Friday, July 8, 2011

How effective are the opening scenes in introducing the characters of Frank and Rita?

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In the opening scenes of ‘Educating Rita’, Willy Russell tries to convey a lot about the characters of Frank and Rita, as well as interesting and entertaining the audience, while he does so.


At the beginning of the opening scene, Russell confronts the audience with Frank frantically searching through a bookcase, muttering the names of canonical figures of literature. At the exclamation of ‘Dickens’, we assume he has found the book he is looking for, only to see him draw out a concealed bottle of whiskey and pour himself a glass. After this revelation, Russell uses the medium of a one-sided telephone conversation, with witty remarks about the cooking of ‘ratatouille’. During these first few minutes the audience will have gathered a great deal about Frank, and will have experienced Frank’s rather eccentric personality. From his furtive actions at the start, and the humorous phone conversation, we already know that Frank is an alcoholic, has a dysfunctional relationship, is clever, and rather dislikes his profession. We are even given supposed reasons for his alcoholism, as he seems to use it as a reason to stay away from home and his partner or wife and uses it to ‘wash away’ a day of teaching, and bury his problems. The entrance of Rita is the climax of the opening and a critical moment. As it is a very dramatic moment, instead of walking meekly into a room, as we would expect a student to do, she wrestles with the door handle for a while and then the door bursts open ‘revealing’ Rita. Immediately we are introduced to Rita’s character, by the door ‘revealing’ Rita, it is a powerful image on the stage, by her having to really struggle to open the door, it is symbolic for her having to struggle against the constraints of society, and force her way into the world of education. We are also shown that she is an unconventional student, as unlike a ‘proper’ student, she scolds Frank for not fixing the ‘bleedin handle’. This startles Frank, and there is an amusing role reversal, as the student is commanding the teacher. We are also aware about the social differences between Frank and Rita, by their speech we assume that Frank comes from a more middle-class background and because of her accent and frequent use of expletives we stereotype her as working-class. Frank then tries to regain his authority, however Rita does not understand him, and again we are made aware of the obvious class difference, and it is almost like they are speaking different languages. Although the audience has just been introduced to Frank and Rita they already know a great deal about the personalities of both characters, a very effective start.


At the start Russell emphasises Frank’s character, but now the focus turns to Rita. She is very talkative and after her confusing conversation with Frank, she turns to the picture in the room, and comments that it is ‘nice.’ She talks about the picture, to seem sophisticated, as she assumes that discussing art is something the ‘educated classes’ do, however she looks for constant reassurance from Frank. However her intellectual naivety is clear as she then states that it is ‘erotic’, but she also makes the perceptive observation that the eroticism probably made it ‘the pornography of its day. Throughout the opening scenes, we see that Rita has very although original, unconventional views, due to her lack of education. However each time she looks to Frank for conformation, this shows that she is insecure about herself, again from a short discussion we learn a lot about Rita’s character, Frank is startled at first by Rita, but he seems to adapt to her personality. Her insecurity is partly due to the fact that she feels that the Open University is not a ‘proper university’, and therefore she is not a ‘proper student’. Rita desires to be ‘educated’, because she equates education with freedom, especially social freedom. She wants, as she tells Frank, to learn “everything” as a way of achieving self-liberation. She has her own pre-conceptions of how the ‘educated classes’ live, they watch the ‘BBC’, rather than ‘ITV’, and she accuses Frank of being a ‘Flora man’, as they can buy margarine rather than normal butter. As her character develops throughout the play, we see how the education she is receiving gives her more choices. However to contradict Rita’s presumptions, Frank is very critical about education. Although he is educated he drinks his way through the day, which suggests that education does not provide the ‘freedom’ which Rita expects, and will not solve all her social problems, and contradictory to his ‘middle class’ stereotype. However she is so determined to alter her life that she has change her name from the plain sounding “Susan” that appears on her registration papers, to the more ‘exotic’ and she believes sophisticated “Rita”. Which she adopts in honour of the author ‘Rita Mae Brown’, this is symbolic of Rita trying to change and become educated. This eagerness of Rita’s character introduced at the start is echoed and develops throughout the play.


Frank and Rita are vastly different from each other, and this contrast accentuates their own characters. Speech is used effectively to emphasise their social differences from the start. Rita’s heavy accent and use of slang lead us to believe that she is from a ‘working class’ background, and through Frank’s use of ‘upper class’ English, we assume that he comes from a more ‘middle class’ background, an important aspect of their characters. Rita is also very colloquial, with her constant references to popular culture, and ‘pulp fiction’, like ‘Rubyfruit Jungle,’ and Frank immediately associates what Rita says with his knowledge provided by his education. When she mentions a poem about ‘fightin’ death’, he immediately thinks it is a poem by ‘Dylan Thomas’, however she is referring to a poem by ‘Roger McGough.’ Rita thinks that he ‘won’t think it’s any good’ because ‘it’s the sort of poetry you can understand,’ this difference in education contributes to their characters. This instance relates to Rita’s aspirations of education, as she believes that once she is educated, she will be ‘cultured’, and therefore read complicated poetry and know the difference between ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘Tracy Austin’. Rita is a hairdresser, a job typically associated with her social status, and she has a great deal of contempt for all those ‘women’ who ‘come to the hairdresser’s cos they wanna be changed’, however this is rather hypocritical because she is trying to change herself on the ‘inside’ which is arguably just as superficial. She wants to ‘discover’ herself first, by receiving an education, before ‘having a baby’, and conforming to the expectations of a twenty-six year old woman. This is not only an introduction of the character, but also an insight into her feelings and social life.


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Frank has a very different view of education. He is deeply cynical about his life and profession, based around education. In his opinion education stifles rather than encourage the creative mind. It is not enough to have a ‘hungry mind’ as Rita has, or be intelligent as Rita clearly is, you have to also be familiar with, and follow the conventions of education. He does not value anything of what he knows, in fact he believes he knows ‘ absolutely nothing’, as it has not helped him in life. Rita although very witty, and clever, has barely had a ‘basic education’ and is intellectually naive, so is restricted by the constraints of education. Rita is a ‘breath of fresh air’ for Frank, as she is a far cry from his ‘appalling students’ who critique the world by using what they have learnt through education, Rita makes original perceptive comments rather than regurgitating text books. However they do not fit with the traditional conventions of education, her description of ‘assonance’, is ‘getting the rhyme wrong’, which would not be accepted by an examiner, eventhough that is the basic idea of ‘assonance.’ This lack of knowledge and being a student from the ‘O. U.’ makes Rita very insecure. She is constantly looking to Frank for guidance, rather than trusting her own opinions. Rita blames her lack of education, because of the limitations imposed on her by her ‘everyone’, who told her school was ‘useless.’ These are all central themes that affect the development of both characters, and are introduced at the start.


Through the opening scenes of ‘Educating Rita’, Russell manages to convey detailed descriptions of Frank and Rita, and introduce their personalities and backgrounds, as well as insight into their emotions and feelings. We also watch their relationship forming and developing in a very enthralling manner. He introduces the characters using wit and humour, keeping the attention of the audience. A very effective way of introducing the main characters of the play.


Educating Rita by Willy Russell


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