The Play 'Educating Rita' by Willy Russell

Liverpool, in the 1980’s was hit by a financial low point; with high rates of unemployment and thousands fleeing the city for better job and life prospects elsewhere. This coupled with rising tuition fees for universities, made it harder for people in the city to try and better themselves, especially the younger generation. Open universities as opposed to the traditional redbrick’s, offered a cheap course – that you could study in your free time, mostly from home but still get a degree at the end of studying.

They did not discriminate class or grades, meaning that anyone can access the courses they have to offer, without taking the traditional route of an A-level. Assisting people to Strive towards a better career and future. The playwright, Willy Russell seems to be a part of this generation in Liverpool, wanting to get ahead but with financial times being hard, he felt the push. He was a hairdresser, and with one O-level he saw that with the financial crisis of the time, it would be hard to make ends meet, whilst he was still cutting hair.

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Whereas, if he took an Open University course, that did not care about his difficult start to life – he would be able to get his degree and hopefully better himself. Russell also saw, that in his traditional city, that women were not given the opportunities and equal rights, that most women in society have access to today. This is put across in his work, as feminism is something that is meaningful to him.

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His roots moulded his being, and therefore you see that he shows the concerns of the working classes that might not be seen or highlighted, in a political system populated with Oxbridge graduates, and British society that looks up to upper class figures such as the Royal Family. As this is deeply portrayed throughout the play, it is a semi-autobiographical play, concerning the difficulties that Willy faced, through the eyes of Rita, a liverpudlian woman, from a working class upbringing in the same profession as Russell, a hairdresser.

Russell depicts the initial struggles that people who have not had a private school start to the education system. He uses both stagecraft and dialogue to present the changes that a person such as he and Rita can face. Rita starts off the play with an outsiders view to education. The stage notes show Rita, standing at the door, hesitating to enter this new path she faces. Stage notes, show that Rita is finding to enter Frank’s room difficult.

She cannot open the door, the door being a metaphor for the leap from her normal life, to her start on the course – that she feels like she doesn’t have the upper hand in. “Further, more insistent knocking at the door. ” And later, “I am comin’ in, aren’t I? It’s stupid that bleeding handle on the door. Y’ wanna get it fixed! ” This is a mental barrier, preventing Rita from entering the room, or her education that is set to follow. She is already making excuses, either for her apparent limited education or the fact that she is going to have to at some point leave her life behind her. It’s stupid that bleeding handle on the door. ” She already knew before she signed up for her course, that she was unhappy with her present life, which possibly the recession made her realise, or seeing the people in her society that did not seem to be affected by the cut backs and hard times. Russell writes in Rita’s first meeting with the audience, “Y’ wanna get it fixed! ” Placing the blame for her hesitance to enter her education, towards the audience, who could be viewed as the people who are already on the correct side of the door.

Therefore, by placing the blame not on her not being able to open the door, that people other people have been able to open, she is blaming it on the people she has come to for her help with her degree. The exclamation mark proves this point also, by showing annoyance in Rita’s voice when she said it. This could also be Russell showing the audience how nervous Rita is to start her journey. We start to see Rita, blossoming and developing throughout the play. Her development and determination is key to the plot.

In act I, scene II we start to see a Rita, that doesn’t have the hesitation to start to learn. We see from the stage notes, that Rita is late. “he glances at his watch” “He glances at his watch once more. ” Although initially we are made to believe, that Rita who may be upset from arguing with Frank, her University tutor; or found her experience too startling for her. But, then we see that not only has Rita come to her appointment, she is prepared to tackle the educational barrier that the door faced emotionally and physically.

She is oiling the door, that gave her much difficulty to open in her first meeting. “Rita, oil can in hand. ” “I was just oilin’ it for y’. Well I knew you’d never get around to it. Y’ can have that. ” This is a new transition in her change. The audience can now see that she is growing, and she is getting rid of her fear of her education which took the place of the door in the earlier scene. There is readiness from her perspective, and also that her first tutorial was meaningful to her. She remembered that Frank’s door was faulty and needed oiling.

It is a gesture towards Frank, like a present, meaning that she has decided to give a try to her education, in the form of the metaphor of oiling his door. Oil, is also a modern sign of wealth, called the “black gold” screening that Rita is desiring money and the future that she hopes entering the door can offer. The stage notes at the start of act II scene I state that Rita “bursts” through the door, showing that all previous problems she faced mentally, of her being working class and making herself think she cannot do the course.

