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how a theatre production of Educating Rita by Willy Russell can emphasise the
changes that take place in the central character. Focus on the first and last
scenes of the play.
"Educating Rita" displays the major changes that occur in the main character, an initially narrow minded, outspoken and socially na´ve Liverpudlian trapped by her working class life. Rita thinks an increase in intelligence and worldly knowledge will change this, and set her "free". She strives to change classes, and although is different from her working class peers, she still isn't ready to be accepted as middle class. She aims to reach her goal through an Open University course, yet naively thinks knowing what books to read and clothes to wear will allow her to immediately become accepted as part of her chosen social strata. Change is a major part of the play, affecting Rita in both positive and negative ways. It shows how the influence of education helps to bring about these changes, and how eventually Rita is able to overcome and negative problems and settle on a happy balance. Rita is also molded by her tutor, Frank, and learns a great deal from him, whilst also teaching him in many ways.
Rita's bright, bold, bubbly character is revealed in the very first scene, as the two characters are introduced. She makes a very dramatic entrance, bursting through the door, swearing, and immediately drawing all attention to her. She isn't really sure how to act, and her insecurity and nerves make her appear in such a loud manner. This shows how little she understands of formal interview situations- one would expect her to appear fairly meekly, maybe shy, and also very formally, yet she acts cheekily and informally. For example, not only does she ask Frank if she can smoke, but she also gets out her cigarettes before he has had a chance to answer. She even offers him one, trying to ease the tension between herself and Frank, and he returns the warm gesture with the offer of a drink. She is also confused by Frank's formal manner of speaking, showing her social naivety. For instance, when he says, "You are?" she replies, "What am I?" Although she appears very confidently, she is immediately quietened when faced with something she feels she cannot succeed in. She is fairly defeatist towards the course, believing she isn't intelligent enough, and that although she wants to, she wont achieve her dream. She calls the courses, "Degrees for Dishwashers", implying that Open University degrees are not looked upon very highly, and are not thought much of. She is very negative about herself, believing she is not quite good enough. Rita wants to be of a higher status than her friends and family, and assumes the course will bring about this transformation. She is uncomfortable with being working class, as her outlook is more middle class, yet also isn't ready to be considered middle class. She knows that she fits in with neither social grouping, and at one stage, even refers to herself as a "half-caste". She na´vely thinks that knowing what books to read and phrases to say will automatically be happy and free, as if intelligence is the key to the lock of her cage. She believes all who are referred to as middle class have no problems, or worries, and are therefore "free". Similarly, she tells Frank that she wants to know "everything", not understanding that this is completely impossible. She believes her image is sophisticated; yet her daring, audacious clothes that mirror her brash personality are very unrefined.
Rita doesn't understand how to speak in this initial formal interview situation, frequently swearing as if it is a part of her normal vocabulary, hardly noticing she does it. Her speech is very fast, with her words flying out of mouth before she's had a chance to think about them, perhaps showing her nervousness. This might make her appear as rather blunt and inconsiderate. Her vocabulary is fairly limited and somewhat basic, and this means she finds it hard to remain on any one topic for a long amount of time, and is constantly changing the subject at the start of the play. As she cannot express herself with words, she involuntarily expresses them on her face, or with gestures, unable to mask her emotions. The topics she mentions show a lot about her personality, she frequently refers to pornographic books that she has read, and a painting on the wall that she sees as "erotic". She believes that by talking about the novels she has read and the authors she knows she will make a good impression on Frank, showing him how well read she is. She doesn't realise that this is portraying quite the opposite, and that an understanding of fine literature and art is yet to be achieved.
When she enters his office, Rita treats Frank in a very informal way; almost as if he is an old friend she hasn't seen for a while. She asks quite a few personal questions, including some about Frank's relationship with his girlfriend Julia. She shows how observant she is, carefully taking in everything around her, including the painting hanging on the wall that Frank says he hasn't looked at for years. She doesn't realise that some topics are not very polite to talk about, especially with a new tutor in a formal interview. Instead, as soon she sees the picture, she immediately asks Frank, "Do you think it's erotic?" She also frequently uses inappropriate words and comments, saying, "Look at those tits!"
She discusses many topics as soon as she arrives, not only because they interest her, but also because she doesn't want to get down to work, trying to avoid getting to that point. She knows she has to, and that is why she has come, but evades it as much as she can.
Whilst Frank stays relatively placid throughout the first scene, Rita scurries about the office, looking at irrelevant objects and randomly bringing up subjects. The actress playing Rita should exaggerate the expressions on her face, and talk in the colloquial way Rita does, frequently swearing. Her voice needs to draw on a strong, Liverpudlian accent, which will show the change by the last scene, when it will be toned down. She is constantly on her feet, and whilst Frank is happy sitting at his desk, Rita feels the need to be free, feeling that her current job and life are dragging her down. Her husband Denny believes choice is choosing which beer to drink and football team to support, whilst Rita realises that she wants real choice, and wants to break out of her life. She shows this by looking longingly out of the window, silently wishing she could be down there with the other students. The window therefore becomes a symbol of her longing for liberty. All these things show how Rita and Frank are from two completely different worlds, and are two totally different people; they are both unhappy but in different ways, and want different things.
