Most of Frank D. Gilroy’s plays—both comic and serious, full-length and one-act—may be identified by their development of themes and situations that are related to marriage or family problems and by their ironic style. Unhappy or failed marriages are directly or indirectly responsible for complications in Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, The Subject Was Roses, That Summer—That Fall, The Only Game in Town, Last Licks, So Please Be Kind, and Come Next Tuesday. Family problems centering on the relationship between father and son or on an Oedipal triangle are sources of conflict in The Subject Was Roses, That Summer—That Fall, Last Licks, and Present Tense. Gilroy’s realistic drama, like Henrik Ibsen’s, is distinguished not so much by its verisimilitude in dramatizing these problems as by its mastery of irony. In each of his full-length plays, in the manner of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (pb. 1890, pr. 1891; English translation, 1891), Gilroy creates patterns of irony through triangular character relationships: in Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, Albert and Helen Cobb and Larry Doyle; in The Subject Was Roses, John and Nettie Cleary and their son, Timmy; in That Summer—That Fall, Angelina and Victor Capuano and Victor’s son, Steve; in The Only Game in Town, Fran Walker, Joe Grady, and Thomas Lockwood; and in Last Licks, Matt and Dennis Quinlan and Fiona (but also Matt and Dennis Quinlan and Margaret Quinlan, the dead mother). This triangular design allows for developments, in the relationship and dialogue between two characters, that are concealed from the third character but revealed to the audience. The complexities of the pattern may be expanded by shifts in the balance of the triangle that give each character a turn as the victim of irony.
Who’ll Save the Plowboy?
The inciting action in Who’ll Save the Plowboy? is deceptively simple, because only two of the characters who will form the ironic triangle are onstage when the play opens. An unhappily married couple, Albert and Helen Cobb, argue as they await the visit of Larry Doyle, Albert’s buddy during the war. Larry risked his own life and was wounded in carrying out a miraculous battlefield rescue that saved Albert’s life. Helen suspects that Larry is coming to ask for something, and, in an ironic way, he is. Albert, who considers Larry to be the best friend he ever had, anticipates an opportunity of some kind, perhaps a job offer. A bitter quarrel erupts when Helen balks at Albert’s plan that they act like a loving couple and welcome Larry into a happy home. They exchange insults and threats, and Albert slaps his wife when she makes fun of the “Plowboy” image he is reviving for Larry’s sake. Before Larry arrives, Albert warns Helen not to mention the “farm” or the “boy.”
Albert and Larry have not seen each other for fifteen years, but the joy of their reunion is quickly dissipated. Each man is surprised and disappointed by the changes in the other. Albert is made increasingly uncomfortable by Larry’s questions about the “boy,” the son who was named after Larry and is supposedly visiting relatives. Larry is evasive in speaking about his own life and work. Both men are disturbed by Helen’s cutting remarks. The first scene ends in a violent argument between the two men after Albert reveals to Larry the sordidness of his life—the failure of the farm he bought after the war, his drinking problem, and his unfaithfulness to his wife. As Albert pleads with him to save the Plowboy again, Larry, disgusted, leaves the apartment but collapses on the stairs.
The first scene provides the exposition necessary to understand the relationships among the three central characters and the basic situation in the play, yet the scene is even more important in setting up the ironies that develop in the second scene of act 1 and in act 2. Before Larry arrives, the dramatic interest is created and sustained not by irony but by the strident verbal exchanges between Albert and Helen and particularly by Helen’s sarcasm and ridicule of Albert. In her self-hatred (“Every night before I go to bed I hope I won’t wake up in the morning”) and in the destructive power of her words, she resembles Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Edward Albee play that opened eight months after Gilroy’s drama. After Larry enters, the first pattern of irony is introduced in the reversal of the two friends’ expectations. Albert remembers Larry as a joking, hell-raising, hard-drinking woman-chaser, and he finds that Larry is serious, single, and no longer drinks. Larry discovers that Albert, who never took a drink, now drinks heavily. He finds it even harder to believe that the young man whom he had nicknamed the “Plowboy” and who had talked constantly about owning a farm is living in a run-down apartment in New York City and reading meters for a living.
In the second scene of act 1, Gilroy introduces the first of a series of discoveries that contribute to the ironic design that gives focus and dramatic force to the play. Mrs. Doyle, Larry’s mother, reveals to the Cobbs her son’s secret and his purpose in visiting them. Mrs. Doyle tells them that Larry has been in and out of hospitals for years and does not have long to live. He is dying of cancer that developed from the wound he sustained in saving Albert. Shortly after the war, when Larry discovered that his condition was terminal, he dropped out of medical school, where he was the top student, and broke off his engagement to spare the girl he loved. Mrs. Doyle lets Albert know that she blames and hates him for ruining her son’s life. She also suggests that Larry has come to the Cobbs in the hope of proving before his death that Albert’s life and family were worth the life and happiness he gave up. The scene ends with Albert, tormented by guilt, vowing to convince Larry that he is happy in his life and marriage. Helen agrees to join him in the masquerade and to pretend that Mrs. Doyle never called or told her story.
