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Educating Rita is a dramatic comedy play written by Willy Russell surrounding a twenty six year old working class woman Rita White, on a quest to achieve education, respect and a sense of “what it’s like to be free”, her dream is aided by her sarcastic, cynical middle class English tutor Frank. The play deals with everyday issues and this undoubtedly is where the charm of Educating Rita lays. Class, change, and education are the main themes of the play but darker undercurrents of Love and even suicide are somewhat present. The play’s genius is the interaction between Frank and Rita; the teacher and student. The juxtaposition of the polar opposite characters in the scenes makes for great comedy. Many different themes inhibits Educating Rita as aforementioned and for this reason it is hard to distinguish what the most crucial theme is, and it is to this point I will now turn.
Rita at first seems unable to adapt to the world of education, this is prevalent in the very first scene and the first time the reader is introduced to Rita. “I’m comin in, aren’t I? It’s that stupid bleedin handle on the door. You wanna get it fixed!” this quote alone highlights Rita’s struggle to enter the academic world Frank’s door symbolises. At first Rita finds it almost impossible to adjust and change into this new environment this can be clearly seen when she is with her upper class tutor in a formal setting yet uses profanity and crudeness, something which is not synonymous with the upper social class at all. “Oh, I’m really fucked”. This lack of tact and use of inappropriate colloquialism is what Rita is keen to change about herself; however Frank sees this social naivety as an honesty which he believes education will mask. “I don’t know that I want to teach you. What you have is already valuable.” Here Russell shows the characters different opinions to change but he also details the importance of it, Rita’s willingness to be something else, and Frank’s acceptance to be anchored in routine.
However some critics have stated that Educating Rita’s most crucial theme is social class. A huge part of the social issues in the play are to do with working class women’s roles. When Rita left school she was expected to marry young and have children soon after and this was the stereotypical life Rita was to lead, but Rita wants to “discover” before this. One of the main issues in the play is the contraceptive pill, which was made available to women at the beginning of the 70’s. This gave women a choice of when to have children and Rita uses this to stop her husband Denny from getting her pregnant, because she wants a life of her own. “I told him I’d only have a baby when I had a choice.” This shows that Rita is subverting the stereotypical role of working class women in the 1970’s and this is a very important aspect of the play.
Rita believes change will ultimately bring about a new, better life for herself. However society thus far has taught her that change is something to be feared and avoided. “See if I’d started taking school seriously I would have been different from my mates, and that’s not allowed.” Breaking free from social class and societal norms seems to be a monumental step for Rita, one that will have repercussions with her relationships. Rita feels that she is not being taken seriously whilst uneducated “I don’t wanna to be funny â€¦ I wanna talk seriously with the rest of you â€¦ I don’t want to come to your house just to play the court jester.” This quote could be comedic to the audience because although Rita wishes to be taken seriously she is still ironically using colloquialism’s that make her seem otherwise, additionally she does not want to be seen as the “jester” yet ironically she is the source of most of the comedy in Educating Rita. Not only does Rita want education, she wants to change the perception people have on her, even going so far as changing her name. “It says here Mrs S.White.” States Frank. “That’s ‘S’ for Susan…I’ve changed it to Rita…I’m not a Susan anymore.” Here Rita reveals just how desperately she wants and needs change, a that change is only brought from the transformative nature of education. Again the crucial theme of change arises.
Educating Rita has typically been a low budget production, although some of the audience may see this as being negative, a positive aspect is that the themes are presented in a more subtle fashion. For example the play only has one main set; Frank’s office, so rather than using elaborate sets to show changes in Educating Rita the theme of change is highlighted through stage directions and acting. The somewhat modest productions of the play have homed in on this theme, making Rita change clothing, accent and mannerisms numerous times before the closing of the curtains.
Social class and the theme of change are intertwined in many scenes of the play which highlight their importance. Rita strives to be of a higher social class then her Family and Friends, she seems to believe that the middle class have less worries, and are somewhat “free”. Rita undoubtedly feels trapped by her working class life, and she believes the influence of education will bring about the changes needed to liberate her. However she is uncomfortable with being both middle class and working class and even refers to herself as a “half-caste”. This introduces the problem with change; along with its positive aspects it also brings negative ones with it. Additionally Rita’s education changes her into an altogether different person stronger, more confident but also replaces her working class world into another which is not as truthful as and more superficial than the one she leaves. To Rita education is a passport out of her working class lifestyle. The dilemma however is that she soon pays for it by becoming a pretentious person, precisely the kind of person Frank despises. This shows that change can also have a colossal effect on social class.
Frank presents himself as a witty and sarcastic teacher, who seems dissatisfied with his life. He has been a poet once but failed and lost the confidence to write again. Consequently he has a low opinion of himself, Frank wants to escape from his world and to suppress his frustration, he drinks and puts on a cynical façade “The great thing about the booze is that it makes one believe that under all the talk, one is actually saying something.” It seems that Frank’s alcoholism has left him with very low self esteem but it is Rita’s honesty, naivety and uniqueness that give him a sense of purpose. “Do you know you’re the first breath of fresh air that’s been in here for years.” This quote shows the change Rita has on Frank’s life.
Frank has an altogether different view on change as aforementioned; throughout the entirety of the play he never ventures out from the confines of his workspace, even though Rita wants Frank to go and explore the world, this is highlighted when Rita symbolically opens a window in his office. “This room does not need air thank you very much.” His room symbolizes him and Rita is trying to open him up to the outside world but he is afraid of change and seems stuck in his seemingly endless mundane routine. Franks opinion towards change is further highlighted when Rita finally undergoes her metamorphosis. Rita becomes analytical and Frank resents her for this because she reacts to literature differently now she is educated and has discarded that which once distinguished her from ‘proper’ students, this is shown when Frank symbolically puts her essay on the pile with the other university students. “It wouldn’t look out of place with these.” Frank is hinting that Rita is now a ‘real’ student, but not the ‘real’ woman she once was.
Frank becomes dependent on Rita and is very afraid of losing her as she will take away the sense of purpose she had filled him with previously. He becomes self-critical and sees his self- destructive lifestyle and the influence he has had on Rita and becomes uncomfortable with the idea of being the catalyst of Rita’s change. It is this point in the play that change is cast into another light and seems to irreparably damage the main characters relationship, ” I shall change my name; from now on I shall insist upon being known as Mary, Mary Shelley.” Frank compares himself to Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” as he believes he has created a monster in Rita. This shows that through Rita’s inevitable change the characters relationships have also changed for the worst.
Educating Rita displays the major changes that occur in the main character Rita as she stretches between one extreme to the other and eventually discovers a happy balance in between the two. The initially narrow minded, outspoken and socially naÃ¯ve Liverpudlian finally gets what she has always desired, choice. “I might go to France. I might go to my mother’s. I might even have a baby. I dunno. I’ll make a decision. I’ll choose.” The crucial theme of change has given the main character liberation and choice, Rita is now in control of her life, this control could have only been brought around by the transformative nature of education.
Educating Rita is a great insight into 1970’s Britain and the social class divisions within it. The all important theme of change has a widespread effect on every other theme in the play and that is why in my view I believe that Educating Rita’s most crucial theme is that of change.
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