The Play

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The Rose Tattoo is a three-act play set in a Sicilian immigrant village on the Gulf Coast of the United States. The play opens at dusk and Serafina Delle Rose, the main character, is sitting in her living room, waiting for her husband, Rosario, to return; she is pregnant. A sign reveals that she is a seamstress, and Estelle Hohengarten arrives with a piece of rose-colored silk she wants made into a man’s shirt. During the course of act 1 the audience learns that Rosario is a truck driver who is engaged in smuggling to earn enough money to pay off his truck. Serafina reveals to Assunta that on the night she conceived her son, she awakened to feel needle pricks on her breast and saw there a rose tattoo, exactly like Rosario’s tattoo. The tattoo disappeared, but she knew she had conceived. Later, the neighborhood women and Father de Leo come to tell Serafina that Rosario has been killed. In defiance of the Church’s strictures, Serafina decides to cremate Rosario and to keep his ashes. The trauma causes her to miscarry.

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Scene 4 opens in June, three years later, with Serafina besieged by women who have paid her to sew graduation dresses for their daughters. Serafina is disheveled and disoriented, and Rosa is locked up in the house naked because Serafina learned that she met a sailor named Jack at a high school dance. Miss Yorke, one of Rosa’s teachers, arrives and persuades Serafina to let Rosa attend the graduation ceremony.

While Rosa is gone, two customers, Flora and Bessie, arrive on their way to an American Legion convention. During a confrontation about their morals, they reveal to Serafina that Rosario was engaged in a long-term affair with Estelle Hohengarten. Serafina chases them out of the house with a broom. Rosa arrives with Jack and cleans up Serafina so she can meet him, and Serafina makes Jack swear on his knees before the shrine to Mary that he will respect Rosa’s purity.

Serafina fears that the story about Rosario may be true and asks Father de Leo about the rumor, but he refuses to answer. Alvaro’s appearance and his fight with the salesman reveal his overtly emotional nature and his similarities to Rosario. Serafina gives him the rose-colored silk shirt to wear, which she made unwittingly for Rosario. Their attraction is obvious, and it is not surprising that Serafina invites him to come back.

Later that night, Serafina’s appearance echoes her look in act 1, and when Alvaro enters with a box of chocolates, he reveals that he too has a rose tattooed on his chest. During the course of the evening Serafina telephones Estelle Hohengarten, who confirms her affair with Rosario, prompting Serafina to smash the ash urn on the floor. Eventually, after pretending to leave, Alvaro returns by the back door and goes to bed with Serafina. Meanwhile, Rosa’s return with Jack reveals that she wanted to have sex with him, but he could not break his oath. Their plans to run away together are Rosa’s idea, prompted by her strong desire to experience sex with Jack.

During the final confrontation between Serafina and Rosa, prompted by Alvaro’s behavior upon seeing Rosa on the couch, Serafina is initially duplicitous about Alvaro, pretending she does not know who he is or why he is there. After some argument, Serafina runs him out of the house. Rosa realizes Serafina is lying about her relationship with Alvaro and makes her intention to go with Jack clear. Serafina eventually admits to the relationship with Alvaro and tells Rosa to go to Jack, which she does. Assunta arrives, and Serafina reveals that she has just felt the burning on her breast of the rose tattoo, meaning she has again conceived. She runs to join Alvaro.

Dramatic Devices

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The most important devices used by Williams in The Rose Tattoo are multiple instances of symbolism, especially rose symbolism. The rose comes up over and over in the play, in the names of the major characters (Rosario, Rosa, and Delle Rose), the tattoos on both Rosario and Alvaro, the color of the silk shirt, the rose oil both Alvaro and Rosario use in their hair, and in many other instances. In fact, at times the symbolism becomes so pervasive and overt it ceases to function effectively as symbolism and becomes a distraction. However, the sexual symbolism of the rose and its connotations as a romantic flower do support the theme of the play, which revolves around the vitality and necessity of healthy sexual relationships without shame or guilt.

Other symbols employed by Williams include the moody lighting, especially naturalistic lighting such as truck headlights sweeping across Serafina’s house or the earthy atmosphere of her Sicilian neighborhood. The Strega (witch), with her evil eye and her goat that prompts comical chases through the yard, reinforces the ethnic origins and beliefs of the characters, even as they bedevil those who produce the play onstage. Several bits of comical action, including the slapstick set piece with Flora and Bessie, two characters described by Williams as “clowns,” tend to be heavy-handed and less than amusing, but they are clearly intended by Williams to symbolize the joyous celebration of life and vitality that Serafina represents.

Finally, the dressmaker dummies in Serafina’s house not only provide realism regarding her profession as a seamstress but also symbolize the lackluster neighborhood women who do not embrace the life-giving power of sexuality as Serafina does. Ultimately, Serafina both begins and ends the play filled with new life, having rediscovered the power and joy to be found in a full embrace of her sexual nature. The dummies with their empty insides provide a final contrast to Serafina’s being, filled with love and life.

