The Subject Was Roses was Frank Gilroy’s only major success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. Gilroy attracted considerable attention with his first Off-Broadway play, Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, in 1962. He followed The Subject Was Roses with plays such as That Summer—That Fall (pr., pb. 1967) and The Only Game in Town (pr., pb. 1968).
Gilroy came to the theater from television, where he had written for early dramatic series such as Playhouse 90, U.S. Steel Hour, and Kraft Theatre. Some reviewers of The Subject Was Roses commented on the author’s connection with television, as though that fact needed noting. It may be, in fact, that Gilroy’s experience writing dramas for the small screen gave him the skill and confidence to concentrate on the small details of an ordinary family’s life.
In so doing, Gilroy placed himself within the tradition of the classic realistic dramatists. The revolution from nineteenth century spectacle and melodrama was achieved through attention to the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Nora and Torvald Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) and the Ranevskaya family in Anton Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908) are such ordinary people whose lives are examined in careful detail. Still, the plot events of the early masterpieces of realism could be extraordinary—for example, Nora’s revolutionary departure, the loss of the Ranevskaya estate, or the suicides in Vildanden (pb. 1884; The Wild Duck, 1891) and Hedda Gabler (pb. 1890; English translation, 1891). It was for later realists, such as William Inge in Come Back, Little Sheba (pr., pb. 1950), to bring the ordinary to the plot structure of a play. It is from within this “slice of life” tradition that Gilroy wrote The Subject Was Roses, and it is this tradition that the play exemplifies.