Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1321
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 it out on Timmy, who arrives at the table late. Timmy is bewildered but tries to remain agreeable. Then John tells him that mass is in twenty minutes. Timmy replies that he has not been to mass for over two years and no longer considers himself a Catholic. This angers John, who accuses Timmy of being an atheist. Timmy denies this, but John says that if he wants to go on living at home, he must obey his father. Nettie tries to defend Timmy. Timmy then agrees to go to church, but John no longer wants him to. John storms out and Timmy regrets making an issue of it. Timmy realizes that for twenty years, he and his mother have been ganging up on his father and says it must stop. They then squabble over her attitude toward the lake house that John owns and the fact that Nettie wants him to visit his cousin Willis. Timmy becomes angry and gives full vent to his feelings. Nettie puts her coat on, collects some cash savings, and moves to the door, ignoring Timmy’s questions about what she is doing.
Act II, Scene ii
It is ten o’clock that evening and Nettie has not returned. Timmy, who has been drinking, sits on the sofa while John paces the room. Timmy recalls how he sat in the same place at age six when Nettie had a child, John, who died. His father, who is worried about Nettie, is not listening. Timmy starts to recall unsavory memories of his father’s womanizing and drinking and John tells him he has had too much to drink. They continue to talk across each other. Timmy says that although he always looked forward to his father coming home, he dreaded it too, because he knew his parents would fight. John quizzes him about why Nettie walked out, but all Timmy knows is that they had an argument. Then Timmy finds out why John told Nettie that the roses were not from him. Timmy insults his father, who strikes him on the side of the face. Nettie returns. John asks where she has been and Nettie replies that she went to the movies and stayed for several shows. Timmy and John do not believe her. She says that the last twelve hours are the only real freedom she has ever known. As John continues to confront her, she claims that the argument she had with Timmy was not about his drinking, as John assumes, but about him, John.
Act II, Scene iii
It is two o’clock the following morning. Timmy is awake and goes to the living room, where Nettie sits on the sofa. Neither has been able to sleep and Timmy tells her he has decided to move out next morning. Nettie reminisces about when she first met John. She knew they were not suited but also knew they would become involved with each other. She was attracted to him because of his energy and his promising career. She thought he would give her what her other suitors, who were more kind but not as successful, could not. Timmy realizes that, although he used to blame his father for the family situation, then his mother, now he suspects that no one is to blame.
Act II, Scene iv
At nine o’clock that morning, John and Nettie talk over breakfast. John fails to persuade Nettie to talk Timmy into staying. He says that if Timmy leaves he never wants to see him again. When Timmy enters the kitchen, John tries to apologize for hitting him, but Timmy says that is not the reason he is leaving, that he always intended to leave. John tries to be conciliatory and asks Timmy to stay another few days. He admits he had been wrong in his dealings with his son. They start to quarrel again, but then Timmy points out that they have never said that they love each other. He says, ‘‘I love you,’’ and the two men embrace in tears. After Nettie enters, Timmy says he has changed his mind and will stay a few more days. But John says that it is impossible because he has arranged for Timmy’s room to be painted the next day. The play ends with John complaining once again about the coffee.