Historical Context

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The Rose Tattoo was composed in the late 1940s, in the period following World War II, which U.S. intervention had hastened to an end with the first deployment of nuclear warheads in history, the dropping of two atomic bombs in Japan. The citizens of the many countries decimated by this war lived in its pall during the 1940s, while the United States’ more peripheral involvement meant that U.S. citizens were less severely affected. U.S. culture flourished diversely in the 1940s, leading to the cultural phenomenon of the 1950s, when U.S. popular culture swept the world.

The 1940s in the United States are noteworthy for numerous developments. This was the beginning of U.S. suburban life, when developers began responding to a housing need that urban, inner-city spaces could not accommodate. These new homes, moreover, were furnished like homes never before, as household timesaving appliances such as washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, and the like became widely available and affordable. Television also made its first appearance in the 1940s.

In the social and political arenas, U.S. citizens began witnessing the first upheavals of what would become the civil rights movement. For example, the first African American baseball player was admitted into the major leagues in 1947; this was Jackie Robinson who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. By the mid-1950s, African Americans were fully mobilized, with leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. organizing numerous effective demonstrations that resulted in the full desegregation of U.S. institutions by the late 1960s.

One major political development of the 1940s was the ‘‘Red Scare,’’ which followed from the post-WWII inception of the Cold War between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). This war was ‘‘cold’’ because it did not involve warfare. Rather, it was an ideological contest, a world battle of belief. The United States was committed to the spread of capitalism; the U.S.S.R. was committed to the spread of communism. The Red Scare in the United States refers to the way in which the hunt for communists within the United States reached a level of hysteria, with persons being called forth to testify about their political beliefs or those of their friends and colleagues. Many believe this development went against the grain of the United States’ belief in free speech, thought, and dissent. Many persons were prevented from holding jobs or pursuing their professions owing to either their beliefs or simply suspicions about them.

At the same time, drama, film, and the arts in general were flourishing in the United States. When Williams entered the dramatic scene, he had much to live up to, as notable U.S. playwrights such as Carson McCullers, Clifford Odets, and Thornton Wilder, for example, were at the height of their creative powers. Like the work of these other dramatists, Williams’s is, on the whole, highly serious, and so The Rose Tattoo stands out in Williams’s body of work for its broad comedy.

The Rose Tattoo’s fond treatment of its group of Sicilian American characters points to Williams’s conviction that Anglo-American culture at the time was marred by racial and ethnic prejudice. Thus, the play’s unsympathetic characters display a disparaging attitude toward the Sicilian immigrants that was consistent with the prejudices indicative of American reality.

At the same time, some Americans looked down on Italian immigrants or their children, others welcomed the cultural contributions of Italian Americans. There were few singers more popular than Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin at the time, for example. There was a vogue for things Italian in the 1940s and 1950s, partly owing to the success of Sinatra and others, and also due to the importation of Italian films into the United States. Italy was experiencing a golden age in cinema, and many Italian actors were courted by Hollywood to star in U.S. made, English language films. One of these actors, Anna Magnani, was cast in the film version of The Rose Tattoo.

Literary Style

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The Bawdy and Slapstick
This mostly light-hearted play is funny largely owing to its bawdy humor and slapstick action. Bawdy humor refers to uncomplicated wit that focuses on bodily functions. In this play, the bodily function at issue is sex, with Serafina boasting continuously of her husband’s wonderful performance in bed and her own lusty enjoyment of the sexual act. One particular bawdy element is Rosario and Alvaro’s job, which is to transport bananas. The way in which this fruit conjures the male sex is blatant and silly, and therefore bawdy.

The slapstick dimension of the play is another reason why it is comedic. Slapstick humor is physical comedy, as when characters trip over things, have things fall on their heads, behave outrageously, and so forth. The Rose Tattoo is replete with slapstick events. Serafina frequently parades in a state of semi-undress for all to see, stumbles around her house as she tries to squeeze herself into a girdle, and generally makes a fool of herself.

Symbolism
Williams employs many symbols in this play. Symbols are objects, names, or persons in an artwork that suggest many things as opposed to just one. Primary among the play’s symbols are the character names, which are suggestive of the rose flower (Rosa and Rosario), Rosario’s and Alvaro’s rose tattoos, and Serafina’s dress-shop mannequins.

Red roses are commonly associated with love and passion, and Williams exploits these associations to their fullest. The play’s focus on life, physical passion, and the spiritual communion between lovers is made amply evident through its plethora of roses. Serafina’s certainty that a rose tattoo temporarily appears on her bosom the night she conceives a child with her husband hints at Williams’s desire to suggest a spiritual dimension to sex and love, the manner in which the closeness between lovers makes them mystically one and the same.

Serafina’s group of mannequins suggest social censure and the importance of communal life, among other things. They suggest social censure because, as a group of figures, they are doubles for the group of neighborhood women who believe that Serafina is too proud for her own good. They suggest the importance of community because in standing in for the neighborhood women, they point to how Serafina has isolated herself from the larger community.

