Frank is reading at his desk and Rita enters. She is flustered and full of apologies for being late, blaming a customer at work. Frank says he wants to talk to her about her essay on Peer Gynt, which was to answer the question: Suggest how you might resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Rita wrote simply, “Do it on the radio” (29) and Frank tells her this is not enough.
She says she had to write it at work because her husband Denny gets mad when she does coursework at home. Frank says it is not an essay, and tries to explain the ritual and the rules of writing a response to a question like this. He asks her to take some time now to answer it fully.
They are quiet, working on their separate projects. Rita asks Frank if Peer Gynt was looking for the meaning of life, and when he says yes distractedly, starts to talk about a customer of hers whom she told about the book and was interested in it.
A moment later she says to Frank, “Well, we’ve got no culture” (32) in regards to her own people. He says of course they do and she asks if he means working class culture, to which he assents awkwardly. She says she sees no culture, that everyone is on drugs and trying to get from day to day –that there is no meaning in anything and everyone accepts their reality of burnt houses and vandalism and care only about the quest to buy more and more things.
Frank pauses and asks if she wants to take a politics class. She scoffs and says she hates politics and wants to study art and literature because it gets to her insides and makes her stronger. That is also what Denny does not like. Frank points out that she has done a good job of “connecting” literature to life and such, and she realizes that in Peer Gynt no one connects well.
They return to their quiet work again. She finishes it and hands it to him, beaming. It says she would put it on radio because Ibsen himself always wanted it to be a play for voices and not in the theater. Frank stares at her as she radiates pride and accomplishment.
Rita stares out the window and Frank irritably asks why she cannot just come in and get started. He asks where her essay is, and she says she hasn’t got it. He assumes she hasn’t done it, but she says she does not have it, or the books on Chekov, because Denny got mad at her schooling and burnt them all up. Frank is shocked. She apologizes for the books but Frank tells her not to worry. She says her husband is acting like she is having an affair, and Frank asks if perhaps he thinks she is having an affair with him.
She says of course not and she has told Denny about him, that he is just her teacher and gives her room to breathe. Frank asks slowly what Denny said, and she says that she came back in the room and Denny was burning her books and papers. Frank asks if she loves him, and she replies that she sees him wondering where the girl he married is. When asked if she wants to abandon the course, Rita emphatically says no.
She tells Frank that this course is giving her life, and Denny only wants to take life away from her. She won’t lie down and die for him, and won’t embrace his mindset that they already have choices just because they can choose different beers or satellite channels.
Frank wants to talk more about this at the pub but Rita insists they stay here so she can learn. Frank accedes and reaches for Chekov. Rita asks about his alcohol and he says he does love to drink because one is never bored and one is never boring. She wonders if he always used to drink, such as when he was a poet. He says not as much, and that he was not a good poet because he was trying to create literature.
After moving into Chekov for a bit, Frank asks Rita if she has ever been to the theater, to which she replies she has not. He says she ought to, and when she suggests going together he says he hates the theater. He also says Julia would be jealous if he went to the theater with an “irresistible thing like you” (40). Rita muses that he never seems to tell the whole truth; rather, he evades it by making jokes.
She tries again, saying they will call up Julia. Frank pulls the phone away from her. He asks what she wants to see and she says she saw an advertisement for a production of the Importance of Being Ernest at a church hall. Frank mocks amateur productions but when Rita accuses him of being a snob he agrees to go.
Frank comes into the office, sits down with his lunch, and reads from Rubyfruit Jungle. Rita bursts in, excited to tell him that she saw a Shakespeare play on her own. She raves about it, and asks him if it is tragedy. He says yes.
Rita says she better get back to work or her waiting customer will be mad and there will be a tragedy there too. Frank tries to tell her the difference between “tragic” and “tragedy”, explaining that in the latter, such as Macbeth, which she just saw, “[it] is something that is absolutely inevitable, preordained almost” (45). Macbeth has a flaw and thus “with every step he’s spinning one more piece of thread which will eventually make up the network of his own tragedy” (45).
Rita commends him for making her think and making it all so interesting and exciting. On her way out Frank asks what she is doing for lunch and she says she wants to go to an art gallery and asks if he would like to go. He says yes, and then asks if she wants to come to a dinner party at his house because Julia is throwing one. Rita is a little bemused but says she will. He asks if Denny will come and she says she does not know. Frank says to ask him. She looks perturbed and he asks what’s wrong, and she says she does not know what to wear.
In these three scenes we achieve more insight into Frank’s character. Through small examples such as his fluency in Macbeth and Peer Gynt, his shock at the behavior of Denny, his opinions on “amateur” theater, and his dinner party plans, Frank’s elevated social class is readily apparent.
Being part of a higher socio-economic stratum, however, does not bring Frank happiness. First, he is an alcoholic whose dependence on the substance grows more and more pronounced as the play wears on. He explains to Rita, “I adore [drinking]…one is never bored when drinking. Or boring for that matter; the booze has this marvelous capacity for making one believe that underneath all the talk one is actually saying something” (38). Second, he is a failed poet who cannot seem to move forward or appreciate what he did create years back; he is clearly part of the world of academia but has not entered its uppermost echelons. Third, he is jaded with teaching and can barely muster up enough enthusiasm to teach Rita the things she needs to know; all of his words are laced with exhaustion and disillusionment. Frank also seems to be letting his general weariness affect his feelings toward Rita. His comments to her become more flirtatious –although never too inappropriate –and he seems to want to be friends with her rather than a tutor. He never quite seems to know where Rita is coming from when she speaks ebulliently, such as when she proclaims, “I’ve begun to find me –an’ it’s great, y’ know, it is, Frank. It might sound selfish but all I want for the time bein’ is what I’m findin’ inside me” (36).
Similarly, Frank’s own disappointment with his life, combined with both his good heart (he certainly isn’t mean or pompous) and the blindness that comes from being in a higher station in life, lead him to romanticize Rita’s working class origins. In a paternalistic fashion he insists to her that the working class has a culture, but when pressed, cannot really go beyond that.
Frank’s dinner party invitation to Rita is a more complex moment than it may initially seem. On the one hand, it seems tone-deaf –the two of them are not in the same circles, and Rita would be woefully out of place. On the other hand, why shouldn’t they begin to socialize? Are their differences that insurmountable? Aren’t they just people? Much of the play’s success and significance comes from the fact that Russell does not have any concrete answers for us. It is difficult to say whether Frank is generous, open-minded, paternalistic, blinded by privilege, or some combination of all the above.
Finally, the discussion of tragedy is a clear insight into Frank himself and a foreshadowing of his “downfall” by the end of the text. He explains to Rita, “tragedy is something that is absolutely inevitable, preordained almost” and “[Macbeth’s] warned in the play, constantly warned. But he can’t go back. He still treads the path to doom” (45). She asks if “Macbeth brings it on himself?” (45) Frank enthusiastically assents. This whole passage could be about Frank himself. He drinks himself into oblivion, ignores Julia and Rita’s advice and perturbation, never tries to change or strive for something different, and languishes in his misery. He is a tragedy, but, as it appears by the end of the text, Rita is not.