The Subject Was Roses

by Frank D. Gilroy

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Writings on Dysfunctional Family Sheds Light on Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2142

In his book Family, Drama, and American Dreams, Tom Scanlon observes that the decline of the extended family in modern times and the rise of the smaller nuclear family has made the family the source of intense hope and also of disappointment: ‘‘We demand much of the family, making it the focus of our dreams of harmony and the chief obstacle to their realization, the nightmare to be escaped.’’ Scanlon points out that twentieth-century drama in America has been largely concerned with the problems of family life, and he names dramatists including Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and others as having made major contributions to this theme. Many of the plays that deal with family life are about failure and destruction. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses should be added to the list.

But it is not only dramatists who have been concerned with the modern family. Sociologists and psychologists have also studied the dynamics of families. In the jargon of social science, the Clearys would be labeled a dysfunctional family. One of the most eloquent and practical of writers on this topic has been researcher and lecturer John Bradshaw. His best-selling book Bradshaw On: The Family has many insights into the way dysfunctional families operate, insights that shed much light on The Subject Was Roses.

A dysfunctional family is one that does not function in a psychologically healthy way. The parents are unable to relate constructively to each other, and they get locked into repetitive negative patterns. Their children get sucked into the destructive family system and end up damaged, sometimes seriously and even permanently, by the warped behaviors that have been imposed on them. Bradshaw quotes from Merle A. Fossum and Marilyn J. Mason’s book Facing Shame: Families in Recovery (1989):

These people hold tenaciously and unconsciously to a narrow range of repetitive responses or games that serve to conceal, rather than reveal themselves to each other. After years everyone in the family knows each other’s next line in the relational dialogue, and yet they remain imprisoned by the patterns.

This is a clear description of the dynamics of the Cleary family. John and Nettie have enmeshed themselves in a decades-long pattern of mistrust, blame, and shared resentments. Nothing is ever forgotten. For example, it comes out in Nettie’s conversation with Timmy that she is always disparaging the lake house because her husband did not consult her before he bought it—never mind the fact that the house must have been purchased many, many years ago. This accumulation of petty hurts has built up over the years into an impenetrable wall between them. For his part, John keeps secrets—he does not tell Nettie how much money he has in savings. (When he finally gives Timmy the information, it is with strict instructions not to tell Nettie.) Nettie admits to Timmy that she does not understand her husband and believes she never will. When he goes into one of his moods, as when he berates Timmy for losing his religious faith, there is no possibility of dealing with him.

It is very difficult, as Bradshaw notes of dysfunctional families, to get out of patterns such as this. Act II, for example, which is the crucial act as far as the possibility of meaningful change is concerned, ends exactly as it began, with John complaining about the coffee. This is no coincidence; the dramatist is clearly giving us a clue that John has learned nothing from the turbulent events of the previous two days.

One of the consequences of a breakdown in love and affection between the...

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parents is that one or both parents will lavish love in an inappropriate way on one of the children. As Bradshaw puts it, ‘‘If Dad is a workaholic and never home, one of the children will be Mom’s Emotional Spouse since the system needs a marriage for balance.’’ Bradshaw refers to this as ‘‘emotional sexual abuse’’ that results from what he calls ‘‘cross-generational bonding.’’ The parents use the child to meet their own needs; the son may become ‘‘Mom’s Little Man,’’ for example. Emotional sexual abuse, according to Bradshaw, occurs when the parent’s relationship with the child becomes more important than the relationship with the spouse.

This is exactly what happens in The Subject Was Roses. As a result of her husband’s emotional and physical absence (during the earlier part of the marriage he seems to have spent most of his evenings in a bar drinking), Nettie has transferred her love to her son in a way that has become stifling for Timmy. She looks to Timmy for her emotional fulfillment and is upset when she discovers that he is no longer willing to play the game. The nature of their relationship is revealed in the first scene of the play. She takes hold of his hand in an affectionate gesture and will not release it, even though Timmy is embarrassed and uneasy about the gesture. But when they start dancing the polka, Timmy is no longer embarrassed, and there is something almost sexual about the dance, as mother and son move faster and faster, laughing hysterically and then fall to the floor together, breathing in a labored fashion.

There could hardly be a greater contrast than with Nettie’s relations with John. Whereas she is physically affectionate to her son, she is the opposite with her husband. She is sexually frigid. After their night out downtown, when John squeezes her in a harmless amorous gesture, she gives him a disapproving look. Then when he persists, telling her that he wants her like he has never wanted anything in his life, she tells him he is drunk and rejects him absolutely.

Of course, Nettie has her reasons. She taunts John that she is not ‘‘one of [his] hotel whores,’’ alluding to the many sexual affairs that John has had on his business travels. It is obvious that Nettie knows exactly what her husband does, and she is happy to wreak her vengeance when the moment presents itself.