Primitivism
Primitivism refers to a particular way in which artists working within European traditions in the early and mid-twentieth century used other cultures and these cultures’ artworks in their own work. Art from distant lands was upheld as embodying a beauty and artistry that suggested a greater closeness to nature and to truth. For Western artists, the works pointed to something that had been lost and was yearned for. This was a simple way of life, one in touch with the simple and the sacred. Western artists admired these works and adopted their forms. Yet, it is now understood that these artworks signi- fied entirely different things in the cultures from which they sprang, that the cultures Western artists imagine (appreciated for their simplistic truth in art were merely imagined cultures. In seeking the truth in art, certain Western artists manipulated the truth by taking foreign art out of its cultural context and then attributing value to it based on Western aesthetic sensibilities.) were just that, imagined cultures. Consequently, this primitivism seems naïve in retrospect, obscuring the complexity of these cultures and their peoples, and obscuring as well the way that cultures of all kinds necessarily impose upon individuals any number of constraints in the interests of upholding tradition and social order. Williams’s play is primitivist in the sense that he employs a cast of Sicilian American characters of peasant roots and depicts them as persons controlled by elemental forces and largely devoid of selfreflection. These characters do not appear to think; they appear merely to act. And when they act, their actions follow from the controlling power of elemental forces, such as the sexual impulse, hate, love, envy, jealousy, and so forth. These Italian immigrants might be Westerners, but since they come from peasant stock they are to be understood as primitives. Williams’s play is primitive in the sense that he employs a cast of Sicilian American characters of peasant roots and uses them to represent the importance of the elemental things in life.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: Italy, where Williams traveled more than once during the 1940s, is attempting to recover from the devastating events of World War II.

Today: Italy is a major tourist destination now that global travel is common.

1940s: Televisions make their way into people’s homes and new, televised dramatic forms such as the situational comedy (sit-coms) are developed.

Today: Most U.S. citizens tune into a favorite television comedy or drama each day of the week.

1940s: Musical films and plays become a dominant form during the Great Depression and continue to be popular during WWII, partly in response to a need for levity and temporary escape from grim circumstances.

Today: Musicals continue to be popular fare on Broadway. They are being performed in smaller off-Broadway productions as well, and various prime-time television shows are beginning to incorporate musical interludes.

1940s: Italian Americans contribute diversely to U.S. culture and often are depicted in film and drama so as to highlight a greater cultural expressiveness.

Today: Italian-American Mafia culture continues to fascinate the U.S. public since the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, 1972–1990. Television shows like the Sopranos, airing on HBO, enjoy widespread audience appeal.

1940s: Racial segregation and ethnic prejudice are prominent in the United States.

Today: Tensions are still felt among the various ethnic populations of the United States although great progress has been made. Immigration remains a heated issue.

1940s: Method acting encourages greater emotional expressiveness in acting, partly by schooling actors to identify with the characters they are representing. Method acting is based on the idea that actors achieve greater verisimilitude when they do not rely solely on technique, but rather attempt to imaginatively become their characters as well.

Today: Most actors’ training today is diverse, taking from and crossing various techniques and methods.

Media Adaptations

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The Rose Tattoo was made into a feature film in 1995 directed by Daniel Mann and starring Anna Magnani as Serafina and Burt Lancaster as Alvaro.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Bigsby, C. W. E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth- Century American Drama, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Hawkins, William, Review of The Rose Tattoo, in the New York World-Telegram and Sun, February 5, 1951, p. 10.

Kolin, Philip C., ‘‘The Family of Mitch,’’ in Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams, edited by Ralph F. Voss, University of Alabama Press, 2002.

———, ‘‘‘Sentiment and Humor in Equal Measure’: Comic Forms in The Rose Tattoo,’’ in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, University Press of Mississippi, 1977.

Marshall, Margaret, Review of The Rose Tattoo, in the Nation, Vol., CLXII, February 17, 1951, 161–62.

Further Reading
Grant, Michael, Myths of the Greeks and Romans, New American Library, 1962. Grant’s classic presentation and discussion of central ancient Greco-Roman myths and religious practices includes commentary about the god Dionysus.

Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, HarperCollins, 1992. As the title of this work suggests, its authors consider the history of Italians in the North American region from the days of European exploration to the present.

Martin, Robert A., Critical Essays on Tennessee Williams, G.K. Hall, 1997. Martin provides students of Williams with an excellent source book containing contemporaneous reviews of the plays, critical essays on individual plays, and essays that discuss Williams’s work as a whole.

Voss, Ralph F., ed., Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams, the University of Alabama Press, 2002. The set of essays that make up this recent volume covers topics of interest to readers of Williams ranging from the literary to the biographical.

Williams, Tennessee, Memoirs, Doubleday & Company, 1975. Memoirs is Williams’s engaging autobiography.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. Vol. 2 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Devlin, Albert J., ed. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 1986.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Williams, Edwina Dakin. Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Edited by Jac Tharpe. Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 1977.

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