However, now much like a supernova or energy she has made a sudden change in confidence and personality; in a very short period of time. Her fears of the higher educational system have been confronted. She has evolved over summer school; she has stopped smoking cigarettes – which shows she has the power, determination and ultimately the strength; to choose her own direction that started with taking the course against her husband Denny’s wishes. Also she is now dressed in ‘new’, secondhand clothes. This is a part of the student lifestyle – shopping in second hand clothing stores.

The fact that there is much emphasis on the “new” show that it is not just the clothing that is new, Rita has evolved into a new person, living her life more like a bourgeoisie student. Another transformation that Rita has made, is by refraining herself from showing that she is of working class status. At the summer camp she is so desperate to fit in with other students that she picks up a random book from a shelf. The book has the works of Ferlinghetti, the tutor inquires “Ah, are you fond of Ferlinghetti? Nevertheless, Rita manages to bite her upper lip back from saying “Only when it’s served with Parmesan cheese” Which means that she is putting her past behind her to become a more serious student. Whereas the old Rita, would have gone with her impulsive reaction to blurt it out. Also in this scene she has found a new problem, not with the door – but the window. She wants to air franks office – she adds. “It won’t bleedin’ budge” From which we are able to see Rita’s changing attitudes towards the education system.

The window is initially seen as a physical barrier, but with the Liverpool University students sat on the grass, she feels separated from the university students that sit below in the grounds of the university. We see that so far, in her educational transition, she has managed to get past her first fear of starting the course, to now being accepted as one of them. By doing her Open University course, that Rita referred to as ” degrees for dishwashers” implying that compared to people who did their A-levels and managed to get good enough grades to get into a Redbrick such as Liverpool.

She still finds it hard to put her past behind her, making herself think that she is inferior, or a “dishwasher” which is not a job that you would link to a person studying for a degree. There are other problems that relate back to wealth, such as the fact that people who are sitting on the grass, are able to afford the tuition fees and student living costs, which Rita would struggle with working either at the hairdressers or the Bistro.

What Russell is trying to convey, is that even though the Open University, does not discriminate against class or grades, there are still problems for people on the courses – such as the people studying on the courses feel inferior to the traditional educational institutions that are deemed by university rankings, such as the times university guide; Showing that the window is a metaphorical barrier for the feelings that people who take Open University courses face, when put alongside people who are studying in a more traditional manner.

Another way in which Russell shows Rita’s, attitude towards the educational system on the day is by using “Oh – it’s grass” in act II scene I. This is another example of a metaphorical physical barrier that Rita faces on her quest through her studies. However, we do not hear about the window like in the last scene. It is directly the grass grounds of the campus. This shows since feeling completely left outside, she now desperately wants to become one of them, by living the way they do and studying the same way that they do as well.

Perhaps, she has come to terms with the financial difficulties, and the way in which she has come to do her degree. Furthermore, the use of the hyphen after the “Oh” show Rita’s, shock that as a University student, the same as Franks, minus the social differences they contrast in. That Frank sees as unusual. By sitting on the grass, this would help Rita fit into the lifestyle of a university student, that so far she has been pushed into the deep end with.

Rita feels that she deserves to sit with them, and before, Rita would not have said “Oh-” but now she has adjusted to her course, and she has grown in confidence – she believes that she has every right to go down to the grass, regardless of it being bad weather, and the possibility of them getting a “wet bum”. It is a psychological step Rita needs to take; she wants to join “them out there”.

Although, Willy Russell uses mental barriers as metaphors throughout the play, that portray Rita’s changes in approach and outlook to her education, but he also shows her changes in maturity in the style and attitude she has towards her essays. In act I scene IV, we see Rita’s preliminary attitudes towards her university education and the essays in hand. Rita makes the decision to stay on the course against Denny’s wishes, and also she has to better herself if she wants a successful life. Frank informs Rita “When art and literature begin to take place of life itself, perhaps it’s time to… Rita can guess what Frank is going to stay, but as she has more determination than when she did want to drop out – but the tables have turned, Frank is telling Rita that she should consider what is best for her; even though Rita knows that she has to get out of the inner-city and move forwards. “But it’s not takin’ place of life, it’s providin’ me with life. ” Another quote to suggest that Rita wants to stay on the course – “He thinks we’ve got choice already: between jobs for jokers or stayin’ on the dole. ” Through this Russell is presenting factors that he faced on his journey through tertiary education.

Since Rita thinks that she is to be refined and well read, she has named herself after an author. Her real name is Susan, but Rita Mae Brown is a pornographic author, and as Rita likes her books, she laughably adopts her name and believes she is making herself seem more sophisticated, once again showing her complete misunderstanding that sexually explicit n novels are classified as good literature. Such an action again indicates her nai??ve outlook and lack of literary awareness at the beginning of the play. Another wrong assumption that she makes, is that middle class individuals live a perfect existence.

