The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Bawdy and Slapstick
This mostly light-hearted play is funny largely owing to its bawdy humor and slapstick action. Bawdy...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the history of vaudeville in any major U.S. city. To what other forms of comic and popular entertainment is it related?


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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire was first staged in New York City in 1947 and remains one of his most celebrated works. Its main...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


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