“Er, well, I...you know, I don’t think I’ve actually really looked at it for the past ten years or so."Frank, 3
Frank’s comments about not having looked at the painting on the wall for ten years reinforce the sense that he has become world-weary, apathetic, and incapable of being moved by beauty or eroticism. If this were just one throwaway line it might be understandable, as we all grow inured to the things and people around us, but Frank follows this up with other comments that reveals how he takes his environment for granted and no longer is stirred or inspired by it. In contrast, Rita’s amusement and interest in the painting reveal her as excited, ready to learn and experience new things, and possessive of open eyes and an open mind.
“But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’? Know like I’m doin’...tryin’ to do. Do you think I will? Think I’ll be able to do it.”Rita, 13
In this quote, Rita demonstrates how she is both full of zeal and ambition but also, at this stage, still unsure of herself. She states emphatically that she wants to change, and recognizes that she has taken the steps to do so. However, she is still hesitant, and asks Frank his opinion on whether or not she can do it. This changes as the text goes on, especially in Act II. By then Rita has become sure of herself, which creates a rift with Frank. Rita’s growth of confidence is directly linked to her education, as well as a result of her innate and indefatigable desire to evolve and improve.
“See if I’d started takin’ school seriously then I would have had to become different from my mates; an’ that’s not allowed.”Rita, 19
Although Rita knew early on that there may be more to life than fighting or getting dressed up or joking around with one’s friends, the strength of “herd mentality” meant that her interest in behaving or even thinking differently from her peers was suppressed. She acted like everyone else and not until her mid-twenties could she conceive of anything different. Youth is a time of conformity mixed with a desire to please and to be popular, but there is also something else going on. Members of the lower classes made their lives more palatable through community and shared experience, and those who tried to deviate from that by escaping were considered traitors; this is why Denny was so hostile to Rita’s new ambitions.
“Look, there’s a way of answering examination questions that is...expected. It’s a sort of accepted ritual.”Frank, 30
Frank’s explanation of why Rita’s early answers to essay prompts are insufficient is familiar to anyone who has had a decent education, but in this new context it bears reflection and discussion. Frank’s faltering tone and his words themselves do end up sounding a little ridiculous. The rigidity of the curriculum, of the behavior of professors and students, of the norms and mores, is strongly pronounced. For Rita to move up a social class and to experience the change she wants, she will have to do more than read certain books -she will have to learn the code, the “accepted ritual” of higher education. She does eventually do this, but, as Frank points out, she may have lost some of herself in the process.
“But it’s not takin’ the place of life, it’s providing’ me with life. He wants to take life away from me; he wants me to stop rockin’ the coffin, that’s all.”Rita, 37
Frank is so disillusioned with his life that it is difficult for him to believe Rita when she makes such pronouncements. For her, though, reading the great works of literature and poetry removes her from her working class background and elevates her; it sustains and nourishes her soul. The “he” in this quote is Denny, who objects firmly to the changes he sees in his wife. He does not want her to become educated because it means she will not be like him anymore. He believes that her changes are implicit critiques of his life. We never get to hear Rita and Denny talk to each other, but it is likely that Rita was not intentionally indicating she believed this, but that Denny’s own insecurities manifested these concerns.
“You see, he goes blindly on and on and with every step he’s spinning one more piece of thread which will eventually make up the network of his own tragedy.”Frank, 45
Frank’s explanation of what tragedy is, and how Macbeth is a tragic character, is not just a miniature lesson in a bit of literary theory, but is also a telling commentary on Frank and his inability to grow as a person. He is deeply flawed, and such flaws impede him from turning his life into something more productive and meaningful. He allows alcohol and apathy to take control, wallowing in his depression and disillusionment. As he explains how Macbeth is doomed, he is unknowingly talking about himself, and giving the audience/readers insight into why he is the way he is.
“...I don’t wanna spend the night takin’ the piss, comin’ on with the funnies because that’s the only way I can get into the conversation. I didn’t want to come to your house just to play the court jester.”Rita, 49
This passage expresses Rita's frustration that she does not seem able to fit in anywhere -not in her old world, and certainly not in this new one that Frank is inviting her into. She knows she is an outsider, and that small things -- such as her dress, the wine she chose, and the conversation she made -- would give her away. She also suspects that people there would have snickered at her attempt to be one of them, and she did not want to be their source of amusement. This scene is the precursor to the one in which Rita tells Frank she left Denny and she wants to fully transform herself.
