Educating Rita is a play script written by Willie Russell, about a young working-class woman who decides to get an education at the Open University much to her family and friends’ dismay. It is at the Open University that she meets her tutor, Frank Bryant – an ironic, witty man in his early fifties. Although Rita is the main focus of the story, I decided to explore Frank’s character and look at his development – and eventually I found him more interesting than Rita, even though his character does not technically develop.
The play opens with Frank, whom you are introduced to as a man who ‘shifts a lot of booze’ and hides the said booze behind books on his bookshelves in his office: ‘Jubilantly he moves to the Dickens section and pulls out a pile of books to reveal a bottle of whisky. ‘ Through the stage directions on the first page, the audience may realise that Frank hiding his bottles of whisky that this may be a predicament that will feature later in the play in a big way.
Not only this, but the informal approach to his drinking, pouring a ‘large slug’ into a mug and ‘managing a gulp’ would imply that he wants to get drunk quickly – as whisky is a drink drunk whilst socialising which Frank isn’t, and it is also sipped slowly, and taking a gulp would accelerate the effects of the drinking, allowing Frank to get drunk much quicker. The reason for the drink being in a mug could be one of two reasons, either that Frank being a ‘drunk’, doesn’t seem to be bothered with the social side of drinking so there is no need for him to get whisky glasses for him to drink from.
There is also the fact that Frank feels repressed by his middle class status and drinks from the said mug as almost sign of rebellion, because it’s not the ‘done thing’ for a middle-class individual to drink any spirits used in socialising from a mug. But Frank’s repression from his middle-class status actually does play a very large part in the ‘development’ of his character and to a certain extent, actually plays a part in the plot of the play.
This repression is shown in the way that Frank tries to deny Rita the education (which is supposedly the key to the middle-class) that she aspires to. For example, he says to Rita in the first scene of Act One; ‘I’ll make a bargain with you. Yes? I’ll tell you everything I know – but if I do that you must promise never to come back here … But you’re different. You want a lot, and I can’t give it. ‘ Frank’s attitude towards her changes when he meets her, for she comes in with a style that he had not expected and automatically admired, soon becoming quite fond of her.
He sees her as ‘the first breath of fresh air that’s been in this room for years’ and this is because of her uniqueness which, by giving her an education he would subdue that and she would change and eventually become the same as everyone else in the middle-class, and, if Frank himself is anything to base the middle-class on, then she’d become just as empty and depressed as he – therefore, Frank would be responsible for destroying an irreplaceable personality and he respects her too much to do that to her. But also, if he truly respected her wishes, then he would educate her as she wished without a question.
However, this is the reason why he is torn, and by denying her quest for knowledge and education, maybe he believes that he knows best. But Frank didn’t always seem to respect her: at the very beginning of the play, he described Rita going to the Open University as, ‘… some silly woman’s attempts to get inside the mind of Henry James or whoever… ‘, thus showing no respect for her or her hunger to learn and showing some determination not to like her before he’s even met her – probably because it insults his intelligence to teach someone for the Open University, especially if they’re from a lower class.
I don’t think that Frank sees the [structural] irony of what he says to Julia in the first scene when he first described Rita as a ‘… silly woman… or whoever… ‘. Initially, before he meets her, Frank believes that Rita is a working class woman who should be doing what working class women should, doing housework and looking after her husband (although it doesn’t say it in so many words; I think that he considers the working class as inferior to his own class, however much he abhors it).
Instead, this working class woman tries to ‘… get inside the mind of Henry James or whoever… ‘ which he is quite scornful of. But, Julia, as an ex-student of his must have followed exactly the same route as Rita is to take; so saying the comment that he did, to Julia who is actually the one looking after him and cooking his meals, is ironic as the roles of Rita and Julia are reversed.
Frank’s purpose in the story is to teach Rita and develop her character – because, as the audience will probably, notice; Rita’s character develops a great deal whereas Frank’s character seems to do the opposite: by his self-destructive personality and traits, such as his drinking which actually makes him much more of a two-dimensional character rather than giving him more depth as Russell probably hoped for. Frank’s storyline about his poetry is one that can stand alone without the influence of Rita.
This is because it is based around Frank’s insecurities as a character – not only about his poetry, but also his past which the poetry could actually represent. Frank, as the audience soon discovers very soon in the play, has made quite a chaotic mess of his life: a failed marriage, a relationship with a woman (Julia) who he doesn’t seem to have any solid feelings for (and in the film, she returned his estrangement from her with an affair with his best friend), and then there’s the fact that he hides behind dry, witty remarks and a sarcastic demeanour – and this is exactly why I found him interesting.
