Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1855
Frank Daniel Gilroy was born and grew up in New York City. He was the only child of Bettina and Frank B. Gilroy. His father, like John Cleary in The Subject Was Roses , was in the coffee business. The family lived in an apartment in the West Bronx. Memories...
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- Critical Essays
Frank Daniel Gilroy was born and grew up in New York City. He was the only child of Bettina and Frank B. Gilroy. His father, like John Cleary in The Subject Was Roses, was in the coffee business. The family lived in an apartment in the West Bronx. Memories of his early family life and his relationship with his parents eventually provided material for The Subject Was Roses as well as for Last Licks and Any Given Day. By the time Gilroy was graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1943, he had shown an interest in writing but little promise as a student; his father was evidently willing to send him to college, but his grades were not good enough. Gilroy’s autobiographical novel Private opens with an account of a visit to New Haven and the humiliating return trip to New York after Yale University had rejected his application. Gilroy uses this event as the basis for his play Getting In.
Gilroy was drafted into the United States Army ten months after his high school graduation. He would say later that during his tour in the army his life underwent “some good and productive changes.” In Europe, however, attached to the Eighty-ninth Infantry Division Reconnaissance Troop, he saw degradation, the threat of death, and witnessed the depravity of the final days of the war. Private records the indelible impression of his army experiences; war memories both trivial and serious also surface in Who’ll Save the Plowboy? and The Subject Was Roses.
In 1946, Gilroy came out of the army with a desire to write and the determination to go to college. He applied to forty colleges and was accepted by only two of them—Davis and Elkins, and Dartmouth. He chose Dartmouth and was graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in 1950. In college, he wrote stories and was an editor of the paper, but a playwriting course convinced him that drama was the form best suited to his talents. During his junior and senior years, he wrote and was accorded productions of two full-length plays and six one-act plays. In both years, he won the Frost Playwriting Award. Following his graduation, Gilroy attended the Yale School of Drama with the help of a scholarship, but his funds ran out after six months.
The growing popularity of television provided a new market for playwrights, and Gilroy began writing scripts for television in the early 1950’s. To support himself during this period, he held a series of jobs—including messenger, trumpet player, and cabana salesman—but by the mid-1950’s he was making a good living from television. He wrote regularly for two popular Western series, The Rifleman and Have Gun, Will Travel, in addition to having plays produced by the leading network drama programs. He wrote at least three plays for Studio One: A Likely Story (1955), Uncle Ed and Circumstances (1955; adaptation of a story by Jackie Gleason), and The Last Summer (1958). Two of his plays appeared on Kraft Theater: Run for the Money (1954) and Ten Grapefruit to Lisbon (1956). A Matter of Pride (1957; adaptation of John Langdon’s story “The Blue Serge Suit”) was shown on the U.S. Steel Hour. For Playhouse 90 he adapted two works by John P. Marquand, Sincerely, Willis Wayde (in 1956) and Point of No Return (in 1958).
In 1954, Gilroy married Ruth Gaydos, and by the time The Subject Was Roses was produced, ten years later, they had three sons and lived in upstate New York. For several years at the end of the 1950’s, however, while Gilroy was employed as a studio screenwriter, California was his home. This experience was evidently the inspiration for ’Twas Brillig, a one-act comedy about a writer’s first day on a studio lot. In 1960, Gilroy collaborated with Beirne Lay, Jr., on The Gallant Hours, a biographical film about Admiral William Halsey, starring James Cagney. Gilroy’s work for television and films gave him enough time and income to write for the stage and enabled him to complete Who’ll Save the Plowboy? in 1957.
Gilroy moved his family back to New York in 1961, and in 1962, he found a producer for Who’ll Save the Plowboy? Although its reviews were generally favorable and it won an Obie Award, the play did not enjoy a long run—a month at the Phoenix Theatre and another month at the Orpheum Theatre. Its production at the Haymarket Theatre in the spring of 1963 introduced Gilroy’s work to London audiences. On May 25, 1964, The Subject Was Roses opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway, then moved to the Winthrop Ames Theatre on September 7, 1964. Although it ended up being Gilroy’s longest-running drama and greatest achievement, he worked steadily for two years to get it produced and then faced the threat of an early closing. The play not only survived but also received 832 performances in New York, toured the United States, and was produced in a number of other countries. The Subject Was Roses won almost every award given for the best play of 1964-1965. In About Those Roses: Or, How Not to Do a Play and Succeed (1965), Gilroy gives a diary account of his struggles for the play from its completion in the spring of 1962 to its opening night in the spring of 1964. In a 1966 interview with Joseph Blank in Reader’s Digest, Gilroy summed up the meaning of the experience for him: “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if you believe in what you want to do. The strength of your belief makes others believe.”
