Frank, a middle-aged professor, drinks scotch in his university office and has a telephone conversation with Julia, his girlfriend. Sipping his drink, he tells her that he’ll miss dinner because he has to give a private tutoring session to a woman taking night classes at the university. He adds that he plans to go to the pub after the tutorial, saying that the entire reason he agreed to take on this extra teaching load was to pay for his drinking habit. When he hangs up, his student arrives. Her name is Rita, a hairdresser with a large personality. Within minutes of arriving, she surprises Frank by swearing and talking bluntly about a nude painting hanging in his office. Although some of her observations are crass, he’s pleasantly surprised by her wit and commentary.
Rita tells Frank about life as a hairdresser, saying that her clients expect too much of her. “I tell them, I’m just a hairdresser, not a plastic surgeon,” she says. “They want to be changed. But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’?” She adds that this is what she’s trying to do by seeking an education. When Frank asks what she wants to learn, she says, “Everything.” Surprised, he asks what has led her to this sudden pursuit (she is, after all, twenty-six, making her older than the average student). In response, she explains that her decision wasn’t “sudden.” In fact, she’s been thinking for “ages” about pursuing an education, since she’s unhappy with her current working-class life. She says that everybody in her community, including her husband, expects her to get pregnant, but she’s not ready to become a mother. Instead, she wants to “find” herself first. As such, she takes birth control pills, though Denny, her husband, doesn’t know this.
Frank quickly comes to admire Rita throughout the course of their conversation. Because he appreciates her untrained intelligence, he tells her that he can’t be her tutor. “There’s nothing here for you!” he says. Going on, he tells her that he’s an “appalling” teacher, and that this usually doesn’t matter because his students are normally “appalling,” too, but that she isn’t appalling. He claims he has nothing to offer her, stating, “Everything I know—and you must listen to this—is that I know absolutely nothing.” Hearing this, Rita slowly leaves, but she immediately returns and declares that she’ll return in a week because she likes him and wants him to be her tutor.
Throughout the semester, Frank teaches Rita how to write literary criticism. For her first assignment, she pens an appreciation of her favorite novel, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Frank teaches her that the style of her essay doesn’t meet the standards of academic writing, which demands a certain amount of objectivity. Explaining that her essay wouldn’t receive a good grade on an examination, he urges Rita to “discipline” her mind.
During their sessions, Frank and Rita often discuss personal matters. Rita, for example, asks about Frank’s past as a poet, asking why he doesn’t write anymore. Reluctantly, he tells her he stopped when his wife left him. Now, he explains, he lives with Julia, a former student who admires him and also teaches at the university. When he tries to direct Rita’s attention back to the educational material at hand, she insists that they keep chatting. There should be room in education, she argues, for students to explore multiple topics. Frank is enthralled by this idea, agreeing wholeheartedly that teachers are too quick to squelch enthusiasm and curiosity by forcing their students to think in the narrow-minded ways deemed worthwhile by academia.
During the semester, Frank gives Rita an assignment to answer how a person might go about navigating the “staging difficulties” that come along with putting on a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. In response, she writes, “Do it on the radio.” Once again, Frank tells her that there are a set of rules and expectations when it comes to answering academic questions. Despite Rita’s rather uninvolved answer, though, she tells him that she’s been thinking a lot about the play, considering the fact that its protagonist searches for meaning in his life. In fact, the play has been on her mind so much that she talks about it to her clients at the salon (since she can’t talk about it with Denny, who hates that she’s getting an education and thus forbids her from doing anything academic at home). This leads Frank and Rita into a conversation about “working-class culture,” which Rita argues doesn’t exist. Indeed, she upholds that her way of life is completely devoid of meaning, since everybody wants to buy material objects instead of actually doing anything to change their lives. Even she has lived this way, she says, telling Frank that she used to buy dresses as a way of distracting herself from her discontent. Now, though, she has decided to refrain from buying a new dress until after she has passed her first exam.
Not long thereafter, Rita comes to Frank’s office without an essay she was supposed to hand in. Although she did write it, Denny finally got fed up with her academic pursuits and burned the piece, along with several books Frank lent her. “You’d think I was havin’ a fuckin’ affair the way he behaves,” she laments, and Frank suggests that perhaps Denny thinks she’s having an affair with him. Rita contests this, saying she has told Denny that her relationship with Frank isn’t romantic.
