The setting is a book-filled office in a university. There is a desk and a large bay window. A nude religious painting hangs on the wall.
Frank is looking through his books, thumbing through the authors until he gets to Dickens so he can pull the volume out and get the Scotch behind it. He drinks a glass.
The phone rings and he answers, explaining to Julia that he will be late because he has to help some silly woman try to understand literature. He teasingly mocks her cooking. It seems she is asking for him for a definitive promise that he will be home, which he half heartedly offers as knocks on the door begin.
Rita enters, telling Frank the door handle is stuck. He admits he always meant to fix it but hasn’t ever done it. In a frank manner, Rita looks at the painting and comments outright that it is erotic. Frank says he has not looked at it for a long time but agrees that it might be. Rita says that people knew it was erotic at the time probably, but had to pretend they liked it just for the brushstrokes. Her comments fascinate Frank.
She asks him if he has had students like her before, and he says no. He says it is also his first time doing the Open University tutoring. Both try to make jokes that are awkwardly received. Rita offers Frank a cigarette and he says he wants one but he quit. Rita scoffs that everyone is so afraid of cancer but are cowards and need to challenge death and disease. She offers to bring Frank a book about it, but then says he most likely won’t like it because “it’s the sort of poetry you can understand” (6). Frank is interested in the comment and asks her about that. He then offers her a drink, which she eventually accepts.
Rita picks up E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End and asks Frank about it. He says she can borrow it and should read it. Rita agrees and promises she will bring it back if she decides not to go through with school. Frank asks why she is doing this if she already is thinking about not finishing, and she responds that she just might decide it was a stupid idea.
He asks her what she wants him to teach her, and she says “everything.” This surprises him. Rita says she wants to understand, rather than to give up on something difficult and call it “rubbish.”
When she uses a curse word she asks him if he minds her swearing, and he says of course not and that he does it himself sometimes. She says that at her job as a hairdresser she becomes frustrated with the ignorant masses who are the ones who care about swearing; the properly educated people realize words are just words.
Rita looks at the window and says she loves it, which causes Frank to admit he doesn’t really look out it much unless he’s contemplating throwing something -a student, usually -out of it. Rita laughs and says he is mad.
Rita wonders if she is talking too much but that she never gets the chance to talk to someone like him. All of a sudden she asks what “assonance” is, and Frank, while surprised, stammers out an explanation with examples. She seems to get it.
Frank asks about her name, as her paper said “S. White”. She explains that she changed it to Rita for Rita Mae Brown, the author of Rubyfruit Jungle, one of her favorite books. She pulls a copy out of her bag to lend him, although he does not necessarily want to read it.
Rita asks Frank if he was named after Eliot, to which he thinks T.S. Eliot but she clarifies she was meaning to say Eliot Ness. She read Eliot once but couldn’t get through “J. Arthur Prufrock”, as she incorrectly put it.
Frank asks her a bit more about her time as a hairdresser and she details how annoyed she gets with the women who come in not telling her the truth about their hair and expecting a haircut to completely transform their lives.
She changes the topic, asking Frank if he thinks she can really do this. He says yes but she will have to be committed. She explains she wants to be confident and is serious.
Frank stares at her and says she is marvelous, at which Rita scoffs. He asks her why she came here and she begins to explain that she has been realizing for a while that she wants to find herself and discover herself before she has a baby. She is twenty-six and people think she should have had one by now and her husband had a hard time understanding, which she credits to him not being thick but by having a hard time really seeing.
Frank drinks grimly and answers her question about what he can teach her -she says “everything” -by saying he will take on this task but after he teaches her everything he knows she must never come back. It is hard for him to explain but he never wanted to teach this course in the first place and considers himself an appalling teacher. He usually gets appalling students but she is different. He ends by saying he ought to be in the pub right now and tells her he will help her find another tutor.