He is so withdrawn from the real world and his feelings seem to be buried so deep, that I wondered what sort of tragedy he must have suffered and where his insecurities and secreting derived from. Although, the audience can only speculate as to what caused these problems. Frank makes no references to his childhood, nor anything in his past that could have caused such a repressed personality.
We, as the audience, don’t know if Frank has been drinking for just a few years or very many (and if it was many years, was it the true cause of the downfall of his and his wife’s marriage? . Nonetheless, we know from the very first chapter that Frank is a man who ‘puts away a lot of alcohol’ and it has become a problem. Rita continuously reminds him of his dilemma, yet he still refuses to make any effort to change himself. This is either because he chooses to be ignorant to it or he is in denial of it. But either way, I believe that he is aware that it is a problem. Frank’s drinking is his refuge, as, when he is drunk I suppose that he can forget about the failures in his life and can evade what’s truly bothering him.
But overall, I think (and I believe that Frank thinks also) that his drinking accomplishes no more than that. But it would seem that the drinking in fact, takes him over until Frank is just a drunk with not enough of a back-story to support him – because that is the view of quite a few people who have seen the film or the play or read the screenplay. This actually could be quite deliberate on Russell’s part, in order to give Rita the maximum coverage in the text, because, after all, the story is about Rita as a working class woman being able to rise above that and ‘have a better song to sing’ and not about Frank.
However; Frank does have some sort of a personality outside his drinking with his defeatist approach to his poetry, which the audience is supposed to interpret as true instead of thinking that maybe Frank is just being modest. In Act Two, Rita’s whole attitude changes; towards work, the way she talks, what she reads, who here friends are… and Frank decides to test her; because it seems to him now that she has changed too much – and the unique person her became so fond of, just withered away as she grew more educated.
The test he gave her (without letting her know that he was testing her) was to read some of his poetry. This is the poetry which he believes is just something that he wrote when he was younger, when he believed that his poetry actually meant something. However, when he got older, and re-read his poetry, he realised that it was not as ‘profound and witty’ as he thought and Rita, when tried, made it out to be.
After she read it, she described the poetry as; ‘This is brilliant. They’re witty. They’re profound. Full of style. She says that she spent the whole night talking with her flatmate, Trish, about Frank’s poetry and they came to the conclusion that they were, ‘More resonant than – purely contemporary poetry in that you can see it in a direct line to nineteenth-century traditions of wit an’ classical allusion. ‘ At this, Frank does not seem impressed at all and he realises that Rita’s personality has been distorted by her education than what he thought imaginable. Frank finally gives in to his belief that Rita would turn out like this.
He, at last decided that he started the change of events that changed Rita from a unique and interesting [working-class] person to another of the educated, middle-class generics whom his is so familiar with. Rita being from the working class made her who she was. To Frank, this made her cynical and almost disrespectful with a yearning for something better, and this was the person who he became so fond of. But, it was her desire for something different that had eventually turned him away.
He tells her that she should called him Mary Shelley from then on; like she had called herself Rita (After Rita Mae Brown – an author she admired), explaining his analogy. Mary Shelly created Dr. Frankenstein, who created Frankenstein’s Monster. This monster was an accident in how it turned out but purely deliberate in its building. Frank had created this new Rita, a Rita that he hadn’t wanted the create, but did so anyway, (but not in the oblivious way that Dr. Frankenstein had, as Frank was worried about this from the very first scene).
Act Two, Scene Five portrays a lot of the worries that Frank has had throughout the whole play. ‘Oh, I’ve done a fine job on you, haven’t I,’ he says. But Rita doesn’t understand why he is being so offhand with her (this is the tone of the words that I get from Frank in this scene). Frank declares to her that ‘This – this clever, pyrotechnical pile of self conscious allusion is worthless talentless, shit … It is pretentious, characterless and without style. ‘ Rita defies this and Frank replies, ‘Oh, I don’t expect you to believe me, Rita; you recognise the hallmark of literature now, don’t you? He tells her to go away now because he can’t bear it anymore – he can’t bear being with her any longer. She interrupts and jeers at him, saying that he’s self-pitying and he can’t bear it that he can’t ‘baby’ her anymore now that’s she’s educated. She also tells him that she doesn’t need him anymore, because she finally has what she wanted. Their argument starts to get a little heated and he asks her rhetorically, ‘Found a culture have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing? No – you’ve found a different song, that’s all – and on your lips it’s shrill and hollow and tuneless.
Oh, Rita, Rita… ‘ I think that when the realisation hit that he was responsible for changing her, he did blame himself (the ‘Mary Shelley’ quote is enough evidence for this statement) and then there was fragment of text ‘… I don’t think I can bear it any longer. … Can’t bear what Frank? … You, my dear – you. ‘ I think that little piece was about Frank realising he had failed again and her being there was a permanent reminder that he had failed, so he told her what he felt and she shot him down.
