Willy Russell has a working class background and I think that this gave him an interest in how the class system works. I believe the fact that Educating Rita is a two-hander helps Willy Russell to explore the theme of class as he saw it. At the time that this play was written class was very important; Margaret Thatcher had just come to power and there was a lot of tension between classes.
Willy Russell, though casting both working and middle class in a new light is particularly critical about the working class because he himself was brought up working class. Perhaps if he had been middle class the he would have been more critical of them and less so on the working class.
Firstly there is Rita, a working class hairdresser who believes that life is ‘better’ for more educated middle class people. In act two scene six Rita says ‘…I have a room full of books, I know what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see and what papers and books to read.’ This shows what she thinks being educated means, it means to her being acceptable to middle class citizens. Frank on the other hand is a middle aged, middle class man who is bored of his life, he feels as though he is stuck in a rut and drinking is the only way to ease the monotony. This is causing him to become an outcast from his social status and his job and relationships are being affected by his actions.
Apart from class other social issues create different expectations of Frank and Rita: Gender, we must remember that at the time that this play was written gender was still a very important issue among class. Rita is expected to have had a baby by now, but she says ‘I should’ve had a baby by now, everyone expects it.’ this shows that she is feeling tied down my her social class and is feeling pressured to do what is expected and not cause trouble. Frank has fulfilled what is expected of him however, he has received a decent education, has a job and has been married.
The language used by both Frank and Rita throughout the play gives the reader an idea of how their characters are changing. At the beginning of the play Rita is often swearing whereas Frank is speaking very ‘properly’. Rita says ‘See the educated classes know its only words, it’s the masses who don’t understand.’ This shows she still thinks that upper classes have a better way of doing things.
In the middle of the play Rita stops swearing, instead, in a scene that is particularly important to the way that Willy Russell portrays class she switches to using a fake, posh voice that she thinks makes her more middle class. She is told by her flatmate Trish that ‘there is no point in reading beautiful literature in an ugly voice.’.
Also in the middle of the play Frank starts to swear a great deal more, especially when he is drunk.
At the end of the play Rita starts to swear again, showing that she now knows that an education did not make her middle class and that she can still have the characteristics she had beforehand once she is educated.
In conclusion I would say the main way Willy Russell uses the characters of Frank and Rita to explore the theme of class in Educating Rita is by giving them each class and therefore a set of expectations and rules. He then however goes on to show that these expectations and rules are not always suitable and that there is perhaps discontent and peer pressure amongst the classes.