In his austere university office, Frank searches his alphabetized bookshelves. When he finds the section he’s looking for, he removes several books so that the audience sees a bottle of scotch that has been hiding behind the tomes. Frank empties the alcohol into his glass. Startled by the ringing telephone, he sips his drink before answering the call. He informs the person on the other end of the line—whom he calls Julia—that he has a student coming from Open University, wondering aloud why he ever decided to “take this on.” After a brief pause, he says, “Yes, darling, yes, I suppose I did take it on to pay for the drink.” He then tells her to leave his dinner in the oven because he plans to go to the pub after meeting with his new student.
In the opening scene of Educating Rita, Frank displays apathy when it comes to his apparent drinking problem. When Julia—probably his wife or girlfriend—points out that he took on an extra student in order to pay for his drinking habit, he doesn’t even refute the claim. In fact, he agrees that he makes decisions based on his alcoholism, clearly ignoring the critique and making peace with his problem—an early indication that his sense of self-worth is quite low. The brief mention of Open University refers to a program in which community members who are not matriculating students of the university can enroll to study with professors.
A knock sounds on Frank’s office door. Promising Julia that he’ll only have “a couple of pints” (but whispering, “four…!” to himself), he hangs up. He opens the door, and Rita enters. Right away, Frank and Rita confuse one another with their styles of speaking, going back and forth in an elliptical conversation as Frank tries to remember Rita’s name. “Now, you are?” he asks, and she responds, “What am I?” Turning to a nude painting hanging on the wall, Rita says, “It’s nice, isn’t it?” In turn, Frank says, “I suppose it is, erm ‘nice.’” Continuing her examination of the artwork, Rita considers whether or not the painter intended it to be erotic, suggesting that this kind of work was “like the porn of its day.” Frank, for his part, can’t deny this fact and is amused by Rita’s unreserved observation.
During Rita and Frank’s first conversation, Russell plays upon their different styles of speaking. Coming from a working-class background, Rita doesn’t use eloquent language to speak about art, instead calling the portrait on Frank’s wall “nice.” Because Frank is used to dealing with prestigious—and most likely pretentious—people in the academic world, he’s caught off guard by this understatement. Nonetheless, he seems to admire Rita’s straightforwardness, appreciating her assessment that the nude portrait must have been “the porn of its day.” It seems that he’s not used to this kind of honesty, and so he finds Rita’s perspective refreshing. In turn, Russell implies that Rita might end up teaching Frank just as much as he teaches her.
Shifting her attention away from the painting, Rita admits that she was surprised Open University accepted her as a student, though she adds that they must accept anybody, suggesting that they’re probably “desperate.” She then offers Frank a cigarette, which he declines because he has quit smoking. Rita disapproves, bemoaning the fact that everybody these days is afraid of getting cancer. “You’ve got to challenge death an’ disease,” she declares, saying she read a fantastic poem recently about this idea. “Ah, Dylan Thomas,” says Frank, but Rita tells him the poem is by Roger McGough and that Frank probably wouldn’t like it because “it’s the sort of poetry you can understand.” Taking a cue from this, Frank asks if she thinks it’s important that poetry be understood, and she affirms that she does, admitting that poetry isn’t the only thing she doesn’t understand.
Rita underhandedly insults herself when she says that she was surprised when Open University allowed her to sign up for classes. This attitude suggests that she doesn’t think she’s worthy of studying in this context, which is prestigious and elite. However, it’s worth noting how Frank and Rita’s conversation easily transitions into an educational discussion of poetry. As they converse, they naturally begin talking about educational material, which suggests that academic study can blossom even in casual contexts, not just in the narrow confines of a lesson plan. The poem Frank assumes Rita is talking about is Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” but she’s actually talking about “Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death” by the performance poet Roger McGough—a poet to whom Rita would no doubt have more experience with, since his work was more accessible to uneducated readers and listeners.
Frank offers Rita a drink, and though she says that scotch kills a person’s brain cells, she accepts. Searching for a new bottle (since he finished the last one before Rita’s arrival), Frank pulls the book Howards End from the shelf and takes yet another scotch from behind it. When he sets the book down, Rita picks it up and says, “Sounds filthy, doesn’t it? E.M. Foster.” Correcting her, Frank says, “Forster!”, and Rita says, “Forced her to do what?” After a moment, Frank breaks into “real and appreciative laughter” (according to the stage note) and says that E.M. Forster wouldn’t have “forced ‘her’ to do anything,” since he was a “committed homosexual.” Her interest sparked, Rita asks if the book is about being gay, and Frank offers to loan it to her.