And, other than his jealousy in several parts of the play (in parts involving ‘Tiger’ and Trish), his continuous ‘romantic’ advances towards her and also his sadness that she wasn’t including him in her life (in the later parts of Act Two), he doesn’t really wear his heart on his sleeve – and usually when he does, Rita just doesn’t take him seriously at all. She spits out later in the same scene that nobody calls her Rita except him, now, as she dropped that ‘pretentious crap’ as soon as saw it for what it was.
I believe that Frank is right in this particular part of the play. In his youth he had believed that his poetry had some meaning and it was worth something, but when he had got older; he soon realised that what he had written may have meant something – but in literature it was just was worthless and pretentious as Rita’s Macbeth essay from the first act. And for Rita to tell him that she recognised the essay as a great piece of literature did indeed aggravate him as he knew that it wasn’t.
I think secretly, Rita still wants his approval – and by complimenting something that seemed to mean so much to him seemed to be the answer, even if at the same time she was fighting for some independence for herself from him. I suppose if she hadn’t had come back in the final scene, then that would have been it for Frank: he’d have lost her for forever. I gathered from Scene Five that he was finding that he didn’t know her anymore, and her telling him that he didn’t even call her by the right name must have just been a bridge too far for Frank.
I felt that Rita was rather inconsiderate and hypocritical towards Frank in what she said; not to mention arrogant and full of her own self-importance. ‘I can do without you. ‘ Rita tells him. Maybe she can now, but she needed him through the bulk of the play and I think that Frank must have been more hurt than was actually portrayed in either the text or on the film. Frank is also portrayed in both the film and the play as a potential love interest for Rita, and though he does occasionally make advances towards her – there are no signs of her returning the gestures.
Certainly, throughout the play, his behaviour would suggest that he is in love with Rita (the jealousy towards the other people in her life, him being quite concerned throughout the play about her and every subject that is brought up about her life, him flirting with her and him having such an adverse reaction to every negative comment or criticism about him. ) And if he is not in love with her, then most certainly he has very strong [positive] feelings for her of some description.
But, I think that this is to portray that Frank is also quite lonely in his sad little bubble that he probably but around himself due to some sort of tragic event. But this love interest issue is something that Rita grows stronger from, rather than Frank growing from. In the final scene, he makes some half-hearted advances to her about her coming to Australia with him, but she declines and he lets the matter drop quite easily with his admitted defeat. In the film, he leaves for Australia and she comes to the airport to see him off. This is one of the scenes that only the film has.
These scenes are added, in, what I imagine is a vain attempt in trying to make Educating Rita an interesting film (in my own personally opinion; many would disagree). There are scenes of Rita without Frank, and scenes of Frank without Rita – and then the occasional scene of Julia and Denny who were never properly introduced to the audience during the play. This is to give the audience an experience of what each character is like, without having to resort to having to get the same characters ‘bouncing’ off each other, in the same way, every time.
Though, in the film, I personally thought that Frank was rather a bland character – even if the audience did see him drunk and falling about in front of the bursar’s house and falling off the podium during a lecture. One thing that I found very interesting about Frank’s character was from the journey from the start to the end of the play, (although he didn’t make much, if any, development as a character), I thought that his alcoholic problem was going to be a key point in the story and it would eventually cause some angst of some kind for the other characters in the play (Frank himself included).
I was right, because it destroyed him. Frank lost his job, (in the film he lost Julia and his best friend), he had already lost his wife long before the play and then finally, he lost Rita. We can see his life paralleled in the dialogue about the difference between a tragic event and a tragedy: ‘… It’s that flaw which forces him to take the inevitable steps towards his own doom … 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. The audience has a feeling by this point, that although he’s talking about Macbeth’s tragedy and the tragic event of a man dying because a tree fell on him, the audience knows that under that – Frank could be talking about his own life; a series of tragic events which set him into beginning his own inevitable path to his doom.
This is caused by, of course, his alcohol problem (and possibly his other personal problems of his insecurities, etc. . But, in spite of Frank being portrayed as plausibly bland in the film, Frank did show some emotion in parts of the film (especially at the end when the audience saw his eyes well up with tears when he and Rita parted) and, although this could just be to show what an amazing effect Rita had had on him, I think it was because the character had felt like her had genuinely lost something – possibly the final thing that he could have lost.
Just after the two characters had argued in Act Two, Scene Five; he had lost her, if only temporarily. This was one of the final tragic events which lead up to his downfall – being fired and going off to Australia. Frank wouldn’t have been given a tragedy plot if he was merely a supporting role to enhance the character of Rita. Russell probably wrote this in as a less obvious plot which suits Frank’s character perfectly, as Frank himself is not a particularly extroverted character.