Sitting at his desk, Frank busies himself with typing, periodically pausing to sip from a mug. Before long, Rita enters, aglow in a new (“second-hand”) dress. “Frank, it was fantastic,” she says. “What are you talking about, London or summer school?” he asks. “Both,” she says, explaining that she had a great time with a group of classmates who “stuck together all week,” staying up late and talking, getting drunk, going to the theatre, and buying second-hand clothes. She tells him how hard they all studied, relating a story about a young tutor whom she impressed with her wit. Changing the subject, she says, “Hey, what was France like?”, but Frank says there isn’t much to tell, though he says he did manage to do some writing. “So y’ wrote a bit an y’ drank a bit? Is that all?” she asks, and he says, “Julia left me.”
At the outset of the second act, the summer has passed. Rita has apparently spent time in London with a group of peers while studying at summer school. Considering the way she gushes about her time in the city, it’s clear she has found the kind of elite and educated culture she’s been seeking. Frank, on the other hand, has spent the summer drinking and dealing with a breakup. However, he has also done some writing, which is significant, because he hasn’t written anything since his wife left him. The only difference in his life, it seems, is Rita’s presence, suggesting that she has inspired him to return to poetry. Considering that he clearly has romantic feelings for her, this is rather unsurprising, since his original poetry was about the beginning of his relationship with his wife. In turn, the audience senses that budding romance is one of the only things that truly inspires Frank.
Frank explains to Rita that Julia left him while they were in France, but now they’re back together again. Since Frank clearly doesn’t want to talk about Julia anymore, he and Rita start discussing Trish, Rita’s new roommate. “She’s great,” Rita says. “Y’ know she’s dead classy. Y’ know, like she’s got taste, y’ know, like you, Frank, she’s just got it.” She asserts that she’s having the time of her life with her smart new friends. She then gives Frank a pen she made for him. Written on its side are the words, “Must only be used for poetry. By strictest order—Rita.”
When Rita talks about Trish’s sense of “taste,” Rita says, “she’s just got it.” As such, it becomes clear that she sees this kind of sophistication as something that some people innately possess. This, it seems, is what she wants: to reach a point where she’s so educated and elite that it seems as if she has an inherent command of style and grace.
Rita asks Frank what they’ll be studying. Her chipper attitude seems to bother him, though he doesn’t say anything about it. Rita grabs a bottle of scotch and asks why Frank drinks when he has “so much goin’ for [him].” She reminds him that his drinking habits will kill him, and he says, “I thought you weren’t interested in reforming me.” She acknowledges that this is true, but she also suggests that she thought Frank might start “reforming” himself under her influence. “But Rita,” he says, “if I repent and reform, what do I do when your influence is no longer here? What do I do when, in appalling sobriety, I watch you walk away and disappear, your influence gone for ever?” When she asks why he thinks she’ll “disappear,” he says, “Oh you will, Rita. You’ve got to.”
Frank’s curmudgeonly attitude seems to be a response to Rita’s excitement about having had a great time in London. Indeed, she has met new people who have enriched her life in the way that Frank cannot, since their relationship is confined to his office. As such, he is jealous, though he refrains from expressing this. Instead, he tries to seem apathetic about the reality of their relationship, which he suggests is predicated on a temporary connection. By saying that Rita will “walk away and disappear,” he underhandedly tries to make her feel guilty for abandoning him. At the same time, he recognizes that the point of their relationship is that she will eventually be able to move on from the classroom. This is why he says, “You’ve got to,” when she asks why he thinks she’ll leave. In this way, Russell shows that Frank grasps—and even accepts—that his connection with Rita has nothing to do with romance, even as he jealously bemoans this fact.
Frank chooses a collection of poetry by William Blake from the shelves, and Rita recites one of his most famous poems by memory. Registering Frank’s surprise, she explains that she covered Blake in summer school with an overzealous lecturer who loved his poems. Somewhat dejected, Frank walks to the shelf and replaces the book, returning to his chair as the lights go out.
In this moment, Frank feels unnecessary to Rita’s education. Now that she has gone to the city and studied with a number of exciting young intellectuals, it’s clear Frank’s sense of self-worth as her teacher has diminished, thereby further straining their mentor-pupil relationship.