Rita, despite being somewhat outwardly confident is also nervous about this new situation; it is something she has never been faced with before. The actress should also show emotions in her tone of voice, shrieking for example, and getting overly excited, yet also very upset at the slightest hint of an insult or criticism, showing how she can't cover up her feelings and also that she is relatively immature.
At the start when Rita is banging on the door, trying to get in, there should be loud, upbeat, vibrant music playing, fitting in with her outgoing personality. As soon as she opens the door, it should stop abruptly, and there should be a bold, bright spotlight on her, whilst only small soft lights, nowhere near as noticeable as Rita, light the rest of the office, including Frank.
The bright light would mirror Rita's bold, dramatic entrance, but by the last scene, the whole stage should be evenly lit. Instead of bright lights, there should be muted, softer, toned down lighting effect, showing how much she had changed and become less na´ve. Contrastingly, at the beginning she was very twitchy and always moving, she has learnt to calm herself down, yet not completely let go of her bubbliness and originality.
The room initially restricts Rita's movements, and as she is so energetic and enthusiastic, she cant keep still, constantly fidgeting and observing everything. The way she is trapped in the room looking longingly out of the window reflects the way she feels about her life, wanting to escape and have "real" choice, she naively asks Frank, "God, what's it like to be free?" She still doesn't understand that wherever you are on the social hierarchy you can still have problems.
Society, people and the situation around her may have sculpted Rita's outlook and strong opinions on life as she grew up. People believed that the working class shouldn't have further education, but should settle down, have a family, and live a life like those around them. To Rita, this seemed immensely dull. Many didn't realise that it was actually possible to achieve much mire, and never gave a thought to bettering themselves, intellectually and emotionally. However, in Rita's case, she doesn't want to live in a run down tiny house, with a low paid job and a family, she wants to make the most of herself, achieve something, and be happy.
Others of the working class who felt it was her place to be at home cooking and cleaning, and no right to try and become better than them wouldn't have looked very highly upon the protagonist. Rita had ambition to do well, and could see that many people accepted their lives as they were not bothering to try and change them, yet she wanted a chance of freedom and choice.
Women at the time were discriminated against in society, they were given poorly paid jobs and their status was low. Despite being brought up like this, Rita was different even at school. She talks about how she would have been classified as a "wimp" if she had admitted that she wanted to study and learn here, and so the fear and pressure from her friends made her join in with the others around her. She didn't want to become different from her family and friends, nor those around her, and so blocked the thought that she wanted more from her life: "I'd just play another record or buy another dress an' stop worryin" She put this off because of the peer pressure from the other working class people, she didn't want to be different and upset them so went along with their assumptions of women as low, and this put her off for a while.
Rite sees the middle class as totally different from herself, and although doesn't want to be working class, doesn't feel she will be accepted as middle class either. She has the idea that all middle class individuals are free, and stereotypes them, making sweeping generalisations. She assumes they all eat wholemeal bread, flora, and watch the BBC, as this is seen as more intellectually stimulating than ITV, the channel that many of the working class watch. This shows that she stereotypes certain groups of people from what she has heard, instead of her own views, she doesn't wait to get to know them before judging.
As Rita believes herself to be sophisticated and well read, she has named herself after an author. Her real name is Susan, but Rita Mae Brown is a pornographic author, and as Rita likes her books, she laughably adopts her name and believes she is making herself seem more sophisticated, once again showing her complete misunderstanding that sexually explicit n novels are classified as good literature. Such an action again indicates her na´ve outlook and lack of literary awareness at the beginning of the play.
There are many themes during the play- change is probably the most important as it shows how an individual can develop and learn in both positive and negative ways: the play indicates the protagonist changing from one extreme to the other, eventually discovering a happy balance in between.
Rita, at the start, is a very bold character, reflected in her unsophisticated and flamboyant choice of clothing, and is dissatisfied with her life. Throughout the play she changes, losing her individuality and flare, wanting to become the same as all the other students around her. She even copies her flatmate with a false bohemian style, desperate to fit in and be accepted. She has stopped smoking, believing this makes her more middle class, wears different clothes that are very over the top, and even tries to talk in a posh way, sounding completely unnatural and false. She has improved in her intelligence and on her course, yet also goes over the top, trying to appear very intellectual. This makes her seem almost boring, and has none of the original Rita in her. Eventually at the end, she reaches a good medium, not resting at either of the extremes, and becoming more sophisticated and wiser, yet still keeping the edge and flare she had to begin with. This shows how she overcame the problems with her determination, and how she reversed the bad things into positive factors.
