Educating Rita, written by British playwright Willy Russell, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and premiered at The Warehouse, London, in June 1980. The play went on to win the Society of West End Theatres award for Best Comedy in the same year. The play was adapted by Willy Russell into a 1983 award-winning film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.
The play takes place entirely in Frank’s office at a university in the North of England. The original play took place in the 1980’s but the script was revised in 2003 to be more generically “contemporary”.
"I wanted to make a play which engaged and was relevant to those who considered themselves uneducated, those whose daily language is not the language of the university or the theatre. I wanted to write a play which would attract, and be as valid for, the Ritas in the audience as well as the Franks."
Willy Russell, born and raised in a suburb of Liverpool, came from a working-class background. Some of his experiences in early adulthood are reflected in his play Educating Rita. Russell left school after completing only one O-level (comprehensive exams taken in the equivalent of grade 10) in English Literature and went on to become a hairdresser. At age 20 he returned to school and became a teacher. Echoes of all of these experiences, his working-class upbringing, leaving school early, hairdressing and later becoming a teacher, can be seen in Educating Rita, a play he wrote to appeal to people from a wide range of backgrounds. In many of Russell’s plays a philosophy is put forward that anyone is capable of change whatever obstacles may be in their path.
Frank is a middle aged, middle-class English professor who has taken on the extra job of tutoring an Open-University student. He claims that this is to help pay for the copious amounts of alcohol he drinks throughout the play. It’s not clear if this is merely a joke or not. He is disillusioned with the university environment, but is so closely identified with academia that he cannot imagine leaving. He claims he is a terrible teacher and is a poet who hasn’t written anything in years.
Frank’s central conflict is that he can offer Rita the knowledge and skills she wishes to gain in her quest to change her circumstances and transcend her class origins; however, to do this he believes he will destroy the very characteristics that make Rita such a breath of fresh air. Frank is obviously charmed by Rita because she represents to him the very opposite of his own mundane, predictable and safe life.
Frank’s fortunes in the play are closely linked with Rita’s progress – in a way, he deteriorates as she flourishes. He becomes emotionally dependant on her just as she is, initially, intellectually dependant on him; his dependence on her reflects his need to feel useful and influential when his guidance is no longer needed and Rita ventures out on her own, Frank is cut loose and his drinking spirals out of control. We can see that Frank is trapped by his class and circumstances and addiction, in some ways, as much as Rita is limited by her circumstances. In the final scenes of the play, as Frank prepares for his trip away from the university, we can imagine that he is about to embark on his own journey of self discovery and learning and it is Rita’s haircut that symbolically cuts him lose and prepares him for what is to come.
Rita is a young working class hairdresser in her 20’s. She applies to study with the Open University; the OU was a very popular correspondence-based school in Britain that did not consider previous academic standing for admission. Rita’s real name is Susan, but at the opening of the play she introduces herself to Frank as Rita, a name she associates with a somewhat radical popular American author, Rita Mae Brown. This re-naming, along with some of her...