Educating Rita was written in 1980 by William Russell (Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers) on a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company. It has only two principal characters, Frank, an aging alcoholic English poet and professor, and Rita, a lower class hairdresser with an ambition to “know everything.” It was made into a movie with Michael Caine as Frank and Julie Walters as Rita in 1983 and the play has been in production someplace in the world since. I had never seen or read it, and was delighted when Pam and I went to see it last night at the Prospect Theatre.

Frank was played by Anne Frank colleague, Adam Roberts, a veteran of the Cayman Drama Society, and Rita by Soraya Moghadass, another veteran of local theatre, who absolutely nailed the Liverpudilian accent required for her role. She also brought energy, a refreshing sarcastic edginess and a rare degree of touching pathos to her well-rounded character. I always enjoy the experience of being out with my wife to live theatre, and this time I had the rare pleasure of bumping into Anne Frank colleagues Mike (Mr. Kraler), Laura (Mrs. Van Daan) and Sandra (Miep) and reminiscing.  I was not ready for the text of the play itself.

Russell, who in a chequered past had been both a hairdresser and a teacher, explores what happens when students come to grips with the intricacies of literary analysis. The highly structured language and demanding form is one thing. The necessary dependence on a whole history of literary allusion is another. The close attention to the details of the text in an age when the overwhelming majority of people read nothing longer than social media articles is a huge obstacle, as is the virtual abandonment of the formal instruction in grammar, syntax, punctuation, and even simple capitalization so necessary for good writing.

But even after students have plowed their way through all that – with some pretty insistent nagging and cajoling on my part – one huge obstacle remains, and it was the one most poignantly examined in this play. What happens to the student’s own voice in seeking to master analytical writing? Do the requirements of IB Literature mean that students lose their own unique individuality?

This is the dilemma I face every single day in my role as teacher, mentor, and writing tutor. Literary analysis requires that one seeks to know what the writer’s point of view is. One must suspend one’s own moral and personal judgement and enter into the way the writer sees the world and comment on how he or she presents that. Those engaged in critical analysis must be dispassionate and, yes analytical, observing connections between characters and even connecting with them, but still able to maturely critique those connections and behaviours.

Further, the language of analysis must be academic and detached, but not stilted or artificial. It must be sparse and concise, yet remain engaging and erudite. Is it any wonder many 17 and 18 year olds find themselves losing their own voice in the process? Yet this is precisely what they must not let happen, and what I as their teacher must not allow to happen. This new way of thinking and writing about the world has to become part of who they are; it has to be integrated into their own personalities so that it becomes an authentic expression of their understanding of the world. To reduce all those unique and wonderful human beings to mere parroting sycophants merely to pass a set of exams would be a travesty of this profession.

Hence my personal and pensive delight with this wonderful little gem of a play that so wisely and lovingly explores this very personal dilemma and allowed me to reflect on my own professional journey. Thank you to all those connected with this production – Adam, Soraya, Liam, and Laura especially – for a most revealing evening.

Advertisements