First, Willy Russell presents the changing relationship between Rita and Frank right at the beginning of each of these scenes by the timing of Rita’s arrival. In Act 1, Frank is waiting “because I’ve got this Open University woman coming”, and Rita turns up on time and has a problem getting into the room because the handle is broken. This is like a symbol of her problems with starting to learn. At the beginning of Act 2 Scene 4, Rita is late and the stage directions just say “Rita enters”. She has moved the relationship forward by fixing the handle herself.
She is not only late, she is casual about being late and does not mind whether her excuse hurts Frank’s feelings. He starts acting like an insecure schoolboy, whining at her that “there was a time when you told me everything” and laughing at her new job. Later in the scene she leaves her class early so she can go and see a Chekhov play. She realises this will hurt him, and she pauses, but she says it anyway: “I’m sorry I was late. (After a pause she gets up) Look, Frank, I’ve got to go. ” At the start of scene 5 she comes back unannounced and just bursts into the room.
Frank’s attitude towards Rita in the first scene of the play is confused and slightly embarrassed. She obviously is not the sort of student he had expected, but even at the start she makes him look at things fresh, such as saying “Erm – yes, I suppose I always meant to … ” about the door handle. She sees a painting of nudes on the wall, and describes it as erotic, talking about how the artist must have felt. Frank has seen the painting every day but he has not thought about it like that.
There is a difference about how they talk about the picture, with Rita saying “erotic”, “turn people on” and “Look at those tits”, and Frank being much more guarded, saying it is “very beautiful” and “I don’t think I’ve looked at it for about ten years”. Rita talks about a Roger McGough poem and a book called Rubyfruit Jungle which are not literary works so he has not heard of them. She is enthusiastic, but she knows that they are not necessarily the sort of things she should be studying, saying “It’s dead good” but “You probably won’t think it’s any good.
The type of literature that Frank admires and teaches is shown by his remarks when he corrects E. M. Foster to Forster and assumes that she means T. S. Eliot and corrects her when she says Arthur instead of Alfred in the name of one of his poems. She makes him laugh with her explanation of assonance as “gettin’ the rhyme wrong”. In Act 2 Scene 4, Rita is much more self-assured about literature. She arrives late and says she was discussing Shakespeare. Frank’s comment “Yes … I’m sure you were” could be taken cynically, but it also could mean that he recognises that she can now discuss literature with other students.
He says she can sail through an exam in literary criticism. Rita says that she is going to see “a production of The Seagull” without even having to mention who wrote it. In Act 2 Scene 5, the teacher/pupil relationship has changed even further because Rita thinks she has the right to tell Frank what she and Trish think about the poems. They use lots of literary language which does not really mean very much, “More resonant than – purely contemporary poetry in that you can see in it a direct line through to nineteenth-century traditions of – of like wit an’ classical allusion”.
Rita sounds like she is quoting something she does not really understand. This contrasts with the honesty she used in the first scene when she describes how she feels about Roger McGough’s poetry, describing what the poem really says and saying “it’s great” and “It’s the sort of poetry you can understand”. But Frank has asked for “No sentimentality, no subjectivity. Just pure criticism” and Rita is giving him the sort of text book criticism she thinks he wants. She laughs when she thinks how ignorant she used to be: “I wouldn’t have been able to recognize and understand the allusions”.
Frank does not like her speaking in academic words instead of saying what she really thinks. He says “it’s shrill and hollow and tuneless”. It is ironic, because she then says that calling herself Rita is “pretentious crap” which is what he is accusing her of, and he also describes his own poetry as, “pretentious, characterless and without style”. Willy Russell shows the changing relationship by the physical movements of the two characters. In Act 1 Scene 1 Rita is restless. She sits, stands and wanders around the room touching things and picking them up.