In a story in Life three months after the opening of The Subject Was Roses, Tom Prideaux reported that Gilroy had become a “hot property” and had received offers “to adapt sixteen books into movies, to write four musicals and six TV pilot films.” Gilroy may never have committed himself to any of these projects, but the decade between 1965 and 1975 was to become the most active period of Gilroy’s writing career. In 1965, Far Rockaway, a very brief expressionistic play in thirteen scenes, was presented on National Educational Television. When it was printed with the Random House edition of That Summer—That Fall, Gilroy claimed that the little drama demonstrated that he was not exclusively dedicated to the “real.” That Summer—That Fall, Gilroy’s updated dramatization of the Phaedra story, opened on March 16, 1967, at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York, and closed on March 25. The film of The Subject Was Roses was released in 1968, and on May 23, 1968, Gilroy’s Las Vegas love comedy, The Only Game in Town, opened at New York’s Broadhurst Theatre, only to close on June 1. The film of the comedy, for which Gilroy wrote the screenplay, was released a year later with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty as the lovers. Little Ego, the children’s book that Gilroy wrote with his wife, Ruth, was published in 1970; the same year saw the publication of Private, Gilroy’s autobiographical war novel. The novel is written in an impressionistic style, resembling in its form and its evocative power the interchapter vignettes of Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1924, 1925). Gilroy produced, directed, and wrote the screenplay for Desperate Characters in 1971; the film was adapted from a novel by Paula Fox and starred Shirley MacLaine. A program of four of his one-act plays—Come Next Tuesday, ’Twas Brillig, So Please Be Kind, and Present Tense, opened at the Sheridan Square Playhouse on July 8, 1972, and closed July 23. Gilroy’s Western novel, From Noon Till Three, was published in 1973. Its comic irony develops from two versions of a frontier romance told first by a lady and then by her outlaw lover. Gilroy adapted the story for the screen and produced and directed the film, which was released in 1976 and featured Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in the leading roles. In the same year, Gilroy returned briefly to television to adapt stories by John O’Hara for Gibbsville, a short-lived series that he directed.
In 1976, Gilroy also realized a great profit, however indirectly, from another television play, Who Killed Julie Greer? (1961), which he had written for The Dick Powell Show fifteen years earlier. In the play, he created the character of Amos Burke, a wealthy detective, who became the main character in the television series Burke’s Law two years later (1963). In 1965, Gilroy filed suit against two publishers, a television network, and two television production companies for the misappropriation of his Burke character, and after eleven years of litigation a jury awarded Gilroy one million dollars in compensation and interest.
After that, Gilroy wrote the screenplay for Once in Paris, which he also produced and directed. His full-length play Last Licks focuses on the relationship between father and son and reveals an unhappy marriage and a family triangle in their past. With its autobiographical roots, the comedy is a sequel to The Subject Was Roses. Last Licks opened at the Longacre Theatre on November 20, 1979, and closed December 1. The plays that Gilroy wrote after 1964 have closed after disappointingly short runs, yet Gilroy has retained a dramatist’s interest in the theater and in theater groups devoted to developing and showcasing new plays. Two of his one-act plays, The Next Contestant and Dreams of Glory, were produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in its annual play festivals.
In addition to pursuing a successful television and screenwriting career, Gilroy continued to write for the stage. His plays are frequently produced in regional and community theaters. The one-act play A Way with Words was produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in May, 1991, as part of a short-play marathon; The Subject Was Roses was revived on Broadway in June of 1991 and continued to be revived throughout the 1990’s. Unfortunately, critical opinions of that decade found the play to be outdated and overly sentimental. Generally, critics thought that the play failed to hold up for 1990’s audiences
Gilroy’s legacy to writing extends far beyond Monroe, New York, where he was residing at the start of the twenty-first century. Two of his sons are highly regarded screenwriters and attribute their successes to what they learned from their father. Gilroy’s third son is also a part of the film industry. In 2000, Smith and Kraus publishers issued Gilroy’s collected works in two volumes as a part of their Contemporary Dramatists series, demonstrating the value and appeal his plays hold for theater intellectuals and enthusiasts. As a realistic playwright in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Gilroy often faced the hostility or indifference of critics who were embracing the absurdists and who dismissed realistic drama as dull and outmoded. He also found himself challenging the values of producers who dismissed as a bad investment any play that was serious and had no music or lyrics. He succeeded in overcoming the opposition of both groups by the sheer power of his writing in Who’ll Save the Plowboy? and The Subject Was Roses. In these plays and occasionally in his later works, Gilroy has contributed to an evolving tradition in the best modern American drama, which refines and applies the techniques of psychological realism to a focus on the family and marriage.