Thoughts & Musings

Elenchus. Asking the Question:
Willy Russell’s Educating Rita (1980)

The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, May 8’s matinee performance.

©2016 by Eileen Warburton

The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.
Rita Mae Brown

“Now, you are?” queries Frank as his first O.U. adult learner nervously prowls his office.

“What am I? . . .What? . . . I’m a what?” she responds, not even understanding the question, let alone knowing how to answer it. Rita has arrived in Frank’s office–and his life–not really having a clue who she is. She knows only that she is ferociously hungry for a different life, a richer life, a meaningful life, a life where she knows the answers. As Rita puts it, she has realized she’s “slightly out of step,” a misfit in her marriage, her social class, her job as a hairdresser, her culture. She’s not ready to conform to the conventional pattern of expectations of her family and class, a baby, a little house in a dreary suburban village, meeting friends over a few pints at the local. “I wanna find myself first, discover my self.” Rita wants to know “Everything.”

Frank, too, is a misfit. Long-time lecturer at some northern English university near Liverpool, Frank was once an academic darling, a published poet in the best traditions of allusive literary obscurity, respected and sure of his identity. Now, he’s a burnt-out case, a shipwreck: Alcoholic, divorced, unpublished, an “appalling” teacher, insulting to his students, scorned by his colleagues, hanging on to his job by his fingernails. Frank’s trouble is that he has seen through the complacent pseudo-intellectual sham, the pretentiousness of what passes for academic learning, yet doesn’t know what can replace it. He is thoroughly disenchanted with the “everything” siren call that enchants Rita and he warns her flatly that “Everything I know—and you must listen to this—is that I know absolutely nothing.” Ironically, this is a phrase attributed to the great philosopher, Socrates, whose method of dialectic questioning (or elenchus) is the foundation of teaching critical thinking.

This is a play about the journey of growth for both these partners in dialectics. Frank is attracted to Rita’s working class energy and honest directness, her groundedness in the everyday and her lack of pomposity. He’s afraid that if she acquires the mask of “proper” education, she’ll be ruined. Rita urgently wants to burn her bridges and leave her working class self behind. Her need to enrich her narrow life is terribly threatening to her husband, who reaches the point of destroying her books and papers and giving her an ultimatum. Rita, very much coveting the persona of British educated woman—knowing the “right” thing to say, wearing the “right” clothes, drinking the “right” wine—longs to climb out of her class and confidently join the educated classes.

So much of the play is about the false appearances constructed to keep authentic self covered up: from the classic books hiding a row of liquor bottles to the very name ‘Rita,’ an identity adopted by the real Susan White when inspired by Rita Mae Brown’s female coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Yet, Rita can’t know what she doesn’t know and figure out what genuine questions to ask until she has acquired and conquered the mountain of cultural information and critical attitudes considered to be a liberal education. And so, Frank and Rita battle their demons through the months of study until they each reach the frightening moment of beginning over, at last knowing the questions that allow them to explore a new world and commence their real education.

The aspirational journey of Educating Rita reflects the semi-autobiographical story of playwright Willy Russell. Born outside Liverpool in 1947, Russell was a child who stammered. He was a working-class, under-educated school-leaver who became a ladies hairdresser and operated his own salon. A grab-bag of jobs, including running a folk music club, led him to return to night school and to become a teacher. Soon, however, he was writing plays full time, always about people embracing change and surpassing their limitations by determination and hard work. His first success was about the Beatles. Educating Rita (1980), his second, earned him the first awards and film opportunities out of many since. Out of 23 plays, novels, and music albums, Russell is best known for plays like Blood Brothers (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1986). With the status and prestige he had earned, Russell became the patron of the Willy Russell Centre for Children and Adults Who Stammer in 1990.

The Open University itself is one of the glorious legacies of the 1960s, when the Labour Party of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made accessibility for all to the highest standards of secondary education a political priority in Britain. The first students enrolled in 1971. We forget, in the subsequent success of the O.U., that it was often mocked as not a “real” university, as much for its working class clientele as for its then-unusual system of delivering coursework and degree programs. The innovative model of that time combined lectures broadcast on the BBC (at ungodly hours) with the mentoring of a personal tutor at a local university. Once a year, usually in summer, students gathered at the central campus in Milton Keynes for seminars and further study, advancing through a series of exams to the point of earning a degree. It required enormous self-determination, since most students were adults, holding full time jobs and often raising families, too. Forty-five years later, the O.U. enrolls a quarter of a million students a year and can boast some very distinguished alumni. Today, it’s the triumph of students like Rita and tutors like Frank that there are several million educated Susan Whites living and working all over the world.

The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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