She goes close to Frank and leans over him to alter her initial on the paper. She doesn’t seem to be embarrassed until she really tells Frank honestly what she wants and explains that she is not as confident as she looks. In the later scenes Rita is much more formal. She sits in her usual chair. She knows what is in the room so she does not have to wander around and look at it. Frank does the moving around and it is mostly moving away from her or turning his back to her. He is afraid of losing her but does not want to show it.
Rita does not approach Frank until she mentions the exam, which is important to her as a connection between them, but he moves away. The most expressive piece of movement is Frank throwing his torn poems in the air. In the first scene both characters are surprised. Frank is surprised by Rita’s enthusiasm and ignorance. Rita is surprised by Frank’s knowledge and learning and drinking. In this scene Frank has the upper hand because he has knowledge that Rita wants. By Act 2 Scene 4 Rita knows Frank so well that she can telephone and cancel a lesson without making an excuse, but it is not the same for Frank.
He keeps learning new things about Rita. He has telephoned the hairdressers and discovered that she doesn’t work there any more, but she did not tell him so. This is very different from the first scene when she talks in detail about her life, telling him about women having perms and bleaching, what they talk about and the mistakes she has made. It is a big change that she no longer thinks that he would be interested in where she works. Another surprise for Frank is that Rita has changed her name. In Act 1 Scene 1 Willy Russell shows us a number of misunderstandings.
The first misunderstanding is “You are? ” “What am I? ” “Pardon? ” “What? ” “Now you are? ” “I’m a what? ” which is comic. Then there is a misunderstanding between beautiful and erotic about the picture, and Frank’s statement that “the term ‘beautiful’ covers the many feelings I have about that picture, including the feeling that, yes, it is erotic”, which sounds superior and pompous, and leads Rita to feel put down. There is a misunderstanding about what Rita is going to smoke, and Frank’s decision only to smoke in secret. There are mistakes and misunderstandings about authors and books.
Rita keeps testing Frank, and he does not understand that it is because she is nervous. It turns into Rita interviewing Frank instead of the other way around. There are language misunderstandings like Flora and assonance. Frank actually says that Rita is “marvellous. Do you know, I think you’re the first breath of air that’s been in this room for years”, but Rita thinks he is “taking the piss”. Frank is not used to a student who explains everything about her life in so much detail. In Act 2 Scene 4 Rita understands the same things as Frank about books, but the misunderstandings are now about emotions.
She does not consider that he would be hurt by her turning up late or not turning up at all or talking to the students instead of to him. It is like they have changed to being different generations. She likes the younger students because “they’re not trapped – they’re too young for that. And I like to be with them. ” Frank says, “there was a time when you told me everything. ” But now, what had been a long speech that she would have said to Frank is just “boring irrelevant detail” and she does not understand that this sort of detail was interesting to him.
She says that literary criticism is “what we’re supposed to be dealing with”. The misunderstanding in Scene 5 is to do with Frank’s poetry. He knows what they are really worth, but Trish and Rita say “This is brilliant. They’re witty. They’re profound. Full of style”. This is very different from the natural way she described Roger McGough’s poem in Act 1. Rita thinks that Frank would prefer her never to become educated, and that he prefers her to be like a little girl who will think he is wonderful and need him. A change in the relationship is shown through Frank drinking.
In Act 1 Scene 1 Frank is matter of fact about drinking, to his wife on the phone, and Willy Russell tells us that he is not slurred. He offers Rita a Scotch and asks if she wants water in it. He pours himself a drink, looks at it and sips it. He pours himself one more drink during the interview and offers her another one which she refuses. In Act 2 Scene 4 Frank pours himself a drink and says “You don’t want a drink? Mind if I do? ” and carries on doing it anyway. He is drunk enough that Rita talks about him “pouring that junk down your throat”.
In Scene 5 she checks that Frank is sober before she will talk to him about his poems. This shows that the drinking has affected their relationship and Frank is losing control. Willy Russell uses the changes in Rita’s language to point to changes in their relationship. In the first scene Rita is very natural. “One of these days you’ll be shoutin’ ‘Come in’ an’ it’ll go on forever because the poor sod on the other side won’t be able to get in”. She uses swear words and drops letters off the ends of her words and uses bad grammar. She sounds ignorant but not stupid.
