In Educating Rita, Frank and Rita come from different backgrounds. Frank has lived a comfortable life as a university professor for many years, even enjoying some minor success as a poet in his early days. In contrast, Rita hails from England’s working class and spends long hours on her feet as a hairdresser. Throughout the play, though, Rita wants to shift away from this identity as a young working-class woman. To do this, she reads the books Frank gives her, makes fundamental changes to her personal life, and tries to secure an education that will enable her to transition away from her blue-collar background. In this way, she exalts the idea of becoming an elite intellectual and, in doing so, overlooks the merits of her own identity. Seeing this, Frank tries to dissuade her from discounting her own value. In turn, Willy Russell demonstrates that people often romanticize the idea of change and growth. By showcasing Rita’s eventual realization that she can retain parts of her old identity while still taking on new traits and skills, Russell suggests that people don’t have to entirely renounce their backgrounds to accommodate personal change.
Rita comes to study with Frank because she’s discontent with who she is and the life she leads. She tells Frank that the people she lives with—the people she’s surrounded by every day—have no “culture.” When Frank argues that she comes from a “working-class culture” that deserves its own recognition, she disagrees, saying, “I don’t see any culture; I just see everyone pissed or stoned tryin’ to find their way from one empty day to the next.” In an attempt to rise out of this hollow existence, she seeks out the stereotypical trappings of life as an elite intellectual, thinking that this will make her feel like somebody who isn’t simply living “from one empty day to the next.” After her first semester studying with Frank, she leaves her husband, Denny, acquires new friends, and moves in with an educated roommate named Trish. “She’s great,” she tells Frank. “Y’know she’s dead classy. Y’ know, like she’s got taste, y’ know, like you, Frank, she’s just got it.” According to Rita, education has enabled her to fraternize with people who are “classy”—people she admires for having a seemingly innate sense of “taste.” Simply put, by taking steps toward upward mobility, she romanticizes people like Frank and Trish, wanting badly to assimilate into the life of an intellectual, thereby leaving behind her supposed “working-class culture,” which she thinks doesn’t even deserve to be called a “culture” at all.
Despite Rita’s determination, Frank is hesitant to help her change. When Rita writes an essay about Macbeth that probably wouldn’t pass an exam, Frank insists that she should focus on how “moving” the piece is, insisting that is actually quite good. Instead of turning the essay into something that adheres to the standards of academic writing, he encourages her to see the merit of her own approach. “In its own terms it’s—it’s wonderful,” he says. However, Rita wants to learn to pass exams. In response, Frank says, “But if you’re going to write [that] sort of stuff you’re going to have to change.” Rita asks Frank to teach her how to change, but Frank replies, “But I don’t know if I want to tell you, Rita, I don’t know that I want to teach you. What you have already is valuable. […] Don’t you see, if you’re going to write this sort of thing—to pass examinations, you’re going to have to suppress… perhaps even abandon your uniqueness. I’m going to have to change you.” According to Frank, Rita has qualities worth keeping, though Rita herself has trouble acknowledging her worth. “But don’t you realise,” Rita exclaims, “I want to change!” Given her strong desire to “change,” it’s unsurprising that she proceeds to completely alter her personality, even transforming her voice in order to sound like her new educated friends.
Although Rita enthusiastically takes on the identity of an elite intellectual, she begins to understand by the end of the play that she has romanticized the idea of change. She recognizes that becoming an intellectual doesn’t automatically add meaning to a person’s life, admitting in the final scene that she was overzealous when she first came to Frank with the hopes of abandoning her identity as a working-class young woman. “I was so hungry,” she says. “I wanted it all so much that I didn’t want it to be questioned.” Now, though, she’s capable of “question[ing]” her desire to become somebody new, and this leads her to realize that she doesn’t have to entirely give up her identity in order to educate herself. In keeping with this, Rita gives Frank a haircut as a way of thanking him for educating her, ultimately drawing upon her blue-collar experience as a hairdresser without feeling like it will interfere with her new way of being. In turn, Russell presents the audience with a character who has found a way to merge two identities together, as Rita finally reconciles her working-class background with her newfound academic persona—proof that personal change doesn’t always mean erasing one’s entire identity.
Social Class and Identity ThemeTracker
Social Class and Identity 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…?