Although the irony at the end of act 1 depends on the Cobbs’s discovery of Larry’s secret, the irony in act 2 is created by Larry’s discovery of the Cobbs’s secret, which provides both the climax and the resolution of the play. Larry’s first discovery on the morning after his illness, however, merely develops the incidental irony that Helen has been just as unfaithful as Albert. After Albert has left the apartment to meet his boss, Larry tries to get Helen to tell him why she hates him. She breaks down, and when Larry plays the piano to get her to stop crying, she becomes even more upset. The trumpet player who lives upstairs appears at the door, and Larry deduces that Helen uses her piano as a signal for her lover. Promising not to reveal her secret yet unable to learn the reason for her hatred, Larry tells Helen that he intends to stay in New York until he meets the “boy” who bears his name. The “boy” is Larry’s last hope of giving meaning to the life he sacrificed by saving Albert. Realizing that Larry will not heed her warning to spare himself by leaving, and “sick of lies,” Helen reveals the secret about the “boy” that became a psychological cancer for her and Albert and destroyed their marriage: “I gave birth to a monster. . . . Not boy. Not girl. Not anything. . . . It took something in him and something in me. Something bad in the both of us to produce this thing.” Helen’s confession and the irony of its grotesque response to Larry’s hope form the climax of the play. The monster child and its malignant effects on Helen, Albert, and their marriage are comparable to the imaginary child and its effects on George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The monster would never have been born if Larry had not saved Albert, and that is why Helen has hated Larry. She suggests that Albert also regrets that he was not left to die.
In releasing her pent-up feelings, Helen inadvertently reveals that she and Albert know that Larry is dying. What follows this disclosure is one of the two moments of warmth and compassion in the play. After Larry tells Helen that the truth has drained away her hatred of him, she takes his head in her hands and kisses him on both cheeks and the forehead. The secrets that Helen and Larry now share and keep from Albert create the final ironies of the play’s resolution. Albert returns with a boy whom he has picked up on the street and passes him off as his son. Although Larry is almost disgusted enough to spoil Albert’s plan, he creates the second compassionate moment by accepting the boy as his namesake and, in effect, saving the Plowboy again. It is possible to interpret the close of the play as an act of compassion on Helen’s part, as she answers “Yes” when Albert asks her if she thinks Larry believed the boy was their own. What makes the ending ambiguous and contributes the final irony is the sound of the trumpet in the background as Albert says, “Well, it was worth it. . . . He believed me. . . . I owed him that.”
The Subject Was Roses
The Subject Was Roses is a more appealing play than Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, and its three characters are more fully realized and more intrinsically interesting than Larry Doyle or the Cobbs. The irony, too, is more subtle and sympathetic and develops more directly from the characterizations of John, Nettie, and Timmy Cleary and from their relationships with one another. Although The Subject Was Roses is a “comedy drama,” Gilroy’s Cleary family may be compared with the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pb. 1955). Like Edmund Tyrone, Timmy Cleary overcomes his resentment of his father and his blind loyalty to his mother and achieves a better understanding of both parents. Like Mary Tyrone, Nettie Cleary was devoted to her father as a girl and feels that her marriage was a mistake—a comedown in class and something of a fall from innocence. She will not forgive John his past infidelities. John Cleary, like James Tyrone, grew up in abject poverty and is tightfisted with his money. Vital and gregarious as a young man, in his middle years, he has trouble expressing his emotions and seems to be much more unfeeling than he actually is. Yet the form and substance of Gilroy’s play has more to do with character relationships than with individual characterizations. A triangle is formed by the conflict between Nettie and John over Timmy, as each attempts to secure his love and allegiance. The shape of the triangle changes during the play as Timmy feels more strongly the pull of ties first to one parent and then to the other. It is only in the end that, in Timmy’s eyes, all sides of the triangle are equal and the family relationships are balanced.
The first act of the play focuses on the realignment of family loyalties that begins when Timmy returns home after three years in the army. It is clear from conversations between Nettie and John and from Timmy’s own remarks that in the years before he left home, he was much closer to his mother than to his father. In the exchange between Nettie and John that begins the play, John voices the hope that his relationship with his son will improve now that his son is a man, and everything that happens in the first act seems to support his hope, as Timmy displays not only a new understanding of his father but also similar personality traits. They drink together, take in a ballgame, and team up for an impromptu vaudeville routine after a night on the town. More important, they talk together, and for the first time Timmy is able to form his own impressions of his father. As a boy, he saw his father through his mother’s eyes and accepted her judgments of him. Timmy gains a new appreciation of his father’s humor, his fighting spirit, and his successful struggle out of poverty.
In the first act, as Timmy draws closer to his father, he pulls back gently, but firmly, from his mother. It is not that Timmy loves his mother less but that he realizes better his position at the center of his parents’ conflict with each other. He is also aware that his identity is no longer defined solely by his role as a son and that he must claim his independence. Timmy’s withdrawal...
(The entire section is 5075 words.)