Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo was first staged in Chicago in 1950, premiered in New York City in 1951, and was a success with audiences. It is Williams’s most light-hearted play, an homage, many say, to his beloved sister Rose and to Frank Merlo, whom Williams loved.
The drama chronicles events separated by three years in the life of its main character, Serafina Delle Rose. Serafina is characterized by her boastful pride, and the play’s drama and humor revolves around whether she will learn humility.
What a close reading of the play suggests is that it is a mixed genre play. What this means is that it blends together distinct dramatic forms. The play synthesizes comedic elements, elements borrowed from ancient Greek tragedy, and elements that invoke ancient Greco-Roman celebrations of the god Dionysus. The play’s comedy rests on its bawdiness and the way the characters get themselves into ridiculous fixes. Its nod to the classic, tragic form is that Serafina has a major flaw, like all tragic heroes. The play’s focus on virility is its primary Dionysian element, as Dionysus is associated with life, love, virility, and intoxication. Dionysus is also, signifi- cantly, the god of right worship. He punishes mortals who think they are as great as gods or who refuse to give the gods their worshipful due. The two classic strains of the play work together in the way that the lusty Serafina is at once a celebration of life and a character whose flaw is self-worship.
Like many of Williams’s plays, The Rose Tattoo is set in the U.S. South, Williams’s birthplace. It stands out, however, for its cast of characters, who are Italian Americans with Sicilian roots.