See, the properly educated, they know it’s only words, don’t they? It’s only the masses who don’t understand. But that’s because they’re ignorant; it’s not their fault, I know that, but sometimes they drive me mental. I do it to shock them sometimes; y’ know if I’m in the hairdresser’s—that’s where I work—I’ll say somethin’ like ‘I’m as fucked as a fanny on a Friday night!’ and some of the customers, they’ll have a right gob on them just ’cos I come out with something like that. […] But it doesn’t cause any kind of fuss with educated people though, does it? Because they know it’s only words and they don’t worry. But these stuck-up ones I meet, they think they’re royalty just because they don’t swear. An’ anyway, I wouldn’t mind but it’s the aristocracy who swear more than anyone, isn’t it, they’re effing and blinding all day long; with them it’s all, ‘I say, the grouse is particularly fucking lovely today although I’m afraid the spuds are a bit bollocks don’t you think?’ (She sighs.) But y’ can’t tell them that round our way. It’s not their fault; they can’t help it. But sometimes I hate them. (Beat.) God…what’s it like to be free?
They expect too much. 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. Do you think I will? Think I’ll be able to do it.
I’ve been realisin’ for ages that I was…slightly out of step. I’m twenty-six. I should have had a baby by now; everyone expects it—I’m sure my husband thinks I’m infertile. He’s always goin’ on about havin’ babies. We’ve been tryin’ for two years now; but I’m still on the pill! See, I don’t want a baby yet. I wanna find myself first, discover myself. Do you understand that?
Yeh. They wouldn’t round our way. I’ve tried to explain to my husband but between you an’ me I think he’s just thick! No, not thick; blind, that’s what he is. He can’t see because he doesn’t want to see. If I try an’ do anything different he gets a gob on him; even if I’m just reading or watchin’ somethin’ different on the telly he gets really narked.
Rita: See, if I’d started takin’ school seriously then I would have had to become different from my mates; an’ that’s not allowed.
Frank: Not allowed by whom?
Rita: By y’ mates, y’ family, by everyone. So y’ never admit that school could be anythin’ other than useless an’ irrelevant. An’ what you’ve really got to be into are things like music an’ clothes and getting’ pissed an’ coppin’ off an’ all that kind of stuff. Not that I didn’t go along with it because I did. But at the same time, there was always somethin’ tappin’ away in my head, tryin’ to tell me I might have got it all wrong. But I’d just put the music back on or buy another dress an’ stop worryin’. ’Cos there’s always something that can make y’ forget. An’ so y’ keep on goin’, tellin’ y’self that life is great—there’s always another club to go to, a new feller to be chasin’, a laugh an’ a joke with the girls. Till one day, you just stop an’ own up to yourself. Y’ say, ‘Is this it? Is this the absolute maximum that I can expect from this livin’ lark?’ An’ that’s the really big moment that is. Because that is when you’ve got to decide whether it’s gonna be another change of dress or a change in yourself.
There is no contentment. Because there’s no meanin’ left. (Beat.) Sometimes, when y’ hear the old ones tellin’ stories about the past, y’ know, about the war or when they were all strugglin’, fightin’ for food and clothes and houses, their eyes light up while they’re tellin y’ because there was some meanin’ then. But what’s…what’s stupid is that now…now that most of them have got some kind of a house an’ there is food an’ money around, they’re better off but, honest, they know they’ve got nothin’ as well—because the meanin’s all gone; so there’s nothin’ to believe in. It’s like there’s this sort of disease but no one mentions it; everyone behaves as though it’s normal, y’ know, inevitable, that there’s vandalism an’ violence an’ houses burnt out and wrecked by the people they were built for. But this disease, it just keeps on bein’ hidden; because everyone’s caught up in the ‘Got-to-Have’ game, all runnin’ round like headless chickens chasin’ the latest got-to-have tellies an’ got-to-have cars, got-to-have garbage that leaves y’ wonderin’ why you’ve still got nothin’—even when you’ve got it. (Beat.) I suppose it’s just like me, isn’t it, y’ know when I was buyin’ dresses, keepin’ the disease covered up all the time.
I’m all right with you, here in this room; but when I saw those people you were with I couldn’t come in. I would have seized up. Because I’m a freak. I can’t talk to the people I live with any more. An’ I can’t talk to the likes of them on Saturday, or them out there, because I can’t learn the language. I’m an alien. I went back to the pub where Denny was, an’ me mother, an’ our Sandra, an’ her mates. I’d decided I wasn’t comin’ here again. I went into the pub an’ they were singin’, all of them singin’ some song they’d learnt from the jukebox. An’ I stood in that pub an’ thought, just what in the name of Christ am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in, stay with them, an’ join in with the singin’?
Well, I did join in with the singin’, I didn’t ask any questions, I just went along with it. But when I looked round, my mother had stopped singin’, an’ she was cryin’. Everyone just said she was pissed an’ we should get her home. So we did, an’ on the way I asked her why. I said, ‘Why are y’ cryin’, Mother?’ She said, ‘Because—because we could sing better songs than those.’ Ten minutes later, Denny had her laughing and singing again, pretending she hadn’t said it. But she had. And that’s why I came back. And that’s why I’m staying.
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.