She gathers her stuff and leaves, and as the door closes behind her she suddenly starts to beat on it and says she does not want another tutor at all. Frank is confused that she is back and she says that she wants him because he is crazy and she likes him. He sighs and says he will not tutor her and she insists he will, and that she will cut his hair.
Frank is looking out the window. He considers getting Scotch but becomes frustrated with himself and tries to resist. He then goes for it, but hears someone at the door. It is Rita, oiling the doorknob. He slowly thanks her.
She comes in and starts looking around again, telling him how much she admires the room. He shrugs that it just came together. Rita looks at him and asks if he’s been drinking, to which he replies he has been.
Rita looks out the window as well, admiring it and the lawn. She comments that she always wanted to go to a school like this, like a boarding school. Frank responds, “God forbid! Whatever for?” (19). He asks what kind of school she went to. She describes it as “normal” -boring, fights, glass everywhere, no one wanting to study. She could not take school seriously because then she would be different from everyone else and no one would have allowed it. There was something, however, in her head that always told her to do something else, but she would not heed it until one day she stopped and realized she was not living to her maximum and would now prefer to change herself, not change her dress. Frank seems to admire her.
She asks to start and he agrees. He pulls out something she wrote on Rubyfruit Jungle and tells her she did not demonstrate any criticism of the work. This surprises her and she says she does not want to criticize it. He tries to explain what he means by talking about objectivity and literary critique. He then asks her for a critique of Howard’s End.
She states outright that it is “one really crap book!” (21). He is bemused, and says she is being subjective and needs to explain herself. She complains that the author (calling him “Foster” instead of “Forster”) is a “louse” and midway through the book said he did not care about the poor. He sits in his ivory tower and cares nothing for the poor.
Frank laughs and Rita becomes indignant. He says she cannot come from a Marxist perspective and she should not be sentimental. She hotly responds she was not, and she does not care if she got in trouble for coming at the book like that on an examination if there was one. She will have to learn to read and address books she does not like.
Suddenly Rita asks Frank if he is married. Startled, he asks how that is relevant, and then says he was married but parted a long time ago. Rita apologizes but then asks a moment later why they split. He finally says it was because of poetry.
Explaining further, he says that his wife pointed out to him that he only wrote poetry about their coming together, and that she would leave him and give him fresh fire. She did, and he stopped being a poet altogether -- ”My loss,” he says, “was literature’s great gain” (24).
Rita is stunned and says people do not break up over poetry. She asks if he ever wrote any famous poems and said she would buy his books. He laughs and says they are all out of print and that she would not like them anyway because it is the poetry a reader cannot understand.
Rita asks about whom he is with now, and he says an ex-student who cares a lot about him and admires him but gets very tired of his always leaving for a few days. Annoyed, Rita says she would not let him come back in if he came home, to which Frank says sadly that maybe if he came home to her that he would not leave. Curious, Rita asks if he likes Julia and he says he does but is not fond of himself.
Frank tries to turn the conversation back to the Forster novel, but Rita says she wants to talk since she likes talking to him. So often teachers just try to take something amazing and turn it into a lesson. Frank ruefully assents, and Rita wonders if he thinks there is something wrong with education. He sighs that maybe there is, and there are many more things he’d rather do with her than teach. She scoffs, but he says he wishes she had come in twenty years ago. Rita says it is what it is.
Frank again tries for Forster but she is hesitant. He loses his temper and tells her to stop wasting his time and that he will go to the pub. Rita asks if he is putting his foot down, he assents, and she grumbles that he is impressive when angry and will turn to Forster now.
Russell’s play is a spin on the Pygmalion tale of Greek/Roman myth and of Bernard Shaw, whose famous play gives us our modern understanding of the cultured, civilized older man teaching and molding a young, eager woman into a better version of herself. In this piece, the setting is updated to Liverpool, with the male protagonist, Frank, as a bitter, world-weary professor and the female protagonist, Rita, as a brassy but charming Liverpudlian hairdresser who wants to go back to school. All of the action takes place in the space of Frank’s office, which reinforces the central theme of education as well as amps up the tension between the two characters as they grow apart. Indeed, the play is full of ambivalences, contradictions, and complexities in terms of its message on education; these will become clear as we move forward in our analyses.