Once again, the audience sees how seamlessly Frank and Rita transition into talking about educational material. What begins with Frank offering Rita a drink ends in a discussion of one of the twentieth century’s most famous British novelists, E.M. Forster. Interestingly enough, Howards End includes one of Forster’s best known quotes: “Only connect.” In this moment, Frank and Rita are not only connecting their conversation to a discussion of literature, but are also connecting across social classes, each one seemingly charmed by the other’s refreshing perspective.
Rita decides to take Frank up on his offer, saying she will indeed borrow Howards End, adding that she can mail it back to him if she ends up deciding to quit the class. “You’ve not even started yet,” he says. “Why should you pack it in?” In response, Rita tells him that she might decide coming here was a “stupid idea.” Confused, Frank asks why she enrolled in the course in the first place, and Rita says, “Because I want to know.” When Frank asks what, exactly, she wants to know, she says, “Everything.” She explains that she wants to be the type of person who can pass exams or watch operas and ballets and “understand” them. Rather than calling such performances “rubbish” because she doesn’t comprehend what’s going on, she wants to grasp the deeper meaning embedded in high art.
Rita’s assertion that she might quit Frank’s course is a defense mechanism. Indeed, she is making herself vulnerable by seeking out an education, which means that coming to Frank as a student is most likely intimidating. If she fails, she might feel stupid and worthless. In order to protect herself from this fate, then, she gives herself a way out, saying that the very idea of pursuing education might be “stupid” in and of itself. What’s interesting, though, is that she also reveals her vast ambition. Although she gives herself an excuse to quit if things don’t go well, she also sets the bar very high for herself, determining to learn “everything” there is to “know” about art and literature.
Rita asks Frank if he minds that she swears, and he assures her that he doesn’t. This pleases her and confirms her theory that “the properly educated” don’t care about vulgar language because they understand that “it’s only words.” Unfortunately, she says, the people she spends most of her time with “don’t understand” this, instead thinking that crass language is offensive. She even admits that she sometimes purposefully tries to “shock” her clients when she’s working as a hairdresser. What annoys her, she tells Frank, is that working-class people “think they’re royalty just because they don’t swear,” despite the fact that “it’s the aristocracy who swear more than anyone.” “But y’ can’t tell them that round our way,” she says. “It’s not their fault; they can’t help it. But sometimes I hate them.”
In this moment, Rita highlights what she sees as the difference between her working-class background and the more prestigious ranks of the academic sphere. She is, it seems, extremely unhappy with her socioeconomic standing, and so she aspires to become part of the “aristocracy.” The fact that she says that working-class people “don’t understand” what it means to swear suggests that she doesn’t align herself with these people, but rather with the elite class of educated individuals who—she thinks—better grasp the fact that swears are “only words.”
Interested in the considerations Rita has unearthed, Frank offers her another drink while pouring himself one. As he does so, Rita admits that she wouldn’t have stayed if he had objected to her swearing. She then suddenly asks, “What does ‘assonance’ mean?” The question is so unexpected that Frank has to spit out some of his scotch as he laughs. “Don’t laugh at me,” Rita says. Quickly growing serious, Frank tries to explain that assonance is “a form of rhyme in which the corresponding vowels have the same sound but not the consonants that precede or follow the vowels.” After he and Rita go through a few examples of assonance, Rita posits, “So…so ‘assonance’ means gettin’ the rhyme wrong?” This definition strikes Frank as surprisingly apt, and he says, “Yes, in a way, yes it does, it bloody well does.”
This is the first moment in which Frank seems to grasp just how striking Rita’s natural intelligence is. At first, he’s merely surprised and amused by her honesty and wit—he even spits out his drink because her question about assonance is so unexpected. However, she quickly proves that she not only grasps his explanation, but also is capable of defining assonance in an even more tangible and creative manner
Frank says he’s surprised by Rita’s name, since her forms indicate that her first name begins with an “S.” “Oh that!” she says. “Yeh, that’s just ‘S’ for ‘Susan.’ That’s my real name. I’ve changed it to Rita though. I’m not Susan any more. I’ve called myself Rita—y’ know, after Rita Mae Brown.” When Frank’s confusion is obvious, Rita says, “Y’ know, Rita Mae Brown—Rubyfruit Jungle. Rita Mae Brown, she wrote Rubyfruit Jungle.” Frank confesses that he’s never read this book, which Rita can’t believe. In fact, she’s so shocked that she reaches into her bag and produces a copy, insisting that he borrow it from her.