“Life is such a rich and frantic whirl that I need the drink to help me step delicately through it.”Frank, 60
Frank's words here remind us that he was once a poet, but their charming nature cannot cover the sad truth they convey: that Frank is an alcoholic who needs help. He can no longer get through the day and manage his various affairs without the assistance of drink. He prefers to slightly cloud real life, preferring to glimpse it from far-off rather than immediately. Rita is the contrast to him, as she does not want anything to get in the way of her experiencing life. She never got to probe deeply into her inner being when ensconced in her old world, and now it is of utmost importance to her that she pushes herself to do so without any impediments. Finally, what is sadly ironic about Frank's words here is that there is nothing delicate about his behavior when drinking; in fact, it is his clumsy behavior and stumbling in class that leads to his suspension from teaching.
“I have merely decided to talk properly. As Trish says there is not a lot of point in discussing beautiful literature in an ugly voice.”Rita, 63
In Act II Rita makes a number of changes to herself; these are more than just reading the right works of literature and responding to essays properly. She decides to go back to her actual name of Susan, quits her job as a hairdresser and begins to waitress in a bistro near the university, moves out of her mother's place and into a flat with a "classy" girl named Trish, and, as this quote expresses, decides she is going to talk properly. Her Liverpudlian accent was one of the most salient parts of her working class identity, and by shedding it she announces to the world (and to Frank) that she is cultured, civilized, and educated. What is fascinating, though, is that in the last couple scenes in which she and Frank argue, her accent creeps out again. The question thus remains of how much Rita has actually changed.
“I never thought there was anything’ I could give you. But there is. Come here, Frank…”Rita, 82
By the end of the text, Rita and Frank have achieved an uneasy peace, as exemplified by this scene in which Rita volunteers to cut Frank's hair, something that she mentioned wanting to do the very first time she met him. This small gesture pays tribute to Rita's past as a working-class hairdresser, as well as how far she's come, in that she now is offering Frank something as opposed to him giving her something. It is also a sweet scene and one that reminds the audience/readers of how close the two characters got, and how intimate educating another person can be. Finally, as a concluding scene it is far from being able to offer real closure: we don't know what will happen to Rita or to Frank, or what they will be to each other in the future. It is fitting, as Russell's whole play leaves more unanswered questions than answered ones.
The following notes are a starting point for you to look at some of the issues that are raised in Russell's play. You should remember that they are not intended to be set in concrete. A/S requires you to have your own opinions and to know that there is more than one way of looking at a text. Feel free to make your own mind up about the play and what it says to you.
Consider what you understand by 'education'
Frank is conventionally 'educated' - a professor - but what he has is lots of 'knowledge' which is academic - out of books - not really practical knowledge for living - everything is second hand. He teaches what he knows to others. Did he ever thirst for education? What was he like before the play? Why do you think he has become a disillusioned, tired alcoholic now?
He seems to be cut off from 'real' life, unlike Rita, who is a very practical woman. You need to ask yourself whose life is 'real'. Rita's or FRank's? And what, in fact IS a 'real' life? How do you think each character would answer that question - what is a 'real' life?
Frank has stopped 'looking' at things. (the picture) and Rita is looking at things for the first time -she 'sees' differently because she wants to learn about 'everything'.
Right at start its obvious that Rita will make Frank see things differently. Why?
Rita is very literal - takes things at face value, but has lots of 'native wit' - she knows more about real life than Frank does. Knows how people work, especially her own type of people. What is Rita's 'type'? How would Frank perceive that? How would Rita perceive Frank's 'type'?
Rita wants to be educated because she says 'I wanna know'. She knows she isn't 'educated' yet and dimly realises what 'education' is, but her perceptions are stereotypical (see p 182 where we see her idea about public school) although her knowledge of uneducated people is very sharp. (see p. 173 and 174, also p 177)
What Rita wants is to be OUT of her social class. For her, education is a means of achieving this and she's probably right.
She instinctively knows she lacks something and thinks a university degree will fill the gaps in her life.
She cannot articulate like Frank, but her freshness is 'like a breath of fresh air' to him. Why do you think this would be so?
Look at her speech on p 183 about how 'you've got to be' and when she decides on 'a change in yourself' This is really sharp insight - an 'educated' person would say this, maybe using different language -so she IS 'educated' , just not formally yet - that's an important point to make. Her language is crude and 'uneducated' but what she says is exceptionally intelligent.
Frank wants her to 'discipline' her mind, but what he means is find a less subjective (personal) way to look at literature. The irony is that this will make Rita less spontaneous and it might stifle her obvious passion for the truth and for life.
He knows this, but has to insist on the 'rules'. Literature essays have to be written to a sort of formula. 'There is a way of answering examination questions that is expected, it's a game, with rules. And you must observe the rules.' (p193) Important point. Franks 'game' of university education is just that - a game. It has little to do with 'real' life, but ironically it is the way many people qualify for a place in life. You might like to explore the idea of whether or not University qualifies anyone for anything in the 'real' world?
