Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2282
Act 1, Scene 1The Rose Tattoo opens with a view of a cottage, on whose front steps three neighborhood children sit. The children’s mothers are calling them home to dinner, and the play’s main character, Serafina delle Rose, appears on stage. She is looking for her own daughter, the twelve-year-old Rosa.
Next, Assunta, an old woman who practices ‘‘a simple sort of medicine,’’ arrives on the scene. Over the course of her and Serafina’s conversation, it is revealed that Serafina is deeply in love with her handsome husband, that she is extremely proud of his virility, that she is pregnant, and that her husband is a trucker who, while posing as a legitimate operator, in fact smuggles illegal goods.
Assunta leaves and another character, Estelle Hohengarten, is introduced. Serafina takes in sewing for cash. Estelle wishes her to make a shirt for a man with whom she is in love. Because Estelle behaves oddly and surreptitiously steals a framed photograph of Serafina’s husband, these actions indicate that the man with whom she is in love and with whom she is having an affair is Serafina’s husband, Rosario delle Rose.
The scene ends with a neighbor’s goat running into Serafina’s yard. This upsets Serafina as she is frightened of the woman who owns the goat, a character referred to as the ‘‘strega.’’ Rosa states that by ‘‘strega’’ Serafina means witch. The scene ends with the strega cackling maliciously at Serafina’s discomfiture and with Serafina exclaiming that the strega has given her the ‘‘evil eye’’: ‘‘Malocchio! Malocchio!’’
Act 1, Scene 2 Scene 2 is very brief. It is dawn, and Serafina is sewing, since Estelle has told her that if she has the shirt done by the next day, she will pay her substantially more than her usual price. A priest, Father De Leo, and various neighborhood women are gathered outside Serafina’s house. The police have shot Rosario, and they are deciding who must tell her. At the same time, since Rosario never came home the night before, and since Serafina can hear them outside talking, they are saying that she knows the truth already.
Act 1, Scene 3 Scene 3 takes place at noon the same day. A funeral wreath is on Serafina’s door. A doctor and Father De Leo converse; Serafina has lost the baby. Father De Leo cautions the doctor to advise Serafina not to cremate her husband. The doctor notes that the body is already cremated, since after Rosario was shot, the truck crashed and caught fire. Yet, Father De Leo believes that if the body is not buried, Serafina will put the ashes of her husband in an urn and worship them like a pagan object.
Next, Estelle Hohengarten arrives in black mourning clothing. The neighborhood women, who have been inside with Serafina, leave the house and swoop around Estelle. Unlike Serafina, they know about Rosario’s affair. They banish Estelle from Serafina’s garden.
Act 1, Scene 4 This scene takes place three years later. It is graduation day for local teens, including Rosa, Serafina’s daughter. Neighborhood mothers are at Serafina’s door, asking for their daughters’ graduation dresses, which Serafina has been commissioned to sew. She is not responding to their knocks. Inside, Rosa is nude. Her mother has locked away all of her clothes to prevent her from leaving the house. She has done this because Rosa went to a dance and met a young man in whom she is showing interest.
Miss Yorke, a teacher from the local high school, walks up at the same time Serafina bursts out of the house screaming that Rosa...
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has cut her wrists. Miss Yorke investigates and finds that Rosa has just given herself a scratch to scare her mother. She tells Serafina to let Rosa dress for graduation. Rosa does, and she is beautiful in her white dress. Assunta, who is also present, convinces Serafina to hand over the other dresses, which Serafina does once the women assure her they have the money for them.
Act 1, Scene 5 Left alone after everyone has gone to the graduation ceremony, Serafina is worried she will miss it. She tries to pull herself together by beginning to get dressed, but her efforts are comically disastrous. In the previous scene, Serafina was dressed in a soiled pink slip and her hair was a mess. Clearly, in the three years since her husband’s death, she has, just as Father De Leo predicted, wallowed in an unhealthy mourning. Her futile attempt to dress indicates that she has forgotten how to arrange herself in a presentable manner.
As Serafina continues her struggles, two new characters enter the scene, Bessie and Flora. They are, according to Williams’s stage directions, ‘‘two female clowns of middle years and juvenile temperament.’’
The women want to pick up a blouse Flora commissioned. Serafina is distracted and searches for the wristwatch she wants to give Rosa for a graduation present. She tells Flora she was too busy making graduation dresses and does not have the blouse ready. Flora is angry because she is on her way to a parade in New Orleans and had been counting on the blouse. She threatens to complain to the Chamber of Commerce. Bessie, too, is irritated as this delay has caused them to miss the earlier train. Serafina becomes angry herself, and the women begin brawling. One outcome of this altercation is that Flora tells Serafina that the husband she was so proud of and always boasts about was having an affair with Estelle Hohengarten. Serafina is devastated, sensing that Flora is telling the truth. The two women leave.
Act 1, Scene 6 Rosa is back from the graduation ceremony with Jack Hunter, the young man she is sweet on. They are discussing that night’s graduation party and believe Serafina is out because the house is dark. Rosa expresses her attraction to Jack, teaching him the Italian word for ‘‘kiss’’ and then kissing him all over his face. But, Serafina is in the house and makes her presence known. Rosa insists that she meet Jack.
When Rosa enters the house with Jack, she is embarrassed at her mother’s appearance. She quickly brushes her mother’s hair and applies some powder to her face.
Serafina is in a daze, and Rosa thinks this is due to a combination of shock over her fake suicide attempt and exhaustion over having had to make so many dresses. She and Jack try to rouse Serafina by telling her about the graduation ceremony. Jack tells how Rosa was given a prize, recited a poem, and how the crowd emitted a collective sigh of awe over her beauty as she walked up to the podium.