Rubyfruit Jungle is a novel that came out in 1973 and is known as one of the first lesbian coming-of-age stories. Despite its fame and merit, though, some people write the novel off as lewd and pedestrian—most likely because of its extremely sexual content. When Rita waxes poetic about Rubyfruit Jungle, then, the audience sees that she is interested in literature that Frank most likely either looks down upon or has no desire to read. Once again, Russell accentuates the difference between Frank and Rita’s backgrounds while also opening up space in the play for Rita to introduce Frank to new ideas.
Frank asks Rita about her experience as a hairdresser, and she tells him that the clients get on her “nerves.” She explains that they always request silly things that won’t make their hair look good, but they insist that she give them what they want. “They expect too much,” she says. “They walk into the hairdresser’s and expect to walk out an hour later as a different person. I tell them, I’m just a hairdresser, not a plastic surgeon. See, most of them, that’s why they come the hairdresser’s—because they want to be changed. But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’? Know like I’m doin’…tryin’ to do.” She then asks Frank if he thinks she will be able to change, and he tells her it depends upon how “committed” she is. In response, she assures him that she’s “dead serious.”
Once again, it becomes clear that Rita is unhappy with her life as a young working-class woman. Instead of spending her days helping people “change” on the outside, she wants to achieve a more meaningful sense of transformation, which she believes must take place from “the inside.” This is why she’s pursuing an education: to improve her sense of self-worth while also rising into a supposedly more elite social class.
Frank reiterates admiringly that Rita wants to “know” “everything.” He then pauses for a moment and studies her, and when she asks why he’s looking at her, he says, “Because I think you’re really rather marvelous.” Moving on, he asks what has led her to suddenly seek an education, and she explains that it actually isn’t so “sudden.” “I’ve been realisin’ for ages that I was…slightly out of step,” she says. “I’m twenty-six. I should have had a baby by now; everyone expects it—I’m sure my husband thinks I’m infertile.” She tells Frank that her husband (later referred to as Denny) is always talking about having babies, but that she doesn’t want to get pregnant yet. In fact, they’ve been “trying” for two years to have a baby, but she has secretly been taking the pill. “See, I don’t want a baby yet. I wanna find myself first, discover myself.”
Two things happen in this section that are worth noting. First, Frank articulates his admiration for Rita. This is important because he is otherwise so fed up with academia and his job as a professor. Indeed, he can’t even refrain from drinking heavily at work. Suddenly, though, he’s deeply interested in a student, whom he finds “marvelous.” Second, Rita reveals that she wants to “discover” herself, an idea that implies that she believes—on some level—that there’s something more to her than the identity she has cultivated thus far in life. In order to pursue this, she lies to her husband and ignores what her community expects of her, thereby acting upon a sense of personal agency and a desire to improve herself regardless of what other people want her to do.
Once again, Frank offers Rita another drink while pouring himself one. “When d’ you actually, y’ know, start teaching me?” she asks, and he wonders what he could “possibly” teach her. “Everythin’,” she says. After a pause, Frank proposes a bargain, saying that he’ll teach her everything he knows if she promises never to return. He insists that there’s “nothing here for” her, admitting that he never wanted to teach this course because he “knew it was wrong,” and now Rita has only “confirm[ed]” his “suspicion.” He tells her that he’s “really rather an appalling teacher,” though normally this doesn’t matter because his students themselves are also “fairly appalling.” “But you, young woman, you are quite, quite different,” he says, “you are seeking a very great deal indeed; and I’m afraid I cannot provide it. Everything I know—and you must listen to this—is that I know absolutely nothing.”
In this moment, Frank makes it overwhelmingly clear that he not only has a very low sense of self-worth, but that he doesn’t believe in model of institutionalized education despite his occupation as a professor. When he says he has always thought that tutoring people “was wrong,” he implies that the very act of teaching somebody in this context threatens to diminish that person’s inherent curiosity and intelligence. Because he finds Rita so “marvelous”—and because she is “seeking” so much in terms of education—he refuses to take her on as a pupil, insisting that he knows “nothing,” despite the fact that he works at a well-respected university.
After Frank’s tirade, Rita slowly walks out the door. Moments later, though, she comes back and struggles with the stubborn door handle, yelling at Frank to let her in. “Leave me alone,” Frank says, intent on going to the pub. “There are other tutors, I’ve told you.” In response, Rita shouts that she doesn’t want another tutor. When she finally manages to open the door, she says that she wants to study with Frank because he’s a “crazy mad piss artist” and because she likes him. She also adds that she’s going to bring her scissors when she returns because his hair is ridiculous. “You are not coming back next week,” he says, but she ignores him, proudly exiting without paying attention to his protests.
Although Frank’s outburst scares Rita off at first, his unconventional approach is ultimately appealing to her. This makes sense, considering that she also refuses to simply go along with what society expects of her.