And in the middle of it all is Timmy. As Bradshaw makes clear, the children of a dysfunctional marriage suffer severely, and the effect on Timmy was indeed devastating. Frequent sickness is one symptom that a child may develop, and Timmy was frequently absent from school with one ailment or another. He was simply absorbing the stress generated by his parents. So persistent were these illnesses that his father gave up on his son as a hopeless case and believed that he would not last in the army. The family doctor agreed and was amazed that the army had even taken Timmy. Timmy reports that after he went into the army, and thus got away from his family, he did not have a day’s sickness. But it was a while before he realized the causal link between his family and his illnesses.

As a boy, Timmy also had to deal with the frequent absence of his father. In a poignant moment, Timmy tells his father exactly what he used to feel as a child:

All those nights I lay in bed waiting for your key to turn in the door. Part of me praying you’d come home safe, part of me dreading the sound of that key because I knew there’d be a fight.

The continuing tragedy of the Cleary family is caught in this moment because John’s mind is on something else, and he does not even hear this confession of a boy’s love, his unmet needs, and his fear.

Now listen to Bradshaw, who himself grew up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father. This is Bradshaw’s description of his own experience, and it is uncannily similar to Timmy’s in the play:

I cried myself to sleep many a night because of my father’s drinking and his abandonment. I laid in bed frozen with fear waiting for him to come home at night, never knowing exactly what would happen.

The adult Timmy shows clear signs of his dysfunctional background. This can be seen in his excessive drinking, in which he follows his father’s example (as did Bradshaw). Overindulgence in alcohol is often a way of dealing with difficult situations because it can mask a person’s real feelings. For example, in act II, scene ii, when Nettie is missing and neither John nor Timmy knows where she is, Timmy numbs himself emotionally by drinking. He does not allow himself to feel, and so he comes across as callous and uncaring.

But Timmy is also fortunate because he is blessed with intelligence and a desire to break out of old family patterns. Although he is hampered by his drinking, he does come to realize what he must do to forge a new path for himself and his parents.

First, Timmy must grasp and then articulate for himself and his parents the situation in which he has been raised. He must confront the problem head on and, in doing so, get beyond the conspiracy of silence in which many dysfunctional families operate. Since Nettie and John both lack the ability to alter their habitual responses to each other, it is left to Timmy to act as a parent to his parents.

Timmy makes a brave attempt at it. He makes it clear to his mother that he cannot tolerate the way in which they have related to each other in the past— he is no longer a child. Timmy is also perceptive enough to see the pattern whereby he and his mother form an alliance against his father. He tells her bluntly that this must stop. A little later in the same scene (act II, scene i), he confronts his mother about how she would always pressure him to visit his cousin. It reached a point at which Timmy felt so guilty when he did not visit his cousin on Sundays that he was unable to enjoy whatever else he was doing. This pattern, persisting over years, has led him to hate Sundays, and he thinks that he always will. But at least he is now able to give expression to his anger, to say how he really feels.

Timmy also finds the courage to talk about the past, to reach back and feel again what he felt as a child. It is axiomatic in the ‘‘recovery’’ movement that a person must first re-experience the pain he or she suffered as a child, which may have been blocked out as a defense mechanism. Timmy is able to go back to how he felt as a boy, not only when his father came home late but also when he was six years old and his infant brother John was dying. In that incident, the young Timmy revealed his deep insecurity regarding the relationship between his father and mother. This is how he describes the incident to his father: ‘‘I asked you if you loved her. You nodded. I asked you to say it. You hesitated. I got hysterical. To quiet me you finally said, ‘I love her.’’’ Thus did the father persuade the son to participate in a charade in which they must both pretend to believe what they both know is untrue.

But at some point in the recovery process there must be forgiveness. As Bradshaw puts it, ‘‘We are forgiving ourselves and we are forgiving our parents.’’ Timmy shows that he can take the first step in that direction, too. He tells his mother in act 2 that when he came home from the army, he started blaming her for everything that was wrong, whereas before he had always blamed his father. Now, he says, ‘‘I suspect that no one’s to blame. . . . Not even me.’’ Timmy can now see that there is no point in blaming; both his parents are damaged people, too, and could hardly do anything else but unwittingly pass along their troubles to their son.

