The Subject Was Roses Critical Overview
by Frank D. Gilroy

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

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The Subject Was Roses was enthusiastically received by New York theater critics, who heaped unanimous praise on the play after the opening night. Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune (May 26, 1964) called it ‘‘quite the most interesting new American play to be offered on Broadway this season.’’ (The review is reprinted, as are all the quoted first-night reviews by New York critics, in Gilroy’s About Those Roses or How Not To Do a Play and Succeed, and the text of The Subject Was Roses.) Describing it as a play of ‘‘alienation,’’ Kerr admired how the lifetime of frustration that characterizes the parents come out in small incidents. Both in the writing and the staging, ‘‘there is an economy of effect, a directness of tongue, together with a simplicity of gesture, that very nearly opens the door to an unexpected—but most plausible—poetry.’’ He also had high praise for all three members of the cast: Jack Albertson (John), Irene Dailey (Nettie), and Martin Sheen (Timmy).

Howard Taubman, in the New York Times (May 26, 1964), called the play ‘‘an honest and touching work. . . . With simplicity, humor and integrity [Gilroy] has looked into the hearts of three decent people and discovered, by letting them discover, the feelings that divide and join them.’’ Taubman particularly appreciated the careful way that Gilroy builds up the mood and the conflict.

For Richard Watts, Jr. in the New York Post (May 26, 1964), said the play was a ‘‘harsh and relentless story.’’ He praised Gilroy’s ‘‘unfailing ear for dialogue,’’ and his only reservation was that the resolution of the drama was ‘‘ineffectual.’’ This meant that the play was better in its details than as a whole.

The first-night reaction of the critics proved accurate. The Subject Was Roses won many awards, including the Outer Critics Circle Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Tony Award for best play, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Two of the play’s three original actors, Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen, starred in the film version that was released in 1968. (Nettie is played by Patricia Neal.) Gilroy wrote the screenplay, and Albertson won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

The Subject Was Roses has been revived several times at regional theaters over the last decade or so. Sometimes there has been a feeling amongst critics that the play has become a little dated. Peter Filichiahe in the Star-Ledger, reviewing a production at Bickford Theatre, had doubts about the relevance of the play’s climax, centering as it does around Timmy’s decision to leave home: ‘‘Today that sounds awfully small-minded, but in 1964, when kids frequently lived at home until they married, it was a big issue.’’ Filichiahe did, however, acknowledge that the play was still valuable for the insights it provided into the awkward triangle of mother, son, and father.

Sandra Brooks-Dillard, reviewing a production at Germinal Stage in Denver, wrote in the Denver Post that although the performance was a competent revival, ‘‘In light of some of the excruciating issues today’s families have to deal with . . . the domestic drama set in 1946 lacks the punch it probably had when it opened in 1964.’’

John Simon, writing in New York magazine on a 1991 production by the Roundabout Theater Company in New York, was equally unenthusiastic about the play, which ‘‘cannot avoid the aroma of sitcom.’’ But no such flaw was noted by Jana J. Monji, reviewing a 2001 production at the Celebration Theatre, Hollywood, for the Los Angeles Times. Monji commented that ‘‘the anger, the pain and the complexity of family ties are shown with nuanced performances under [Suzanne] Bachner’s sensitive direction.’’