Frank D. Gilroy

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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...

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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 from his mother’s hold on him is dramatized in an emotionally intense moment in the first scene. When Nettie says she cannot believe he is home again, Timmy extends his hand and tells her to pinch him. His mother takes his hand, holds on, and will not let go until Timmy becomes agitated and “jerks” his hand free. Much of the irony in the first act comes as Timmy pulls away from his mother’s grip on his life, and there is a reversal in her expectations of continuing their past relationship. Nettie is surprised and upset not only because Timmy is doing things with John instead of with her, but also because he shows signs of taking after his father—telling jokes, repeating John’s favorite expressions, and drinking too much.

Act 1 concludes with a bitter argument between Nettie and John following the family’s evening in New York. After Timmy has gone to his room, John grows amorous, and Nettie resists. Their struggle becomes ugly when John resorts to force; it ends with Nettie smashing the vase of roses she has been led to believe were a present from John. She has been moved by the roses, but she will not forgive his unfaithfulness—his “hotel lobby whores”—and refuses to renew their sexual relationship. In his frustration at the end of the scene, John tells her that the roses were Timmy’s idea. Although the friction over their son is a serious problem between them, it is only the visual symptom of other dire problems underlying and undermining their marriage.

Nettie tells John that “what’s wrong” between them “has nothing to do” with Timmy, but it does. The second act opens the morning after, and John, still smarting from Nettie’s rejection, vents his anger on Timmy as well as Nettie. The scene suggests the tone of John’s relationships with his wife and son before Timmy left home. His petulance gives way to outraged disbelief when Timmy declines to attend Mass with him because he no longer considers himself to be a Catholic. When Nettie defends Timmy’s right as a man to choose for himself, John speaks bitterly of the “familiar alliance” between mother and son. Ironically, after John leaves the house, Timmy stands up for his father and tries to get his mother to admit that it was “always us against him.” It is evidently the first time Timmy has ever argued seriously with his mother or sided with his father: “You, and him, and me, and what’s been going on here for twenty years. . . . We’ve got to stop ganging up on him.” Timmy also accuses Nettie of bolstering the alliance against John by maintaining close ties and daily contact with her mother and sister. The irony is doubled at the end of the scene when Nettie, angered by Timmy’s accusations, thanks him for the roses and stalks out of the apartment with fifty dollars in coins that she has saved.

Irony is created in the second scene of act 2 in its reversal of one of the more melodramatic scenes of the Cleary’s prewar family life. It is ten o’clock on a Sunday night, and it is Nettie, not John, who has not returned home. As the father and son wait and seek news of her, it is John who is frantic and Timmy who is drunk—but well aware of the irony of his father’s position. He recalls for his father the dreaded ritual that was repeated throughout his childhood of lying awake listening for his father’s return from a late-night adventure and for the argument between his parents that inevitably followed. The irony of the scene is complete when Nettie comes home but refuses to respond to John’s angry demands for an explanation. Instead, she uses John’s favorite alibi of having been to a movie. Finally, as John presses her for an answer, Nettie insinuates that she has been with another man. She never reveals the truth of her absence to husband or son and will say only that her twelve hours away from them gave her the only “real freedom” she has ever known. Regardless of whether Nettie walked out with the intention of teaching her son a lesson, her rebellious act has that effect. Timmy’s memories of his father’s irresponsible behavior bring a further adjustment in his relationship with both parents.

The proof of a new evenness in Timmy’s attachments to his parents is provided in the scene that follows. At two in the morning, Timmy and Nettie, who have been unable to sleep, talk together in the living room. Timmy tells his mother that he must leave home, and she accepts his decision. Nettie then tells Timmy the story of how she met and married John. Like Mary Tyrone, she describes her marriage in a litany of regret as the inevitable tragic turning point of her life. It is at this point that Timmy speaks of the shifts in his loyalties and of his new and more balanced view of his parents: “When I left this house three years ago, I blamed him for everything that was wrong here. . . . When I came home, I blamed you. . . . Now I suspect that no one’s to blame. . . . Not even me.”