Even with forgiveness, however, it may well be that the child must leave his family in order to heal. If he does not do this physically, he must do it psychologically. ‘‘Leaving home means separating from our family system,’’ writes Bradshaw. ‘‘Only by leaving and becoming separate can we have the choice of having a relationship with our parents. Relationship demands separation and detachment.’’ And this is the decision that Timmy makes. He knows that if he does not leave home quickly, he will get pulled into the dysfunctional family dynamic to such an extent that he will never be able to leave. Although his parents may not yet realize it, sometimes a goodbye may also be an act of love.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Subject Was Roses, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Language Reveals Psychological Subtext

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725

The Subject Was Roses follows the conventions of a realist play; it is intensely focused on very lifelike characters in a familiar and immediately believable situation. The dialogue sounds like it has been transcribed from real conversation, and the audience gets the sense that they are peering into an actual household. As Howard Taubman writes in his 1964 New York Times review that hails the reemergence of realist drama: ‘‘Mr. Gilroy’s realism is not cluttered. He writes with spareness and simplicity. With shrewd prudence he lays the groundwork for some of his most amusing and touching lines like a trapper setting out his snares.’’ By the end of the play, there emerges a very coherent sense of the Cleary family dynamic because of the ‘‘shrewd prudence’’ of Gilroy’s carefully woven story. The snapshot of the West Bronx household provides a wider understanding of how the family has always worked. Taubman’s phrases, ‘‘shrewd prudence’’ and ‘‘trapper setting out his snares’’ are subtle indications of the possibility that Gilroy may be hinting at a more complex world than what might have been expected—one not altogether ‘‘amusing and touching.’’ Indeed, closely analyzing the language of the play suggests that Gilroy plants a great deal of psychological trauma beneath the surface of what is heard.

Very soon in the play, it becomes apparent that Gilroy’s most common and important linguistic device is verbal repetition. Although this does contribute to the realism of the dialogue, since people repeat many words in actual speech, it is so pronounced that one begins to wonder whether Gilroy is hinting at something by it. At the beginning of the first scene, for example, after John says, ‘‘You sound ready to repeat the old mistakes,’’ he and Nettie repeat ‘‘mistakes’’ three more times in the next several lines. Gilroy is foreshadowing; he is subtly communicating to the audience that John and Nettie are repeating the same mistakes, in both language and action. Throughout the play, repetition will underscore this sense of being stuck and contained in some kind of pattern.

After a while, linguistic devices such as repetition begin to make the audience wonder why certain words are emphasized. In scene i, ‘‘exceptional,’’ ‘‘jealous,’’ ‘‘curtains,’’ and other words are repeated at least three times within a short space. Immediately after the ‘‘mistakes’’ repetition, Gilroy employs the similar linguistic device of rhyme: ‘‘protégé,’’ ‘‘prodigy,’’ ‘‘army,’’ and three instances of ‘‘baby’’ all rhyme and draw attention to these words. In the middle of the first scene, Nettie repeats ‘‘guess’’ four times in as many lines, and then she and her son say ‘‘waffles’’ six times in ten lines. Is the author trying to drill something into the audiences’ brains? Why do certain words receive so much emphasis?

Gilroy is careful not to answer these questions directly; the best one can do is make some informed guesses about the complex issues lurking beneath the surface of the language. He may be leaving them purposefully ambiguous, in part, so the director of a production of the play has artistic freedom enough to give the play a particular slant. The production that the critic Howard Taubman saw, for example, seems as though it had a fairly tame portrait of characters who, he writes in the New York Times Theater Reviews, 1920–1970. Vol. 7 ‘‘are described delicately, honestly and humorously and they emerge as honest enough to be more than ordinary.’’ It does not sound like it exposed any disturbing psychological trauma.

But, the subtext of Gilroy’s language suggests that such a production would have ignored some of the most important issues in the play. In the case of the repetition of ‘‘waffles,’’ for example, the ensuing interaction between Timmy and his mother suggests, first, that he is stuck in some way. While the waffles are burning and sticking to the waffle iron, Timmy is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his mother’s touch. He repeats most of his phrases and, when Nettie starts to cry she uses ‘‘stuck,’’ ‘‘stick,’’ and ‘‘stuck’’ in her next three lines. Then they repeat ‘‘forget’’ four times in four lines, after Nettie once again (out of nowhere) brings up being upset that Timmy forgot waffles were his favorite.

At this point, Gilroy has his audience exactly where he wants them: guessing wildly at why Timmy is avoiding Nettie, why she holds his hand for so long, why things are awkward, and why Timmy seems somehow stuck. Then, at the point of the highest tension and confusion about what is under the surface of their words, Timmy shouts that they were supposed to have a dance, and that ‘‘It’s been on my mind all along.’’ This wild and physical interaction must somehow explain all of the tension that has been building up. They have a long dance, during which Timmy repeats ‘‘Hang on’’ five times, with stage directions that become increasingly wilder. Finally, when they ‘‘breathe laboredly’’ on the floor, Timmy says, ‘‘I’m dead . . . absolutely dead.’’