When she talks about the picture she talks about religious and erotic art and brush strokes. She understands exactly where she is coming from and that the course is “degrees for dishwashers”. Frank talks back to her in quite a pompous way, saying “It’s supposed to embrace a more comprehensive studentship, yes”. It is like they talk a different language. Once they have shared a drink together Rita loosens up and starts talking a lot. She talks about people swearing and she says she knows that Frank will not mind her swearing. At this point, Rita is doing all the talking and Frank is just saying odd little sentences like “Not at all”.
Although Rita is doing most of the conversation it still feels like Frank is in control because Rita is rambling nervously. He is watching her and being surprised by her and sometimes laughing. Rita is giving away a lot about herself but we are not learning anything about Frank. When Rita starts talking about the hairdressers it is as though she is looking at herself when she is talking about rubbish. Then the conversation moves to a series of misunderstandings about TV programmes, but the moment when Rita admits that she is not really confident is a movement of change in the scene.
Rita tells Frank intimate details about her life and why she is so determined to learn. It becomes very serious and the balance of the conversation moves to Frank. Frank becomes honest as well, but it is in a very different voice, calling her “My dear”. He says he doesn’t want to teach her. He is not confident in being a good teacher, and he is also lazy. When Rita comes back in the room at the end of this scene, the author has already shown us a change in the relationship. Rita throws one of Frank’s lines back at him, “Don’t you recognize a compliment? ” By Act 2 Scene 4 Rita’s voice is different.
She still drops the ends of some words but her grammar is better and she talks in complete sentences, like “If it’ll go in my favour we were talking about Shakespeare. ” There is a big difference between “The women. They never tell y’ things that matter” and “boring, irrelevant detail all the time, on and on”. Rita seems to be lecturing Frank now. She uses phrases like “for your information”, “Don’t be stupid” and “For God’s sake”. But what Rita is saying is more superficial than it used to be.
Frank notices this and he asks a question, “Are you capable of recognizing what does and does not matter, Rita? and she answers it by saying that they are meant to be studying literary criticism. Instead of talking about her life like she did in the first scene, she has cut Frank out of her life completely and this hurts him. He is jealous. In the next scene Rita acts as though she is even more in control of the relationship. She stands up to Frank and talks to him as if she is the teacher and he is the student, telling him he should write more poetry and criticizing it to him. Frank notices this. He says she is like the monster in Frankenstein.
He realizes that he has built her out of the natural person she used to be and now she is attacking him. He says that what she has learnt is “so very, very little”. Rita calls him a “self-pitying piss artist”. She tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself and that she can manage without him now. I think that Willy Russell is trying to show us that what Rita has learnt is not necessarily a good thing for her, but we are not shown at the start that she feels comfortable in her life as it was before. What she wants is to put her old life as far behind her as possible. Frank despises Rita for her snobbery.
In the first scene he sees nothing wrong with being a hairdresser. He is just interested in whether she is good at it. He doesn’t understand why she feels she needs to change her name. Rita already feels uncomfortable in her life. She confuses learning about literature with finding “a better way of livin’ me life”. Frank cannot see this because he already naturally is what Rita wants to become. In Act 2 he wishes Rita had not changed. The things she finds important now are the wrong values. He does not see that serving students in a bistro is any more valuable than cutting old ladies hair.
He would prefer to have her real reaction to his poems than the literary criticism words that she hardly understands. The way he despises this is shown by the words he throws at her right at the end of Act 2 Scene 5, where he suggests she might change her name to Virginia Woolf or Charlotte, Jane or Emily Bronte. But that is being unfair to her when she has only changed her name back to its original. Willy Russell has presented the changing relationship between Rita and Frank in body language, language spoken by the characters, attitude, drinking, misunderstandings, awareness and knowledge shifts.