As Frank and Rita’s mentor-pupil relationship grows, Frank becomes enamored of her. His romantic feelings surface in their conversations, as he makes insinuations about wanting to run away with her. Despite Frank’s interest, Rita manages to let these comments roll off her. Without insulting her mentor, she successfully shifts the conversation back to academic matters.
One day, Rita rushes into the office and tells Frank she has just seen a production of Macbeth. Floored by the play’s beauty, she decides to write an essay about it. Frank then invites her to a dinner party, telling her she can bring Denny. Although she’s hesitant at first, she agrees to come. In the next scene, though, they’re back in the office and talking about why she never showed up. Frank says Julia was upset to have two empty seats at dinner, and Rita explains that she wanted to come but that Denny refused. Nonetheless, she went on her own. But as she approached the house, she saw Frank and his guests through the window and was unable to enter. Feeling like she’d never fit in with this crowd, she turned around and went to the pub where Denny and her mother were drinking and singing along to a jukebox. As they sang, she decided to never come back to Frank’s office, resolving instead to join Denny and her mother in their singing. Just then, though, her mother started crying, saying that they could “sing better songs.” Before long, Denny cheered her back up, but her comment stuck with Rita. As such, she changed her mind, once again determining to continue her quest to attain upward mobility by securing an education.
In the play’s second act, Rita has just returned from summer school in London, and Frank has returned from a vacation in France, where he wrote a little bit and broke up with Julia for a very short period before getting back together again. In contrast, Rita had a wonderful time in the city, where she studied with inspiring young tutors and consorted with enthusiastic students. As she tells Frank about her experience, it becomes clear that he doesn’t want to hear about her adventures. Offering cranky responses, he tells Rita that they’ll be studying the poetry of William Blake. As he takes a Blake anthology off the shelf, Rita perfectly recites one of the author’s most famous poems from memory—an impressive feat that only seems to disappoint Frank. Nonetheless, he gives her an assignment to write an essay about a Blake poem.
As Rita’s second semester progresses, she starts spending time with a group of new friends. This group is made up of students who go to the university and are the kind of intellectual company she has always wanted to keep. Around this time, Denny discovers she has been secretly taking birth control. When he gives her an ultimatum to either stop getting an education or move out, she finally decides to leave him. She then moves in with a cultured and educated young woman named Trish. As she gains independence, her mentor-pupil relationship with Frank suffers. When she writes an essay about a Blake poem that doesn’t align with his academic views, he disparages her work, saying she has left behind her unique way of looking at the world. She tries to tell him that she can have her own ideas and that she doesn’t have to agree with everything he says, but he merely says, “Be careful,” upholding that she has taken on the identity of an elite academic at the expense of her own personality. When she asks why he wants her to be careful, he says, “Because I care for you.”
Rita continues spending time with her new group of friends, including a man called Tiger, of whom Frank is jealous. She also stops working at the hair salon, instead taking on a waitressing job at a bistro. Frank, for his part, starts drinking more than normal, feeling like Rita doesn’t want to study with him. She points out that she would probably enjoy coming to his tutorials more if he wasn’t always drinking so much, and this sparks an argument, at the end of which Frank thrusts a pile of his own poetry into her arms and tells her to write an essay about his work.
The next day, Rita surprises Frank by appearing in his office. She couldn’t wait to come, she explains, because she wants to tell him that his poetry is magnificent—both she and Trish think so. In response, Frank calls his work “worthless,” which frustrates Rita so much that she storms out, determined never to return. Later, Frank drunkenly calls her apartment and tells Trish that he has signed Rita up for her exams.
In the play’s final scene, Rita finds Frank packing up his belongings. Because of his excessive drunkenness, the university is forcing him to take a sabbatical in Australia. As he puts his suitcases down, Rita thanks him for signing her up for her exams and tells him he’s a good teacher. Apparently, the exam’s first question asked her to outline how she might navigate the “staging difficulties” of producing Peer Gynt. Because Frank asked her this very same question, she knew exactly how to answer, and although she was tempted to write, “Do it on the radio”—an answer she knew would please Frank because it would show that she hasn’t changed—she decided to put down a more acceptable response. “I had a choice,” she says. “I chose, me. Because of what you’d given me.” As a result, she passed the exam. To congratulate her, Frank gives her a beautiful dress he bought for her. Grateful, Rita tells Frank to sit down. She then finds a pair of scissors and tells him she’s going to give him a haircut.