Frank is 'successful' but unhappy.
Rita wants to be 'successful' because she thinks she is unhappy where she IS. What will happen is that she will CHANGE as a result into someone different and that will affect the way she is as a person.
Frank starts to fall in love with her because she is so different - he is like Professor Higgins - he makes a duchess out of a flower girl, but changes the girl beyond recognition in the process. (If you have time, read Shaw's 'Pygmalion' and see what happens to Eliza Doolittle when she comes under the influence of Professor Higgins)
When Rita says culture is a 'way of living', she latches on to a really important fact about how people live. (look at page 194/5) That's what 'education' is really about - finding things out and having 'meaning' in your life as a result.
Note the irony - Rita wants 'meaning' and has no 'learning' yet - Frank has loads of ''learning' and has little 'meaning' in his life.
As Rita progresses she changes - note how Denny reacts and how she says of herself 'she's gone (her former self) and I've taken her place'. As she says the course is 'providing her with life', but ironically it is also taking her old life away from her. Who suffers as a result of this?
When she doesn't turn up for the party at Franks we can see how she is beginning to reject her former self -she doesn't want to be a 'court jester', or 'good for a laugh'. She thinks she is a 'freak' because she isn't one of 'them'.She calls herself a 'half-caste' then tells him about her mother crying in the pub because 'we could sing better songs than these'.The change is now inevitable when she decides 'that's why I'm staying'
As she moves on - becoming determined to 'write essays like those on there' Frank wants to stop her from changing, but she is determined. He knows she will not be the same but she is adamant.
By the end of the first act we see that Rita has burned her boats - she will give up everything that Frank finds so refreshing about her - her spontaneity and her enthusiasm - and become an academic scholar - just like him.
Rita's change - her increased confidence and ability to 'perform' at summer school is evident. Frank knows that soon she will 'walk away and disappear'. He says to her 'You've got to' because he knows that she will not need him. As she shows when she tells him about having 'already done' Blake's poetry' - she is moving on, leaving him behind.
The next scene - her new voice - her discussion with the students and her invitation to go off with them to the south of France reinforces the gap between her and Frank.
As Frank deteriorates - drinking more and falling over in the lecture - Rita becomes more remote. Frank knows that there is 'nothing of you' in the essay she does on Blake, but ironically it will get a'good mark' in the exam. She is now a 'real' student, but not, in Frank's eyes, the 'real' woman she was.
Rita asks him to 'leave her alone' a bit because she doesn't need him to 'hold her hand as much'. As she becomes more confident and 'educated' she is slowly but surely moving away from him.
Frank knows that she has lost sight of the 'things that matter' - her knowledge of people and 'real' life - but Rita doesn't know that. Her 'education' has begun to turn her into a snob and she has turned away from her roots to such an extent that she is now like a stranger.
Frank says he has 'done a fine job on you' when Rita writes the criticism of his poetry. He thinks it is a 'heap of shit' because it is stylised and not true to 'real' life - an exercise in literature, only.Now he cannot bear Rita and sees her as pretentious. All she has found is a 'different song' to sing.
The final scene is a kind of reconciliation, but the outcome is left unresolved. Rita is now her own woman - Frank is off to Australia. She can now make her own decisions and will do so. Her education is complete in that sense. Frank, too has learned something and has been given the chance for a new start, but it is not made clear what will happen to either of them
The play is about education in many forms.
Frank has education, Rita wants it. His education has made him a sad and bitter man. Rita's education turns her into a different person, but is she better, or worse as a result? Rita's education changes her into a different woman - stronger, more resilient but also moves her out of her class into a world which is much more challenging but probably not so honest as the one she leaves. She does pay a price, but the question you might like to consider is whether the price is worth the sacrifices she makes along the way.
Education is shown as a kind of game as far as university is concerned - not so much learning for love of learning as getting the credentials for a lifestyle.
Frank is disillusioned with the education game - Rita isn't, at first, but probably realises what it has done to her at the end. It is a conscious choice for her, though and she is determined to have her place in the world she has chosen.
At the beginning of the play she is literally 'uneducated' - unschooled - knows little about academic things but LOTS about life. Ironically she doesn't realise how valuable this knowledge is. She casts off her old life willingly and what she gets in exchange is - as far as Frank is concerned - much less valuable. You should explore this idea of values.
To Rita, though, education is a passport out of mediocrity into a superior lifestyle. The tragedy is that she pays for it by becoming a shallow and pretentious person - exactly the kind of person Frank despises.
The good thing is that there is probably still enough of the 'old' Rita left to ensure that she will not change too much.
As she cuts Frank's hair at the end of the play, we can hope that there is a future for both of them that will give them happiness and contentment, even if they are no longer together.