Introduction

(Drama for Students)

The Subject Was Roses was first presented at the Royale Theatre, New York City, on May 15, 1964. It was an outstanding success with critics and the public alike and it won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play belongs to the category of domestic realism and has a cast of only three characters. John and Nettie Cleary live unhappily together in a middle-class apartment in the Bronx, New York. Their twenty-one-year-old son Timmy has just returned home after serving three years in the army during World War II. As the drama unfolds, the tensions in the family become apparent. Husband and wife squabble; Nettie is overprotective toward her grown son; John tries to overcome years of neglect and make an affectionate connection with Timmy, but that path proves stormy. Eventually, Timmy, who has more awareness of the effect of the negative family dynamics than his parents, decides he must leave home. The play achieves its effects in part through effective use of dialogue. The dialogue conveys the long-standing hostility between John and Nettie, their doomed efforts to recapture their lost love, and their failure to understand that their old ways of behavior alienate Timmy and drive him away. They manage to achieve the very opposite of what they intend.

Summary

(Drama for Students)

Act I, Scene i
The Subject Was Roses takes place in a middleclass apartment in the Bronx, New York, in May, 1946. The play begins on a Saturday afternoon. John Cleary is alone in the kitchen, gazing at an army jacket that hangs on the wall. On an impulse he takes the jacket down and puts it on. When he hears Nettie’s key in the door he puts the jacket back and sits at the kitchen table. They discuss their son Timmy, who has just returned from World War II duty and who is still asleep. As they bicker over the breakfast table, it becomes clear that John and Nettie have a strained relationship. Nettie says that John should have stopped Timmy from drinking so much at the party the previous night, and John replies that Nettie is still treating their son like a baby. It also comes out that John and his son are not close and that there have been misunderstandings in the past.

Timmy enters and after greetings are exchanged, John says he must leave for a business appointment. Timmy wants to go to a Giants game, but that will have to wait. After John leaves, Nettie is disappointed when Timmy cannot remember that his favorite breakfast is waffles, and she gets upset about a remark Timmy makes about a neighbor. It is clear that Timmy has changed after his three years in the army. Nettie then cries because the waffles stick to the griddle, but Timmy cheers her up by dancing with her to a tune on the radio. John returns, having decided that they can go to the ball game after all. But Nettie is disappointed because she had told his developmentally challenged cousin Willis that Timmy would visit that day.

Act I, Scene ii
It is later the same day. While Nettie is out, John and Timmy return, having enjoyed the game. Timmy carries a bouquet of red roses. The subject turns to war and Timmy says that he was no hero. He did what he was asked to do but never volunteered. John regrets that he did not fight in World War I and apologizes to his son after admitting that he did not think he would last in the army. He offers to help with Timmy’s college expenses. To John’s annoyance, Timmy quizzes him about how much money he has. When Nettie enters, she is delighted with the roses, especially because John, following Timmy’s suggestion, says that the roses were his idea. He and Nettie reminisce about old times, and then John decides they will all go downtown for dinner.

Act I, Scene iii
They return at 2 A.M. the next morning. John and Timmy are slightly drunk. John recalls the first song he and Nettie ever danced to. Timmy plays the clown for a while and then goes to bed. In the living room, John makes a sexual advance on Nettie, but she does not respond. He refuses to back off and in frustration, Nettie throws the vase of roses on the floor. Timmy emerges and Nettie tells him that the broken vase was an accident. Timmy goes back to bed after which Nettie tells John she was moved by the gift of roses, but the gift has now turned sour. John confesses that the roses were Timmy’s idea.

Act II, Scene i
It is 9:15 on Sunday morning and John and Nettie sit at the breakfast table. John is in a bad mood and after he fails to get a response from Nettie, he takes...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)