Serafina is finally roused, but only so as to begin interrogating Jack. She insinuates that he is after her daughter’s innocence and asks how this can be when her daughter is only fifteen. Jack, who is a sailor and brother of one of Rosa’s classmates, protests and insists that his intentions are honorable. Serafina finds out that he is a Catholic and makes him swear before her statue of the Virgin Mary that he will respect her daughter. He does swear.
The two young people leave with friends for the island at which the post-graduation party will take place, and Serafina has forgotten once again to give her daughter the watch.
Act 2, Scene 1 The second act of the play is one long scene whose events take place two hours after the previous scene. Serafina is mooning about her garden, making a spectacle of herself, giving expression to her doubt and despair. Father De Leo arrives and tries to reason with her, telling her to pull herself together, to think of her daughter. Serafina asks him if he knows if her husband was having an affair. He refuses to discuss the issue, and Serafina becomes belligerent. Her anger attracts local women, who finally must drag her away from the priest.
As Serafina begins calling on the Virgin Mary to give her a sign, a traveling salesman arrives at her door. He is delivering his sales pitch when a truck is heard approaching. A truck driver, a ‘‘very good looking’’ Italian, approaches, speaking angrily. The salesman forced the Italian off the highway when passing him, quite unnecessarily given the breadth of the roadway, calling him a number of derogatory names in the process. The trucker, Alvaro, wishes to fight the salesman, even if this leads to a complaint and the loss of his job, because he feels the man has been exceptionally insulting and disrespectful. The salesman’s response is to drive his knee into Alvaro’s groin.
Alvaro, doubled over, stumbles into Serafina’s house, sobbing. Serafina begins sobbing too, if mostly for her own reasons. Over their communal weeping, Serafina sees that Alvaro’s jacket is torn, offers to sew it, and Alvaro worries that he will be fired and unable to care for what he calls his ‘‘three dependents’’ (his mother, sister, and father).
As Serafina sews, they converse. Serafina explains that her husband is dead, and she thinks, as she speaks, of how Alvaro has her husband’s grand body but the aspect of a ‘‘clown.’’ Alvaro, despite his good looks, has protruding ears, and Williams’s stage directions indicate that he acts clownishly: ‘‘There is a startling, improvised air about him; he frequently seems surprised at his own speech and actions, as though he had not at all anticipated them.’’
Serafina also tells Alvaro about her husband’s rose tattoo and boasts about him. It becomes clear that there is an attraction between Serafina and Alvaro. Alvaro, when he speaks, is practically asking Serafina to become his partner in life, if not in so many words, and Serafina is struggling to reconcile her attraction to Alvaro and her loyalty to her dead husband. They part with Serafina telling him to return and pick up his jacket later in the evening after his delivery rounds.
Act 3, Scene 1 Alvaro arrives with chocolates and is spiffed up after a visit to the barber for ‘‘the works,’’ and Serafina is waiting, nicely cleaned up herself. Serafina discerns that Alvaro has rose oil in his hair, which disconcerts her, as her husband used to do the same thing. A bit later, Alvaro tells her he has a tattoo, a rose on his chest. This shocks Serafina even more, until Alvaro admits that he had it done that very day since she told him about her husband’s tattoo. Alvaro, clearly, is trying most diligently to win Serafina, but his plans go awry when a condom falls out of his pocket.
At the sight of the condom and the thought of what their relations might lead to, Serafina commands Alvaro to leave. He is dismayed and begs her to reconsider. Serafina relents, telling him that her day has been terrible since she found out that her husband may have been cheating on her. As it turns out, Alvaro knows Estelle and where she works as a blackjack dealer, and he offers to telephone her to find out the truth once and for all. Over the phone, Estelle admits to the affair. The truth finally out, Serafina throws the urn of her husband’s ashes to the floor and herself into Alvaro’s arms. She tells him to drive his truck down the road, to park it, and to return quietly so nobody will know that she is having him stay the night.
Act 3, Scene 2 It is dawn the next day. Rosa and Jack are returning from their excursion. Jack is feeling guilty because he and Rosa have been intimate, even if they have not made love. He is thinking of the promise he made to Serafina. Yet, as in the previous scene between the two, it is Rosa who is the one most eager for intimacy. She is angry at her mother for the promise her mother extracted from Jack and tells him she will go into town to meet him the next day before his ship sails.
Act 3, Scene 3 The time of this scene, the play’s last, is three hours later. It is early morning and Rosa wakes on the couch in the living room where she fell asleep. Alvaro emerges from Serafina’s room, sees the drowsy, half-awake girl, and leans over her in shock and awe at her beauty. He is half-awake himself and appears to believe he is dreaming. Rosa, waking fully, screams, shocking Alvaro into realizing she is a real person. Serafina comes rushing out of her room and, in guilt over being caught with Alvaro, pretends he is an intruder and screams for him to leave. Rosa knows better, though, and tells her mother to calm herself. Alvaro in the meantime is expressing his love for Serafina, and Rosa blurts out that she plans to meet Jack before he sets sail. At first, Serafina objects, but then she tells her daughter to go, humbled before her daughter’s certainty.
The neighborhood in the meantime has been roused by Serafina’s earlier shouting about an intruder, and Assunta and the local women are watching events unfold. Rosa runs off and the women begin commenting on the presence of Alvaro and his rose tattoo (since his chest is bare). Serafina asks Assunta where the ashes of her husband have gone, because she wishes to retrieve them. Assunta tells her the wind blew them away. The local women are laughing at Serafina, but she does not mind. She believes she has conceived during her night of love, and the play closes with Alvaro and Serafina speaking to each other lovingly.