That they all watch the BBC, and eat wholemeal brown bread, as opposed to the cheaper alternatives that are seen as more affordable to the working class. These are generalisations that have come from what she has heard over her own opinion. However as the play progresses Rita realises she has made a mistake. Even though people of the ‘middle class’ status may not be affected by finance as much as her class, they still have the social problems that people of any class, in any country all over the world will. Frank has a very turbulent marriage which ends up with Julia cheating on Frank, with Frank’s only written friend.

Trish, Rita’s flatmate after receiving her “ultimatum” from Denny, is very unhappy with her life – living in a world of “just books an’ plants everywhere. ” In act II scene VII – Rita finds out that through Frank and Julia’s turbulent relationship that she will not be coming to Australia with him. Also Rita tells Frank that Trish “tried to top herself” Rita now understands that her beloved bourgeoisie class, is not as good as it seemed. “She spends half her life eatin’ wholefoods an’ health foods to make her live longer an’ the other half tryin’ to kill herself”

Although Frank recognises her academic attainment now, and is happy that she does not just write an essay as simple as “do it on the radio” like she did for her essay on Ibsen’s, Peer Gynt. Although Rita shows basic essay writing constructing, she raises a very valid point; Peer Gynt is not a play that focuses on the stage and visual arts – it is more conceptual and about the wording of the play, rather than the staging. However he now feels that he has created a monster that he has developed of his free will much like the monster from Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein. You know, Rita, I think – I think that like you I shall change my name: from now on I shall insist upon being known as Mary, Mary Shelley – do you understand that allusion, Rita? ” “She wrote a little Gothic number called Frankenstein. ” The significance of Frank saying “Gothic” is that the gothic style of writing emphasises the gruesome and grotesque. Another way in which Rita changes throughout the play, is that her voice changes, the way in which she pronounces and says words changes as she receives more education, and becomes accustomed to her new lifestyle.

She starts the play with a very strong and prominent scouse accent. One accent that is quintessentially northern and can trace its unique sound to migrants to the industrial hub, especially Irish potato famine victims. You can see from Rita’s first words in the play ” I am comin’ in, aren’t I? It’s that stupid bleeding handle on the door. Y’ wanna get it fixed” It is very colloquial and informal, especially for a student of English literature. The apostrophes show where she is not fully pronouncing her words.

Showing the English of person one would suspect to have limited intelligence. However in act II scene II, Rita’s voice has seemed to have changed, after her rigorous studying and essay writing, she is somewhat more educated, and her lodging alongside Trish has been a major influence. There are now no apostrophes in the place of her scouse slang. However Frank does not seem to think that this is a good change. Rita: “I know, Frank, I’m terribly sorry. It was unavoidable” Frank: Was it really? What’s wrong with your voice” and later goes on to call her a “parrot”

The ending of the play is very ambiguous, Frank has packed all of his books – to move to Australia. Rita explains to Frank that she is now a confident essay writer, and didn’t make her error of putting “do it on the radio” However we get the idea that Rita had to start her personality over from scratch, and although she did very well in her course; she was correct when she wrote “do it on the radio” however an essay is not about who you are, it is about writing your essay to the examiners marking criteria .

Ironically neither her or Frank at the time realise how much the knowledge that she already possesses can be just as important as her educational awareness. Rita changes and reforms somewhat back to her old self, she realises that some of her university friends, such as Tiger/ Tyson are not nice people because they are educated, it is about a persons personality, claiming that Tiger “He’s a bit of a wanker really”. She also seems to have a better relationship with her parents, as her mother has invited her over to celebrate Christmas. She has also started using more of her scouse dialect again.

Showing us that she has started to think for herself and not only about becoming and educated, middle class, degree holder. However she has been taught well by Frank, she can now make confidently make literary decisions “… I heard one of them saying that as a novel he preferred ‘Lady Chatterly’ to ‘Sons and Lovers. ‘ I thought, I can keep on walking an’ ignore it, or I can put him straight. ” Although education is a permit out of the masses into a better life, Rita has to change her life, end her marriage with Denny and end her career as a hairdresser to get out of nightmare.

However this is the type of person that Frank would class as “pretentious”. Rita cuts Franks hair and says “I’m gonna take ten years off you… ” Although in the movie, we see the majority of act II scene VII taking place in the airport, the play in much more vague. We see that the play ends on a sweet note, and we do not know if Frank and Rita ever reunite, however the relationship has improved from when Frank compared her to Frankenstein’s monster.

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The Play 'Educating Rita' by Willy Russell. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Play 'Educating Rita' by Willy Russell

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