The play ends as it began, by focusing on John and Timmy and on the final adjustment that ensures Timmy’s balanced relationship with his parents and his own independence. Unsuccessful in his appeal to Nettie to persuade Timmy to stay, John himself tries to talk Timmy out of going. He tells him that he is willing to let him do as he pleases in the house, and, confessing that he was wrong in his treatment of Timmy in the past, he promises to change. Timmy insists that he must leave, but he gives his father an assurance of his love that makes his leaving bearable for both. Timmy tells his father of a childhood dream that he had dreamed again the night before—that his father would die without ever saying he loved him. Then, Timmy says, “It’s true you’ve never said you love me. But it’s also true I’ve never said those words to you. . . . I say them now—I love you, Pop.” Timmy’s declaration and what follows—the father and son in tears and embracing each other—provide the emotional climax of the play and a happy ending for Timmy, but there is no happy resolution of his parents’ marital problems. Gilroy spoke openly of the play’s roots in his own family life. In his interview for Reader’s Digest, he explained that the play had been written several years after his parents’ deaths as his “way of saying how [he] came to love them.” By including unpleasant recollections as well as happy memories and by treating them honestly, Gilroy avoided the sentimentality that would have spoiled the play.

That Summer—That Fall

That Summer—That Fall, Gilroy’s most ambitious drama, fails because it neglects the proven strengths of his first two plays— psychological realism and irony. Gilroy may also have made a mistake in taking the material for his play from a classical tragedy, turning away from his own experience. In another sense, however, the Phaedra story, with its unhappy marriage and its father-son conflict, was a logical choice for the author of The Subject Was Roses.

The play is given a contemporary setting in a run-down Italian neighborhood of New York City; with the exception of the opening and closing scenes in a playground, the action takes place in the apartment of Victor and Angelina Capuano. In his delineation of his characters and their relationships, Gilroy shows the influence of Jean Racine’s Phèdre (pr., pb. 1677; Phaedra, 1701) as well as Euripides’ Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781). Victor, whose role is comparable to that of Theseus in the original story, is a successful restaurant owner in his mid-fifties. His wife, Angelina, who is thirty-six, is Gilroy’s modern Phaedra and, like Racine’s heroine, is the dominant character in the play. Angelina falls in love with Steve Flynn before Victor brings him home and identifies him as his illegitimate son. Steve resembles Racine’s Hippolytus more closely than he does Euripides’ chaste woman-hater. By the end of the play, he is dating Josie, a teenage neighbor girl who has fallen in love with him. Zia Filomena, Angelina’s aunt, plays the part of go-between that Euripides assigned to Phaedra’s nurse and Racine expanded for Oenone, the nurse and lady-in-waiting of his Phaedra.

The plot of That Summer—That Fall follows Euripides’ tragedy more closely than Racine’s. When the play opens, Angelina is already tormented by her secret passion for Steve. From papers his mother left after her death, Steve has discovered that Victor is his father, and he has hitchhiked from California to meet him. Victor accepts Steve as his son, all the more eagerly because he and Angelina are childless. A close, trusting relationship grows quickly between father and son, and they are soon working together as partners. At the same time, Angelina’s desire and frustration are intensified by living with Steve under the same roof.

The turning point of the play comes on a night on which Josie and Steve have gone to a dance. Angelina attempts to dull her pain with wine, and in an inebriated stupor, she confesses to Zia her love for Steve. The following morning, after Victor has told her that Steve will be staying, Angelina’s thoughts turn to suicide. Zia realizes what Angelina plans to do and promises to help her. With the idea of bringing Angelina and Steve together to save her niece’s life, Zia sends the young man to Angelina’s bedroom.

The climax and resolution follow very quickly. Mistaking Steve’s intentions in visiting her room, Angelina kisses him passionately and confesses her love. Steve is repulsed by her passion and tells her to go back to the playground and find another boy. When Steve returns to the apartment late that night, he finds Victor sitting alone in the dark. Angelina has killed herself, leaving a letter accusing Steve of raping her. Steve tells his father that the letter is a lie, but Victor will not believe him. After Steve runs out of the apartment, Victor confronts Zia with Steve’s denial, and she finally confesses the truth—that Angelina loved Steve, “was dying for him,” but that nothing happened between them. A hysterical Josie rushes in to tell Victor that Steve has crashed his car and is dying. The play ends with Steve, who lies dying in his father’s arms, saying, “Raise me up,” and Victor replying, “To heaven if I could.”