Besides the theme of attaining an education, the theme of moving social classes is central to the text. Sociologist Steph Lawler’s article “‘Getting Out and Getting Away’: Women’s Narratives of Class Mobility” sheds some light on this narrative of women going from the working class to the middle class. Her conversations with real-life women and her commentary on this move can be applied to the journey Rita makes. She writes, “in the complex interplay between economic and cultural configurations of class, it may be cultural factors which are the more apparent indicators of class distinction and class inequalities.” This is obvious right away, as the difference between Frank and Rita does not appear to be merely monetary but has more to do with their cultural knowledge, the way they talk and act, and the things they understand/pursue/enjoy. Frank is not rich, and admits he is doing the Open University for the extra money. Rita certainly isn’t rich either, but the actual amount of money she has never seems to affect her transition from working to middle class as much as all of these other factors do.
Lawler notes that “one way in which class inequality works is through making working-class subjectivities pathological, so that class relations are not just economic relations but also relations of superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, judgment/shame.” Rita’s shame is acute. In these first two acts she calls her working-class peers “cowards” and “ignorant”, saying that “It’s not their fault; they can’t help it. But sometimes I hate them” (9). The shame and sense of inferiority is especially present in her accounting of her old schools and her growing sense that she was missing out and not doing something right. Lawler says the women she interviewed had anxieties “which arise out of being associated with working-class existence” and anxieties from “a sense of being ‘impostors’ in a bourgeois world.” This is glimpsed in later scenes in the play, such as when Rita realizes that if she goes to Frank and Julia’s dinner party she will be an imposter, and towards the very end of the play when she begins to speak more properly to mask her background.
Rita comes to want more than an education; she wants to get out of her working-class background completely. This is what drives her and Denny apart, as they are no longer part of the same class and he knows it, considering it a “betrayal”. The difference between Denny and Rita is that he does not even want to try. Rita tells Frank in Act I that he’s “not thick; blind, that’s what he is. He can’t see, because he doesn’t want to see” (14).
In these first two scenes, though, Rita is only just coming out her blindness. Her working-class background is very apparent through her manner of speaking, her behavior, her comments, and her opinions. She is loud, talkative, and opinionated. She flits about the room, makes uncouth (but astute) comments about the erotic painting, makes jokes, pushes a book on Frank he clearly does not want to read, and rambles on about random things. Her first foray into reading real literature ends with her becoming irrationally angry about E.M. Forster’s comment within his book about not liking poor people, and her first essay on a book, her beloved Rubyfruit Jungle, is all subjective and lacks any critical foundation. Furthermore, she has a difficult time coming to terms with what Frank means by “criticism” and “objective/subjective”. It is very clear that she has a long way to go.
Frank isn’t perfect either, though. From the first he appears jaded, world-weary, and disillusioned. He mentions an ex-wife and that he has trouble staying committed to his current girlfriend. He seems to find little pleasure in anything, as seen in his inability to truly look at his world. In regards to the painting he says, “you know, I don't think I’ve actually really looked at it for the past ten years or so” (3). When asked by Rita if he likes the window, he responds, “it’s not something I really consider, apart from the occasions when I feel an overwhelming urge to throw something through it” (9). He is very cynical about teaching, having long become tired of the students and the profession itself. He becomes angry and tells Rita, “I’m really rather an appalling teacher” (15). He seems to have desired to be a poet, but stopped writing and now considers his poems worthless. And, of course, he is an alcoholic; his drinking accelerates as the play goes on, and is a physical manifestation and corollary to Frank’s inner turmoil. The difference between Rita and Frank in what each learns from each other constitutes a major point of the text, and one that will be revisited in later analyses.