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Educating Rita is a play about change and transformation. Susan White, a working class girl, wants to escape the trappings of the class system and become “educated”, thinking that this will allow her to “sing a better song“. By the end of the play, her transformation is absolute, and while the drastic changes can be seen during Act 2, many aspects of Rita and her life have changed throughout the first section. Most obviously, she changes her name to Rita, after her favourite author. This is particularly endearing as it shows her ambition to escape her previous life but also her naivety at naming herself after such a lesser author.
Rita’s first entrance is, although delayed by the stiff door, bustling and energetic; instantly she is talking and chastising. Her speech is constant, masking her nervousness and streams out as a tirade: it is Rita leading the conversation. However, in her final entrance of the Act, Rita enters “slowly” and “wanders”. It is now Frank that leads the conversation, speaking first and prompting Rita with questions, and when Rita replies it is short and to the point, almost stilted. While her nervousness is gone, Rita has already started to lose the energy and “uniqueness” that made her such an interesting and attractive character.
One of the key areas of Rita’s life that’s changes over Act 1 is her relationship with her husband, Denny. At the start of the play, Rita still lives at home with him, although their relationship is on the rocks. When Rita is making her speeches about how stifled she is by her working class trappings, she regularly makes references to Denny showing that she sees him as the embodiment of all that she dislikes about her background. She likens him to a “drug addict” and often tells Frank about Denny’s reservations towards her new found education, saying that Denny gets “narked”, “frightened” and “tries to stop me [Rita] from coming”. The next time Denny is mentioned, it is because he has burnt all of Rita’s books because he finds that she has not come off the pill. Rita knows that her marriage is failing, saying to Frank that she knows that he often wonders “where the girl he married has gone to” and shows her resent for Denny in the line “he wants me to stop rocking the coffin”. Rita sees Denny and her old life as dead already while education can let her escape provide her with “life itself”. The act of book burning links him with Nazis in our minds but Rita’s following speech makes him out not as a evil person, but as someone who fails to understand. She wants to be able to have real choice regarding her life: Denny thinks that they already have choice by being able to choose from “eight different types of lager” or “one lousy school and the next”. At the end of the Act, Denny has given Rita an ultimatum and she has left the house. Rita has chosen her education and “choice” over her husband and has finally started to leave her old life behind.
Rita’s other relationship that is explored in the play is with Frank. This is the basis for the entire play and it changes throughout. The mutual wonder and admiration at the start of the play eventually turns to disillusioned resentment, but at the end of Act 1, both are still amicable. Rita views Frank with very high regard and is fascinated by him when they first meet. She refuses to allow him to transfer her to another tutor, calling him “a crazy mad piss artist” and telling him that she “likes” him. Frank to her embodies the new exciting world of the educated and literature, just as Denny symbolises, to her, the working class. As the play progresses and Rita understands more, her view of Frank becomes less adoring but at the end of Act 1 she still views him with the huge respect. However, in the final exchanges of the act, she is ordering him to be honest and repeatedly asserting that she “does not want pity”. She is now more comfortable with him, and more confident in herself, and so has taken him down from the pedestal she had placed him on and is talking to him much more frankly, like an equal.
Rita’s ability to write essays that will impress examiners does not greatly improve throughout the first act, with her Macbeth essay equally as unsuitable as her attempts on Howard’s End and Peer Gynt. However, she is beginning to change her taste in what she considers to be literature. She has exchanged her desire to see amateur productions of The Importance of Being Earnest in order to watch Macbeth. She now understands that there is a difference between Rita Mae Brown and Chekov. However, in regards to the wider culture of the world she is trying to enter, she is still na?ve. She is too afraid to attend Frank’s dinner party, knowing that she would have bought the wrong type of wine and would be wearing an unsuitable dress and would not be able to keep up with the conversation. These fears have been assuaged by the end of the play but are still present as the first Act ends.
The changes that take hold of Rita throughout the play have not all been fully realised by this point, but they have been set in motion. Her attempt to leave her background, strongly linked with her relationship with Denny, is now starting to become successful as she leaves her husband. The relationship between Frank and Rita has already developed from one of adoring student and fascinated teacher into one which contains more equality and more understanding but has yet to progress into the disillusionment and resentment that plagues their later relationship. Rita’s change in herself has also begun to take place: although she has not yet learned to write passable essays, she is beginning to “connect” and understand the concepts involved in literature. Her ability to choose wine, buy dresses that one should buy and discuss intelligent subjects are still not learned yet and she places great importance to these superficial matters. These however are not the important aspects of education, nor is essay writing. Rita is beginning to understand herself and the world in which she finds herself and that is the most important part of becoming “educated”.
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