“Found a better song to sing have you? No you’ve found a different song that’s all and on your lips it’s shrill hollow and tuneless. ” In the light of this quotation from ‘Educating Rita’ explain how Rita’s background and environment were a poor song and show how this reflects Russell’s own experiences. Why does Frank accuse her of singing a ‘shrill, hollow and tuneless’ song How far would you agree with his assessment of her and how do the main characters resolve their differences at the end of the play?
The character of Rita is based on Willy Russell himself; both of their backgrounds are ‘Poor songs’. They come from the same kind of poor, deprived, working class, Liverpool family, in situations were education is considered a low priority, a culture where family-raising and work are the cornerstones of life and the roles of the man as breadwinner, leader, head of the family and the woman as loving wife, home-maker and child-bearer are set in stone.
Both Rita and Russell went to tough schools were people were bullied and ruled by fear, where those who wanted to learn were stopped by intimidation and those who were different were singled out, picked on, isolated. As a result neither of them received an adequate education. However they did, of course, have to go out and work so they were forced, by pressures from their families, to find a job and earn.
No matter that it was something they didn’t enjoy, or even understand, they had to go out to work, earn, get married and start a family. This was the plan for life, the standard model which was applied to them both by their families and friends and they were either going to have to follow it or reject it and with it reject their loved ones. Whilst Rita was probably always destined to become a ladies hairdresser, for Russell hairdressing was a ‘lucky’ escape from the dreaded ‘factory fodder’ life which he had feared since childhood.
He had seemed equally destined to fall into it from the ‘D-stream’ which his life was set upon but after failing his exams and avoiding work in his underground club he eventually came out to face his family and after the arguments he was, after a random comment from his mother that he become a hairdresser, packed off to college to study something he was completely uninterested in but, for lack of any better suggestions for a career choice, he went along with it and in the end both Rita and Russell ended up as hairdressers, fulfilling the ‘common ritual called employment’.
When Rita began the course she knew that she was highly ignorant of classical literature and performing arts such as opera and theatre and she is ashamed of it. Russell presents Rita as a character driven largely by her shame. Long ago Rita came to the realization that she was unfulfilled in her life, Frank asks her: ‘What is it that’s suddenly led you to this? ‘ Rita says: ‘It’s not sudden’.
Even in school she was frustrated, she was led along by the peer pressure from her friends and, maybe because she had not properly realized that she wanted something more and because she would certainly have been ostracized for it, she allowed herself to be led. She says to Frank ‘if I’d started takin’ school seriously I would have had to become different from me mates, an’ that’s not allowed. ‘ Like almost all people she was scared of being different and being considered a freak.
It is this fear which haunts her throughout the play, she is terrified of not fitting in. She is thrust into a working class lifestyle ‘what you’ve got to be into is music an’ clothes an’ lookin’ for a feller’ but she reaches a point when she cannot take the frustration of an unfulfilling life any more. ‘one day y’ own up to yourself an’ y’ say, is this it? ‘ ‘That’s the point when y’ have to decide whether it’s gonna be another change of dress or a change in yourself’. This is the moment that Rita decides that she must find herself.
She knows that joining the OU course will alienate her from her working class family, especially her husband who expects her to conform to his idea of how they should be living i. e. starting a family, She says: ‘I should have had a baby by now, everyone expects it. ‘ When she explains to him that she wants to ‘find herself’ she is frustrated by his failure to understand her feelings. This in turn frustrates her husband, Denny, as he feels that Rita’s pursuit of education is driving them apart.
Rita later compares her family to drug addicts: ‘They hate it when one of them tries to break away. ‘ Essentially this is what Rita is trying to do, break away from her ‘poor song’ of ignorance and drudgery where everyone is ‘pissed or on the valium, tryin’ to get from one day to the next. ‘ Her struggle is to avoid the ‘disease’ of frustration and meaningless existence. Rita eventually breaks up with Denny. As the course progresses and Rita gains in education she grows more distant from her husband. He doesn’t understand her and she cannot abide his attitude to her studying.
He thinks we’ve got choice because we can go into a pub that sells eight different kinds of lager. He thinks we’ve got choice already: choice between Everton an’ Liverpool, choosin’ which washing powder, choosin’ between one lousy school an’ the next, between lousy jobs or the dole, choosin’ between Stork an’ butter. ‘ Rita knows that this is not real choice, Denny cannot see this. ‘I think he’s thick. No, he’s not thick, he’s blind’. One night she comes home and he has packed her bags, he says to her that she can stop studying and have a baby or leave ‘it was an ultimatum’.
