In Educating Rita, Willy Russell demonstrates that mentorship relationships are often fraught with complex interpersonal dynamics. From the outset of the play, Frank and Rita’s rapport seems to go beyond that of a standard teacher-student relationship. Russell quickly establishes that both Frank and Rita appreciate one another as individuals, suggesting that mentors and pupils often form bonds that transcend the very context of their relationships. Having said that, it’s worth noting that Frank’s lurking (but still apparent) romantic interest in Rita impedes his ability to effectively serve as her mentor and tutor. At various times throughout the play, he becomes jealous of Rita’s new friends and her life outside his tutelage, and this jealousy encourages him to spitefully shirk his role as her teacher. This clearly does a disservice to Rita, who merely wants to learn from Frank. Thankfully, Frank never actually makes a sexual or outright romantic advance, and so his and Rita’s dynamic remains more or less productive to her education. Nonetheless, by highlighting how close Frank comes to derailing his relationship with Rita by blurring its boundaries, Russell illustrates the volatility of mentorship relationships. Although mentor-pupil connections sometimes become personal, romantic overtones can arise to the detriment of the relationship’s educational purpose and thus must be navigated with caution and restraint.
In the play’s second scene, Frank makes several comments that reveal how he feels about Rita. While both of them have by now made it clear that they admire each other for various (innocent) reasons, Frank admits that he is attracted to more than Rita’s intelligence. This becomes apparent when Rita asks him why he’s teaching her, a question he answers by saying, “Because it’s what you wanted. If it was up to me, what I’d like to do is take you by the hand and run out of this room for ever.” Rita, for her part, ignores this as flattery, but he insists on showing her his romantic and sexual interest, saying, “Right now there are a thousand things I’d rather do than teach—most of them with you, young woman.” As if this sexually charged statement doesn’t do enough to show Rita his attraction to her, he adds, “Oh Rita! Why didn’t you walk in here twenty years ago?” By saying these things, Frank blatantly showcases his feelings for Rita. In turn, Rita sees that these feelings are more personal and intimate than the kind of feelings that normally characterize a relationship between a mentor and a student. In response, she reminds Frank of the context of their connection, saying, “But it’s not twenty years ago, Frank. It’s now—you’re there an’ I’m here.” When she says, “you’re there an’ I’m here,” she instills a sense of distance between Frank and herself, ultimately emphasizing the fact that they’re in a professional and academic situation in which he is an older professor and she is a younger student. By doing this, she manages to keep their relationship from becoming too personal. Fortunately, this helps Frank acknowledge that their connection isn’t based on romance or attraction, but on learning. “Yes,” he says, “and you’re here for an education.” With this, he turns his attention back to the lesson plan.
It’s rather unsurprising that Frank takes a romantic interest in Rita, considering that he seems to have a history of becoming involved with his students. When Rita asks if he lives by himself, he says, “No! I live with someone; an ex-student, she’s now a tutor here. She’s very caring, very tolerant, admires me enormously […].” As such, Russell shows that Frank has a tendency to enter into personal relationships with students, especially if they “admire” him. Since Rita herself “admires” Frank’s wit and intelligence (and later, his poetry), it’s no shock that he wants to “take [her] by the hand and run” away with her. The more he feels this way about her, though, the more the nature of their mentor-pupil relationship changes. For instance, when Rita starts spending time with a group of cultured students and makes new friends, Frank has a hard time accepting her newfound independence. Jealous, he tries to make her feel guilty for developing herself intellectually with these people. When he criticizes her views on the poet William Blake (views informed by her new friends), she says, “I don’t have to go along with your views on Blake, y’know. I can have a mind of my own, can’t I?” In response, he tells her to “be careful.” Angrily pacing about, she informs him that she can have opinions of her own and asks him why she should “be careful.” He responds, “Because—because I care for you—I want you to care for yourself.” When he says this, it becomes evident that he’s letting his romantic feelings influence the advice he imparts to Rita. Unfortunately, this advice does nothing but hold her back, inhibiting her growth as a free-thinker, since an important part of education is testing out new ideas and opinions.
Thankfully, Rita recognizes that Frank’s feelings for her threaten to inhibit her intellectual development. She acknowledges this by saying, “I—I care for you, Frank…But you’ve got to—to leave me alone a bit.” Indeed, Rita cares for Frank, but not in the romantic way he cares for her. Once again, she reminds him of the nature of their relationship, and this helps keep them on platonic grounds. By the end of the play—after Rita has passed her exams—they manage to show each other that they “care” for one another without beginning a romantic relationship. As such, Russell intimates that the complicated emotional dynamics that often arise between mentors and their pupils don’t necessarily have to ruin the relationship, as long as the teacher and student find a way to manage their feelings without fundamentally shifting the relationship from an educational one to a romantic one.
Mentorship Quotes in Educating Rita
Well, then you shouldn’t have prepared supper, should you? Because I said, darling, I distinctly recall saying that I would be late…Yes, yes, I probably shall go to the pub afterwards—I shall no doubt need to go to the pub afterwards if only to mercifully wash away some silly woman’s attempts to get into the mind of Henry James or Thomas Hardy or whoever the hell it is we’re supposed to study on this course…Christ, why did I take this on? …Yes, darling, yes, I suppose I did take it on to pay for the drink… Determined to go to the pub? When did I need determination to get me into a pub…?
I’ll make a bargain with you, yes? I’ll teach you everything I know…but if I do that then you must promise never to come back here…because there’s nothing here for you! You see I never…I didn’t want to teach this course in the first place; allowed myself to be talked into it. But I knew it was wrong and seeing you only confirms my suspicion. My dear, it’s not your fault, just the luck of the draw that you got assigned to me; but get me you did. And the thing is, between you, me and the walls, I’m really rather an appalling teacher. Most of the time that doesn’t really matter—appalling teaching is quite in order when most of my students are themselves fairly appalling. And the others manage to get by despite me. But you, young woman, you are quite, quite different, 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.
Look, there’s a way of answering examination questions that is…expected. It’s a sort of accepted ritual. It’s a game, with rules. And you have to observe those rules. Poets can ignore those rules; poets can break every rule in the book; poets are not trying to pass examinations. But Rita, you are. And therefore you must observe the rules.
Rita (angrily): What d’ y’ mean be careful? I can look after myself. Just ’cos I’m learnin’, just ’cos I can do it now an’ read what I wanna read an’ understand without havin’ to come runnin’ to you every five minutes y’ start tellin’ me to be careful. (She paces about.)
Frank: Because—because I care for you—I want you to care for yourself.
Rita: Tch. (She goes right up to Frank. After a pause.) I—I care for you, Frank…But you’ve got to—to leave me alone a bit. I’m not an idiot now, Frank—I don’t need you to hold me hand as much…I can—I can do things on me own more now…And I’m careful. I know what I’m doin’. Just don’t—don’t keep treatin’ me as though I’m the same as when I first walked in here.