Willy Russell, Liverpool, and Culture

"Frank, y' know culture, y' know the word culture? Well it doesn't just mean goin'to the
opera an' that, does it? . . . It means a way of livin', doesn't it? Well we've got no culture."

Willy Russel headshotPlaywright Willy Russell grew up in the most influential culture of the 20th century just as it was about to explode: working class Liverpool. In his teens, he attended the Beatles' gigs at the Cavern Club and for the first time in his young life and arguably in history, young men with Scouse accents were the best, most legitimate artists in the world. It wasn't just The Beatles. By the late 1960s and early 70s, a troupe of actors coming out of Liverpool Polytechnic joined up with theatre director John Dosser at the Liverpool Everyman. Instantly one of the most vibrant theatres in the world, its company at the time included Jonathan Pryce, Julie Walters, Anthony Sher, and Bill Nighy. And, the most enduring plays from that era are Russell's.

Willy Russell's plays, particularly Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, and the musical Blood Brothers, have been in production nearly continuously since their premieres. Russell's style is escapist in that the plays are funny and the characters are relatable. Blood Brothers is a heartily satisfying melodrama and Shirley Valentine is a one-character comedy, but Educating Rita is something a bit more complex. All Russell's plays are steeped in a very specific culture; but in Rita, 1970s working class Liverpool is perhaps the most important off-stage character and Rita's biggest obstacle. Rita is self-aware enough to realize she needs more than the culture affords her as a young woman of limited education, saying "I've been realizin' for ages that I was, y'know, slightly out of step . . . See I don't wanna baby yet. See, I wanna discover meself first." When her tutor, Frank, asks what she wants to learn she tells him, "Everything!" which betrays both her naiveté and her charming idealism.

Rita's culture is also her biggest strength. It lends her an authenticity that Frank cannot resist. Expecting to be bored by "some silly woman's attempts to get into the mind of Henry James," he gets bowled over by a vibrant, attractive, mature student who is fairly bursting with life, perspective, and lived experience. Frank himself is a creature of a unique British culture: the pub. Russell often emphasizes that Frank is not an alcoholic; he is a "boozer." At this time, men did most of their socializing, politicking, and philosophizing down at the pub. Both Frank and Rita go through changes that mean giving up their respective cultures, and the play does not shrink from acknowledging what it costs them even though it is positive change.

About the play, Russell says, "it was celebrating academic life and celebrating her enthusiasm and [exploring] how the idea of expansion of oneself and fulfillment of oneself through education can be completely exhilarating, but there are many potential pitfalls." Rita and Frank's friendship is one of true regard for another, and Russell insists that their love is not primarily romantic. That, of course, is why the play has endured: on the strengths of its own enthusiasm for the ideas of expansion, fulfillment, and true regard for others.

Lisa Timmel


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