Why don't Rita and Frank fall in love within the greater context of the narrative?
It would be easy for Rita and Frank to fall in love, as the classic Pygmalion tale has them do. Frank indeed seems to flirt a bit with Rita, and to see her as a breath of fresh air in his stultified life. Audiences wonder if Rita means a kiss when she says she has something for Frank at the end. However, Rita does not want to engage with Frank romantically, continually rebuffing his mild flirtations and suggestive comments, and demanding that they focus on her education. Her gift at the end is a haircut. Frank, and the audience, are reading Rita wrong if they think she is there for a romantic fling with an older man: Rita is there for her education, for self-improvement. There’s a feminist bent to her words about not wanting a baby, not wanting to be tied down by Denny, and wanting to have her own choices in life. Frank may in a different social class than Denny, but their relationship would be hierarchical. All that being said, there is definitely affection between the two characters, and it is “love” of a sort, but more platonic love rooted in the intimacy that comes from being present at and responsible for a person’s major life changes.
How does Rita's education transform her? How does it not?
This is the big question of the play and one on which Russell does not provide a clear answer. There are certainly some discernible changes in Rita, from the way she dresses, speaks, and comports herself to her fluency in the language of literature to her new job at a bistro to her new roommate and to her assumption of “Susan” as her first name. She also gets rid of her deadbeat husband and has an entirely new social circle. It seems like she has made it. However, there are telltale signs that she may not be entirely changed, especially when her old accent seeps through and she makes her old jokes and comments. Another thing to consider is that while education may have transformed Rita to a certain degree, it has also perhaps left her with a new, equally rigid set of strictures in which she must exist. A contemporary reviewer of a revival of the play wondered, “But as she sails off to embrace her brown-rice, stripped-pine future, you wonder if the enduring insight of Russell’s play is our willingness to exchange one restrictive set of stereotypes for another.”
How is social class function as a construct?
Social class is something someone is born into, and, in rarer cases, something someone can enter by choice or enter by misfortune. Rita is born into the working class and suffers its concomitant indignities; thus, she decides that education will allow her to make more of her life. She quickly learns, though, that social class is not comprised merely of one’s money in the bank, level of education, or job. It is also evident in the way one conducts oneself, the activities one participates in, the “tasteful” and “civilized” pursuits and interests one follows, the way one talks and dresses, and so on. Social class is delineated as much by these subtleties as by the more obvious elements. For example, Frank does not have much money, which is why he is tutoring in the first place. He’s also a sloppy drunk. These things don’t have much bearing on his life, though, because he’s firmly middle class. His university gives him a break, he makes ends meet, he gets to benefit from his place in the world. Rita’s struggle is much harder because she’s, for a while, on the precipice.
Why is the action of the play contained to space of Frank’s office?
Russell doesn’t bother with multiple sets or even multiple onstage actors; rather, there are only two scripted parts and one set. This obviously makes the play easy to stage, but Russell isn’t doing this only to make it easier on theater companies. Rather, the intimate environment of Frank’s office first brings the characters together, then later, as Rita begins to do more and more things offstage that do not concern Frank, serves as a reminder she has has outpaced him in personal growth and that the space is no longer one in which she needs to spend much time. The office goes from being a place of growth and closeness to one of estrangement. The office is Frank, and Rita simply doesn’t fit in there anymore. Now she has her own spaces -the bistro, the grass, her flat.
Is the play universal, or is rooted in a particular time and place?
On the one hand, this is very much a tale of working class woman from Liverpool and her desire to educate herself. Her accent is distinct and her description of her life is rooted in England and in the 1980s. On the other hand, the play is based on a much, much older tale -that of Pygmalion, deriving from the Greeks and Romans and updated multiple times in the 20th century before becoming Russell's play. Its main plot of an older, more cultured man helping shape an eager, impressionable young woman is a common trope in literature and myth. Its themes of education as a path to social betterment, of the desire for self-improvement and personal growth, of one's demons holding oneself back from making meaningful change (Frank), and of the clash of social classes are incredibly resonant across time periods, continents, and age ranges.