The Sublime and the Ridiculous
Going to the theatre is a special event for me, so two trips in as many weeks is a definite rarity – not least because I see so many movies that it can be easy to forget about the altogether different joys and techniques of live stage performance. Last weekend I was through at the Lowry in Salford for a production of Willy Russell’s 80s classic Educating Rita, while last night’s performance of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (this time at the Manchester Opera House) couldn’t have been more different. The first, I was familiar with, having seen the Julie Walters/Michael Caine film adaptation; the second, I know mainly by reputation and due to the devoted cult following it attracts among its fans. But while Douglas Adams was clearly an extremely smart guy, making wry and intelligent points about physics, metaphysics and humanity, Hitchhiker’s tongue remains firmly in its cheek, being in essence a ludicrous and comical affair. Educating Rita, although often extremely witty, presents us with a more problematic and clearly political seam of social critique. I’m not going to review the performances or the productions here.1 Instead, I want to muse a little on some of the issues around class, education, and stereotype that these two shows (primarily Russell’s) stirred up in my mind.
Rita changes drastically throughout the course of the play, enrolling in an Open University course that leads to weekly tuition sessions with grumpy but likeable English literature lecturer Frank. The play being much inspired by Pygmalion, she undergoes a transformation comparable to that of George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle. Beginning as a frustrated and rather lonely – but undeniably smart, determined and insightful – professional hairdresser, Rita is defined (or actually, self-defined) as the product of working class conventions that don’t chime with her true personality or her aspirations. Learning about herself and the middle-classes along with the disciplined conventions of literary analysis, she becomes a knowledgable, popular and semi-bohemian University graduate, dressing differently, thinking more clearly and leaving behind hairdressing, pub sing-a-longs, a book-burning ex-husband, and “talking about irrelevant rubbish”. Frank meanwhile is sent on sabbatical to Australia, not having given up drinking, but having been dumped by his girlfriend. Whether he will return to writing poetry remains ambiguous, as indeed, does Rita’s own future, but both are aware of new possibilities.
In many ways, Rita’s story resonates as much now as it did in the 1980s, although undeniably the contexts and conditions of the working class, women, the higher education system, and notions of social “betterment” are a little bit different now than they were under Margaret Thatcher.2 As we cheer Rita along on her journey of discovery and smile at the lessons she seems to teach the equally frustrated but far less determined Frank, it’s worth wondering whether Rita would nowadays be able to save enough of her wages to cope with even the less-than-average tuition fees of the OU. We might also wonder about the extent to which Frank’s already shaky position in academia would be valued at all in 2013, given the ‘ivory tower’ quality of his knowledge and his lack of enthusiasm for most of his students. Alcoholism aside, would Frank’s influence on Rita count as “impact” given that it merely enriches her sense of self and possibly her earning potential, rather than the budget of the institution? What would her gratitude, and his, count for?
Of course, the whole play revolves around an examination of class stereotypes, at the same time as we can detect them in it. Undeniably, Rita achieves what she sets out to. For her, the intellectual opportunities offered by access to a previously more exclusive education system, are a liberation. Yet while she is hardly a stock agitprop-style ‘everywoman’, and although Russell gives her a personality and subjectivity all of her own that makes the audience actively like her, it’s hard to deny that there are elements of cliché about both her and the working class world she describes. Back home, it seems, she is the only person in existence who values learning, education, or going against the grain. Unless she settles for marriage and motherhood, literally no-one will support her. Further, she believes that Frank’s suggestion of a “working class culture” is just a risible middle class invention. Of course, she may paint in broad, harsh strokes through anger; her stance seems to soften by the end as she realises that not all is as she once imagined in the University environment. But isn’t it worth being cautious of her conviction that she must leave one group so fully behind in order to embrace the ‘best’ aspects of another? Equally, it doesn’t seem certain that Frank was ‘born to’ his position. He is not really Henry Higgins.
Having gone back to school at a time when there was barely such a thing as a ‘Mature student’ and after a period working as – you’ve guessed it – a hairdresser – Russell himself effectively was Rita; or a male version of her. He was no doubt aware of the potential issues with his ‘girl-done-good’ narrative and probably they are deliberate; still, I’d say they are not the most obvious so they’re worth flagging up. Do Rita and Russell, to some extent, unintentionally parody and patronise working class ambition? For me, slightly, yes. Watching Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its geeky sub-textual jokes about the cosmos, relativity, and the perfect cup of tea, we also find stereotypes being played with. But these are of a different sort – cheeky, apolitical and uninterrogated. What else would an Englishman do in space after all, but worry about his tea? Nonetheless, Hitchhiker’s humour works on multiple registers and, presented as a colourful multimedia “adventure” in this production, there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Here, I thought about the very different types of experience and knowledge that must have influenced the works of Adams, educated at a paid-for prep-school before he went on to Cambridge; the very kind of trajectory in fact, that Rita initially envies. As Willy Russell explained in an interview with Jim Mulligan:
Both my parents were passionately opposed to mob culture or mob thought. They could never stand unquestioning groups of people and I was brought up to see both sides of the question.
In a British culture too often obsessed with the supposed as well as the real divisions between those who come from different “classes”, and in which those are used negatively, that resistance is what we should remember.