfaction. It horrifies him to see what he has made. Willy Russel uses lots of different types of language and presentation of language to dramatise the developing relationship between Frank and Rita.
This use of language and dramatic devices moves their relationship beyond the average relationship between a tutor and a new pupil. The relationship blooms and continues to Bloom throughout act one but when Rita returns from Summer school, Frank loses control and she no longer needs his opinions and support. They move apart and Rita makes new friends of the students and they invite her on holidays and Franks becomes sadder and more of a drunkard until almost at the end, when Rita passes her exam and thanks Frank for all his work.
They accept each other and each other’s lifestyles and they accept that they are different and tackle life in different ways. Rita has achieved what she set out to do and she has been given the capability to make her own choices. She does not have to be a hairdresser anymore. She can choose to move on and take new opportunities. She decided to cut Frank’s hair because that is what she is best at and that is what she can give Frank in return for what he has done for her.
She still has some of her practical skills and this is what settles Frank. He believed that she had forgotten all the necessary practical skills and had changed, but when she offers to cut his hair it gives him hope. Willy Russel gave Frank and Rita a very specific, crafted, careful language in order to explore their individual personalities as well as their changing, developing relationship. In this way, Willy Russel has explored a series of themes of class, culture, education and opportunity in a witty, enjoyable, engaging and dramatic way.