Education is another key theme; this is after all what helped to bring about the change in the central character. It can mould a person after time, influences them and the way they see things. Rita wanted to know "everything", but didn't understand how this was an unrealistic ambition. She hardly knew anything at the start, but started to study all the time until she knew a lot about all types of books and authors. She didn't realise that this wouldn't necessarily bring about the happiness and choice she strived for.
Class divisions and hierarchy play a large role in the play, as Rita passes through the changes that lead her from one class to another. She learns and develops, and eventually is ready to become accepted as middle class when she takes her last exam and passes well. During the play she discovers that happiness and freedom don't just arise from the clothes we wear and the books we read but that everybody has problems and nobody is perfect, no matter where they are placed on the social scale. By the end of the play she has escaped from her previous life and gained the freedom to choose her own path in life that she longed for so long. She advances and matures over the course of this time. She learns that although she can change, she still needs to be herself.
Rita becomes increasingly arrogant and very confident. Whereas before she would look up to the other students but not dare say a word to them, wishing to be like them, feeling inferior, she will now approach them with no hesitation, willingly, and even give her opinion or correct them in conversation. She has also become very independent, showing Frank she doesn't need him any more. This major change has been brought about by her time spent at Summer School. When she returns after her time away she amazes Frank with her knowledge of Blake, and her stories of how she asked questions during lectures: "After he'd finished his lecture this professor asked if anyone had a question, an', Frank, I stood up!" She also shows how her maturity and literary understanding have increased: "This tutor came up to meů an' he said, "Are you fond of Ferlinghetti?" It was right on the tip of me tongue, to say, "Only when it's served with parmesan cheese", but, Frank, I didn't!"
Although she's changed in some ways for the better and some for the worse, it is clear she still has a long way to go. She has almost traveled from one extreme to the other, but is closer to discovering the perfect balance in the middle. She has been influenced by those around her, and so needs to truly discover herself as well as developing well academically.
By the last scene, Rita's transformation from working class hairdresser to educated middle class intellectual is complete; she is very obviously different from the start, despite the change being very gradual. Although she is now a completely different person, her originality and flamboyant personality can still be seen. Her clothes are very different, she is a lot more sophisticated, but no longer pretentious or false. Although her clothes are those that middle class women wear, Rita buys them from charity shops or cheaper shops, not worried about this, but she can still make them look nice. Her accent has been toned down, and although the Liverpudlian sounds can still be heard, her voice is much softer, even quieter, and she is able to express herself better. Her swearing was so natural that before it sounded normal, but it has been replaced with words and phrases she would never have though of saying, and her voice is a good medium between her previous string accent and when she started to talk with a false sophistication. She has become very mature, and can now see through people's pretentiousness. She used to look up to her friend Tiger, and also Trish, yet has realised she is not what she seems: "I thought she was so cool an' togetherů she spends half her life eatin' whole foods an' health foods to make her live longer, an' the other half tryin' to kill herself"
Rita has a much better understanding of people, and this can be seen in her speech and also behaviour. At the end, Frank asks her to go to Australia with him, but she can tell that he needs time by himself, and declines. This also shows how she is scared of being tied down, as before with Denny, she wants to be independent and make her own choices. She can tell Frank is clinging on to her- a complete role reversal from the start when she clung to Frank. She sensible knows now to move on, and has realised that she was stupid and arrogant, and has learnt that its not just quotes and reading that change you, but learning and developing in your own way to reach what you are striving for- "I've got choice now"
She wanted to become someone new, but knows that she needed to keep part of herself, and has succeeded in that, and therefore shows this to Frank.
The actress playing Rita should not express her feelings and emotions on her face or in her actions, but stick to words, and use varied vocabulary. She should hardly move around, instead happily sit at the desk, ready to work, and should talk as if she really does understand what she has learnt. This shows she has achieved the choice and freedom and also gained in intelligence she wanted. The lighting should no longer be bright as it focused on the protagonist, but muted, and cheerful so the characters can easily be seen yet not too glaring. The music could be classical, classy music, played quietly. This all reflects the change in her more sophisticated and mature character showing she has developed mentally and emotionally enough to become accepted as a member of the middle class. She doesn't judge people as before, but sees them for who they really are, including Frank. She knows he is not the confident secure man he appeared, but weak, insecure and lonely. This shows her increased maturity.
More themes are introduced, including maturity. In the middle of the play, she thinks Frank is a bad teacher, but by the end, she realises that he made all this possible for her, and her maturity means she isn't too stubborn to thank Frank and truly appreciate what he has done for her.
Although she changed in negative ways, she learnt from these. She realises that she doesn't want to risk becoming trapped again, like with Denny, but wants to dictate her own destiny with the choices she makes.
The ending is left very open, not telling the theatre viewers what happens to either Rita or Frank, but lets you imagine for yourself what paths they take and where and how they live their lives. This reflects the theme of choice, by letting viewers decide what happens, but also for the characters to decide and change which way they will go and what choices they will make.