But she was prepared to sacrifice her marriage for her education. She chose. ‘He said I’d betrayed him. I suppose I have… But I couldn’t betray meself. ‘ When Rita first came to Frank she knew that she was starting from scratch. She had never really worked at school and she had never written an essay before, all she had was enthusiasm and a hunger for knowledge and Frank knows that ‘possessing a hungry mind is not, in itself, a guarantee of success’. However she had something which he greatly admired: ‘I think you’re marvellous… ou’re the first breath of air that’s been in this room for years. ‘ She has freshness and a ‘uniqueness’ about her which Frank is reluctant to tamper with. He loves it that she expresses her feelings and reactions to what she sees so openly and honestly without contamination from other people’s opinions and thoughts.
When she first walks into his office and sees the painting of a nude scene she gives her honest reaction to it: ‘It’s very erotic’, ‘Look at those tits’, ‘This was the pornography of it’s day, wasn’t it? It’s sort of like men only, isn’t it? Probably the other students who saw the painting wouldn’t have dared say things like that about it even if they thought it, for the risk of sounding coarse. This is how Rita differs from what Frank is probably used to. When she first sees a production of Macbeth she is so impressed by it, she rushes back to tell Frank about it and she thinks it is exciting but she cannot see the deeper meanings yet, as she wants to. What she could not do whilst she was still like this was pass examinations. The two things could not go together.
Rita hated that, she hated that she couldn’t write like the other students and so she persuades Frank to teach her. When Rita returns from the OU Summer School she is profoundly changed. She has grown in confidence immensely, a key point is when a tutor asks her about Ferlinghetti and she responds not with a joke as she would have done before but with an answer which wouldn’t have seemed odd coming from any of the other students. She is proud of herself but this is a sign that her education has suppressed her personality, just as Frank feared.
Then later in the scene Rita goes on to confirm that fear. Frank tells her that they are studying William Blake ‘You will understand Blake… you’ll love the man. ‘ ‘I know. ‘ Rita has already studied him at summer school; she recites one of his poems from memory and Frank realizes that she now doesn’t need him to educate herself and that she is altered by other peoples opinions; ‘you don’t do Blake without doing innocence and experience do y’? ‘. In the next scene the influence of her new acquaintances over her becomes even more apparent.
On the advice of her new flatmate Trish she has decided to change her voice because her old one was ‘ugly’. They have tried to change Rita to fit in with them and Rita went along with it because she feels she is rising above those people she used to be with i. e. her family, ex-husband and old friends. Trish fills Rita with her views on how to talk, dress, live and work. She changes jobs and goes to work in a bistro with Trish so she can talk to Tyson and all the other students.
Rita now has no thoughts or opinions or tastes of her own any more and Frank feels guilty because he thinks he is partly responsible for this. When she was writing an essay he once told her to ‘consult recognized authorities’. She now seems to have done this for her entire lifestyle. Trish’s invasion of Rita’s mind is demonstrated clearly when he sends her away to analyze his poems and she comes running back to him spouting opinions that are obviously not her own, they are Trish’s.
Frank thinks that his poems are bad and knows that Rita would agree were it not for Trish’s influence. Again Frank blames his teaching for this: he feels that she is trying to act and talk in a manner befitting a student and an intellectual and that is why she is allowing herself to be influenced so much. He feels he has created a monster; ‘I shall insist upon being known as Mary, Mary Shelley. ‘ Not only her voice does Rita change but her name. Rita repents of her name and reverts back to Susan. She changed her name to Rita after Rita Mae Brown who wrote ‘Rubyfruit Jungle’.
She did not know at the time that Rita Mae Brown was not a famous writer and so when she realizes she changes back to Susan: ‘Nobody calls me Rita… I dropped that pretentious crap as soon as I saw it for what it was. ‘ The point of Frank and Rita’s reconciliation is when Rita realizes what has happened to her. She sees that having an education is about being your own person, a master of your own destiny.
She sees what the other students are really like, she says about Tiger: ‘He’s a bit of a wanker really. ‘ She explains to Frank that it wasn’t his fault that she became like that. You think you gave me nothing… you think I just ended up with a load of quotes an’ empty phrases; an’ I did but that wasn’t your doin’. I was so hungry. I just wanted it all so much that I didn’t want it to be questioned. ‘ She was so desperate for a culture, for something better than what she had before that she forgot to slow down and think about what she was doing. But in the end she got what she was really searching for: choice. ‘it might all be worthless in the end… But because of what you’d given me I had a choice. ‘