From the opening stage direction at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 1, one of the primary topics of the play is introduced to us. The theme of Frank’s drinking problem is brought to light even before the first real lines have been spoken. We can see the desperation in frank’s search for his bottle of whiskey, and how he strives to remember where he has hidden it. The language used emphasises this, and frank is said to ‘jubilantly’ move towards his Dickens shelf and pour out a ‘large slug’ into a ‘mug’.It is almost as if he is trying to conceal his drinking problem, by pretending it is tea or coffee.
He ‘gulps’ at the whiskey before picking up the phone and talking to his girlfriend. He tells her that he will go to the pub after work, for four pints or so. We can see that to him, the dinking and the pub is more important than his new Open University student, more important that being with his girlfriend. We meet Rita soon after Frank’s conversation with his girlfriend has ended. We are told that she knocks at the door, and struggles to get into frank’s study.This struggle to get into the study can be interpreted as the symbolic struggle of Rita’s entry into education.
From the moment Rita enters into Frank’s room, we can see the marked difference between the two characters. Whilst Frank has this drinking problem, he is still clearly a man of intelligence and sophistication. His language is that of an educated man. Conversely, Rita uses a far more colloquial dialect, and is noticeably blunt: ‘it’s that stupid bleedin’ handle on the door’ – she is already talking as though she is familiar with Frank.We see that Frank is unused to this sort of forwardness as he is said to stare and Rita, ‘slightly confused’. We see that whilst Rita is a little extrovert and outgoing, she is also observant. This is prominent in Frank and Rita’s discussion about the ‘erotic painting’.
Rita immediately notices the eroticism of the painting in Frank study, and points this out, albeit bluntly, to Frank.She questions Frank about the painting – ‘is it supposed to be erotic? I mean when he painted it do y’ think he wanted to turn people on? – showing underlying intelligence but a lack of sophistication about her. She doesn’t seem to know when not to make certain comments. We can see a discernible difference in Rita and Frank’s use of language on the fourth page of Scene 1. Rita talks to Frank about the ‘ordinary’ university and the ‘real’ students and how they differ from students like her. Frank agrees, but uses noticeably different language, less blunt, confirming that the Open University does indeed ’embrace a more comprehensive studentship’.
The two eventually discuss the use of swear words in conversation, with Rita implying that swearing is almost a ‘class thing’. She says that the educated people understand that swear words are just that – words – and therefore do not take offence to them. She proceeds to explain that when she swears in the hairdressers, people cause a fuss. She doesn’t realise that the language the educated classes seem to understand, operates relative to the situation that they are in and hence swearing in the middle of a hairdressers is bound to cause a fuss with many people.There is one point in the first scene where some form of insecurity is exposed in Rita. She asks Frank what the word ‘assonance’ means, and when Frank lets out a short laugh before answering, we see this quick and sharp response from Rita ‘ Don’t laugh at me’. She does not explain her comment, but it seems as though she thinks that frank is laughing at her, whereas he is merely surprised by the nature of the question, and the sudden change of subject.
This point of vulnerability is uncovered many times during the rest of the play.Their discussion moves on to family, when Rita is explaining her reasons for starting this course. She explains that those in her family don’t understand why she wants to get an education, and how her husband wants to settle down and have a baby. Rita explains that her idea of a ‘better way of life’ is getting a good education, whereas her husband wants to move out of their council house and to go and live in Formby. It is here that we get an inkling of Frank’s unhappiness.
He aggress with Rita when she says that she thinks Formby is a hole, before revealing that he in fact lives there.We get the impression that Frank is simply bored with his life, and is unhappy because of this. We see his dry wit and cynical attitude to life exposed here, and how he believes himself to be a failure.
He then tells Rita that he never really wanted to take on an Open University student, and insists that he is actually an awful teacher, and the she should apply for a new tutor. Rita refuses to accept this, as she likes him because he is so different and new to her – a ‘crazy mad piss artist’. We see that she is ambitious in her goals, and wants nothing more but to achieve them.