To a substantial degree Frank is the comic focus of the play, Willy Russell presents him at the start with a fundamental sense of humour essential to the comic themes of the play, his character is reinforced throughout the play and the contrast between Frank and Rita exploits a class difference which shows the real purpose of the humour. He is then denoted as an allegorical function to expose the class system, Russell’s true comic focus.
The play opens with a comical monologue from Frank; he is on the phone with Julia, an ex-student with whom he lives, and although there is an underlying sense of despondency in this scene when looking further into his character, the comedy is obvious and conceals the truth of Frank’s tragic life. This is portrayed through his sarcasm in his dispute over the ‘ratatouille’, and the way in which he comments on his own drinking problem after Julia’s remark. This is comical due to the reality that they’re arguing over something so insignificant and yet become so aggravated.
This ‘sugarcoating’ holds true comic applicability as comedy can be strongly linked with tragedy as the credibility of the characters holds true purpose to the audience and therefore feel an affinity to such characters which may be of great importance to Russell when choosing and depicting a ‘focus’ of the play. Russell utilises this initial characterisation and continues to create humorous scenes in which Frank’s apathetic temperament and almost callous character becomes so captivating, even though you would imagine his cynicism as a trait associated with the antagonist in any story.
Russell’s grim worldview and his opinion on the education system, a common theme of the play, comes through with Frank’s alcoholism and what he says about his position; “To get the sack, it would have to be rape on a grand scale. And not just with students, either. That would only amount to a slight misdemeanour. No, for dismissal it would have to be nothing less than buggering the Bursar”, and although this may be lewd and obscene it is extremely funny and appeals to the sardonic side of the audience.
This could lead us to consider the notion that Russell does this purposefully to centre him in the play, and doing so in an amusing fashion would suggest that he is the comic target of the play. And yet this may only aim at one side of the audience as in the eighties there was an increasing class difference and Frank is simply an avenue to exploit this and to comment on the social and political standings. Rita, the other protagonist and the only other present character in the play, can also be considered as the comic focus of the play.
Her idiolect, Liverpudlian accent and working class mannerisms allow Russell to contrast Frank’s witty comments and sarcastic remarks, and applies this as soon as she is introduced. Comments such as “look at those tits” become typical of Rita and are a seminal component in her character’s humour throughout the play, this is humorous as she challenges the norm and remarks on a philosophical level of what was art and religion in such a humorous manner as well as the example: “Howard’s End, sounds filthy doesn’t it”.
This is such simple but effective humour, as she addresses what everyone else notices but chooses to ignore. Her common accent adds to this and may entertain both ends of the class system as having a mutual understanding with the lower class and you could argue that she’s there for the upper class to mock; an uneducated commoner out of place. Russell capitalises on this to make her the original comic focus of the play but just masks the underlying themes and motifs that are of greater importance and are more relevant to this play.
In another sense you could argue that there is an interdependency between Frank and Rita; a sense that there would be no humour without the other character, when we consider that they are the only two characters, then a relationship must be formed between the two otherwise the play simply wouldn’t function. This relationship often consists of them bouncing the humour back and forth, for example: “And you are? ” “I’m a what? ” “Pardon? ” “What? ” “And you are? What is your name? “Me first name? ” “Well that would constitute some sort of start”. These misunderstandings aren’t only humorous but address the serious social matter of their difference in class and upbringing, Frank being the well spoken educated formal character, and Rita speaking colloquially and using slang and profanities. The confusion is the result of the socio-economic problems of the seventies but in a light hearted manner points out the way in which both ends of the system were furthering away.
This is also shown in Rita’s reference to Frank as being a “Flora man” and her remarks on ‘ITV’ and Farrah Fawcett-Majors etc, this may be dated but these class separations are quintessential to the comedy and their affiliation with one another, as Frank becomes captivated by Rita. To him she is a breath of fresh air, he loves her enthusiasm and colourful character, and his fascination with her brings a hope of change, but his self pitying comes to no avail.
In this sense both become the focus as near the beginning of the play Rita is the vulnerable character, new to higher education feeling alienated in this new setting, an environment in which she is at the bottom of the pecking order; therefore she becomes a target through which the audience empathises. Yet as this dynamic shifts and the audience realise that even though through the oppression of the lower classes and a society favouring those of the male gender, Rita still has potential, and exploits this so that she is in a position to create a new life for herself.
Yet on the other hand, Frank, whom towards the beginning is a symbol of esoteric intellect and knowledge to Rita, becomes pitiable through his lack of fulfilment as the play matures. On another level, the aforementioned allegorical function to expose the class system, Russell may be targeting the social and political standings of the time. Around the same time this was written, Margaret Thatcher came to power laying constraints on the labour movement which resulted in a massive gap opening up between the upper and lower class, creating a culture clash that sparked controversy throughout the eighties.
Considering this, we may see Frank representing the upper class, and Rita the lower class. The humour that they exhibit could potentially be Russell’s way of mocking the class system and portray his views on the changes occurring in this country. This can be found in the previously mentioned examples, as well as “I’ve been realisin’ for ages that I was, y’ know, slightly out of step. I’m twenty-six. I should have had a baby by now; everyone expects it. I’m sure me husband thinks I’m sterile. He was moanin’ all the time, y’ know, ‘Come off the pill, let’s have a baby. I told him I’d come off it, just to shut him up. But I’m still on it. See, I don’t wanna baby yet. I wanna discover myself first. Do you understand that? “, this may at first seem as if it were another of Rita’s comical rants with the fast paced nature of the short sentences and idiolect coming through with the shortened words and phrases, but it calls attention to this serious matter that addresses the socio-economic difference between Rita and Frank as well as, in this case, the sexist society.
As Willy Russell was from a working class background he may feel it necessary to point out such issues using a comical medium. So this could dictate the notion that the real comic focus of the play was actually what the characters and themes represented as oppose to the actual characters. To conclude I would view the comic focus not as a single character, theme or subsidiary entity, as the play aims its humour at a range of topics. Therefore to a substantial degree Frank is a comic focus of the play, but the comedy would not ensue without all other present forms of comedy.
On a fundamental level, I would say the humour that Frank and Rita utilise is very much equal, but the target of the humour may start off as Rita as she is somewhat easier to prey upon being uneducated, but this dynamic then shifts to Frank as he is the unchanged of the two. Yet again on the metaphorical level of the class system, it is the upper class, Frank, who become the victims of the comedy. It is not a question of which character is the comic focus but rather how Willy Russell uses comedy to express a matter related to characters he created.