Gilroy was upset by the hostile reception his play received and by its failure, and he offered his defense in a foreword to the Random House edition: “It was my intention that That Summer—That Fall should work both realistically and as ritual. Unfortunately, the latter element has, so far, escaped detection.” The problems with That Summer—That Fall, however, have nothing to do with realism or ritual: The play lacks adequate plot development and convincing motivation for Angelina and Steve. At the end of the play, each crucial scene—from the moment that Steve enters Angelina’s bedroom to the moment of his death—is unusually brief and is developed in dialogue that is monosyllabic and frequently stichomythic. As a consequence, there is little opportunity for the development of irony. Angelina’s attraction to Steve comes across as lust, not love, since she registers her feelings most strongly whenever she sees Steve bare-chested. Unrequited lust is not a believable motive for suicide or revenge, and because nothing happens, Angelina has no reason to feel guilty or sinful. Steve has even less motive for suicide, if indeed that is the way his automobile wreck is to be taken. He has no reason to blame himself for Angelina’s death, and his father’s wrongheaded rejection hardly seems motive enough to take his own life. Indeed, the best explanation of the motives of Angelina and Steve would seem to be that they behave as they do because that is the way Phaedra and Hippolytus behave.

The Only Game in Town

The Only Game in Town is worth mentioning because it is Gilroy’s only full-length comedy, and Gilroy is a talented comic writer—as is evident in The Subject Was Roses and Last Licks, as well as in the short comedies ’Twas Brillig, So Please Be Kind, and Dreams of Glory. The plot complications in The Only Game in Town may be contrived, but the humor of the dialogue is as sharply honed and as quickly paced as Neil Simon’s. The play also makes good use of comic irony to develop an idea that is treated seriously in Gilroy’s other full-length plays: that marriage is a gamble at long odds. Appropriately enough, the comedy is set in Las Vegas, the action taking place in Fran Walker’s apartment over a period of two years. Fran, one of the players in the love game, is a nightclub dancer who has not yet had the courage to bet on matrimony. It is revealed at the end of the play that she has feared and avoided marriage because her father deserted the family when she was ten years old. The other player is Joe Grady, a piano player who is also a compulsive gambler and a two-time loser at marriage. The first act traces the development of the relationship between Fran and Joe from a casual sexual liaison into a love that each feels but conceals from the other. In the second act, having lived together for almost two years, Fran and Joe remove the obstacles to their marriage and reluctantly agree to wed. Joe licks his gambling problem, and Fran, although she is still “scared,” finally takes a chance. The theme of the comedy and its underlying attitude toward marriage are expressed by Joe in proposing to Fran: “Granted that marriage is a most faulty, pitiful, and wheezing institution, right now it’s the only game in town and we’re going to play it.”

Later Work

Gilroy’s first and, some would have it, finest work was done with small-cast plays. Writing in the 1960’s when costs of commercial theater productions were soaring, Gilroy used small casts and one-set plays to stem the tide of rising production expenses and was able to do so without sacrificing the quality of his scripts. Although Gilroy was known for his strong writing and sense of comedy, in his later works, he was unable to strike the chord that had made successes of his earlier works. During the 1993-1994 television season, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to revive his earlier hit series Burke’s Law. During 1993, Gilroy also saw his film script for The Gig (1985) revised into a musical script for theater by Douglas Cohen. The play went through a series of workshops, including the Eugene O’Neill National Music Theatre Conference, and has been performed in regional theaters across the country. In 1998, Gilroy wrote the screenplay for Money Plays, a film about a Las Vegas casino worker pulled into a gambling scheme by a call girl he has been dating. Although the film was not a huge box-office draw, it won a best original comedy script award by the Writers’ Guild, demonstrating the respect that others in the writing profession hold for Gilroy.

During the latter part of the 1990’s, Gilroy’s output for the stage remained at a high level. Closely associated with the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, Gilroy contributed scripts to the theater’s Marathon one-act play series. Gilroy’s preoccupation with autobiographical material (dysfunctional family life and the aftereffects of military service during wartime) became more and more obvious through these later scripts. In 1997, Getting In, a one-act play, arose from Gilroy’s own struggle to be accepted in a college after the war. Described as a comic view of postwar optimism, critics found the play to be fully rounded and satisfying, In 1999, the Marathon series featured The Golf Ball, Gilroy’s play about retirement and the extremes to which retirees will go in order to fill their time.

Contact with the Enemy

Gilroy’s greatest theatrical achievement during the 1990’s may well be Contact with the Enemy, produced for a limited run by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1999. During World War II, Gilroy was a member of the liberation force at Ohrduf-Nord concentration camp, and the images he found there have remained with him all his life. Drawing on that experience, he created an hourlong drama about two members of that liberation force who happen to meet while visiting the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The guide, discovering this fact, asks them to commit their memories to tape. In the course of doing so, some other memories emerge, such as the mistreatment of a German soldier who had become a prisoner of war. The issue here is whether others, far removed from Nazism, are capable of participating in the brutality associated with the Holocaust. Critical and personal responses to this play were more positive than any others since The Subject Was Roses.

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Gilroy, Frank D(aniel)