Since death is a very old pun on a sexual orgasm, Nettie and Timmy have such an intimate and unexplained connection, and Nettie has previously repeated that she is jealous of Timmy’s time with John, it would not be out of line to consider the possibility that some incestuous desire lurks beneath the surface of the language. In fact, given the large amount of psychologically traumatic subtext in the play, Gilroy is very likely to be thinking of the theories of Sigmund Freud, a psychoanalyst famously interested in the process by which a son is attracted to his mother and must eventually detach himself from her to emerge as a healthy adult. Freud believed this desire takes place in the subconscious mind, so it is appropriate that manifestations of his thinking (which was still very important at the time Gilroy wrote his play) appear in the subtext of the playwright’s dramatic language.

Gilroy’s main plot, that of Timmy detaching himself from his parents, is in many ways reminiscent of a Freudian psychological case study. For Freud, the first step in the process of emerging from the home is a young man’s identification with his father. Gilroy’s linguistic repetition frequently links father and son. For example, Timmy repeats John’s phrase ‘‘Bless us and save us,’’ and John insistently repeats Timmy’s ‘‘Abra ka dabra.’’ Timmy and John also mirror each other in their heavy drinking and their interest in the army—and the father and son are in a sort of competition for possession of the mother, which is the key to Freudian psychoanalysis. Ultimately, in Freud’s understanding of an emergence from psychological trauma, the son must detach himself from the mother and embrace the father. After Timmy says he loves John, this embrace is precisely what happens at the end of The Subject Was Roses.

A Freudian interpretation of Gilroy’s subtext sheds light on a variety of subplots in the play. For example, one can understand much better Nettie’s lines at the end of act II, scene iii: ‘‘‘Who loves you, Nettie?’ . . . ‘You do, Papa . . . ‘Why, Nettie? ‘Because I’m a nice girl, Papa.’’’ We can imagine that the traumatic situation with Timmy has, for a brief moment, caused her to regress to the Freudian stage of desire for her father. She seems to handle Timmy’s departure slightly better, but nevertheless remains rather unhappy and stuck at the end of the play, and Gilroy is able to suggest this by showing her at the opposite point of emergence from infantile desire. The playwright signals that both she and John are caught in the pattern from which Timmy will finally emerge. This theme is underscored by John’s final repetition of his familiar monologue about coffee, because repetition is, still, a primary sign of being stuck.

Perhaps the best emblem of Freudian psychology in The Subject Was Roses, however, is that of the roses themselves. If one takes the title literally, one has the most overt clue as to the meaning of the play’s subtext. Gilroy must expect his audience to consider that the subject of the play is the meaning of the bouquet of roses, which is a symbol of devotion and love that is variously misunderstood and misplaced until it can no longer hold the family together. Beginning as Timmy’s idea, the roses make Nettie cry with happiness because they are falsely placed as the gift of the father. This act symbolizes Timmy taking his father’s place as the male who desires the mother. Indeed, the end of the scene in which Nettie receives the roses consists of a howling competition between John and Timmy; Gilroy is once again linking the men by repetition. Then, the happiest family scene of the play occurs, but it is shortly followed by Nettie’s climactic disillusionment about the roses after the vase bursts. Here, the playwright subtly alludes to the war and its changing effect on Timmy, who says, ‘‘Sounded like a bomb.’’ Once the family reaches this climax, and Timmy is no longer able to be fixated on his mother, Gilroy begins act II’s downward spiral to Nettie’s breakdown and Timmy’s departure from the family. The war, like the shattering of the vase of roses, forces Timmy away from his psychologically traumatic childhood and into the emergence from being stuck at home that the playwright symbolizes with Freudian psychology.

Again, Gilroy’s subtext is ambiguous enough that such a Freudian interpretation should not be considered the only way to understand the play. There is little doubt that Gilroy wants his audience to be guessing at some kind of psychological con- flict beneath the surface. This is especially clear when Timmy mysteriously addresses the audience after John says, ‘‘Will somebody tell me what’s going on?’’ in act III, scene ii: ‘‘You heard the question. (He peers out into the theatre, points.)’’ Such a technique draws the audience into the action and does not allow them to have a superficial view of the realist play they are watching. The playwright is directly asking the audience to guess why there are so many hints of trauma in his play and fill in the blanks themselves.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on The Subject Was Roses, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Cyclical Patterns Lead to Ruin

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2338

The sting of The Subject Was Roses is that there is no crescendo in the plot, no chase scene, no blockbuster action, but the emotion evinced through the dialogue is so terrifically raw that the reader can palpably feel the texture of the sofa in the middleclass living room, the satin of the roses, the consternation edging each of the characters’ faces. In subtly using a very domestic scene, in which no huge event overwhelms the plot, playwright Frank Gilroy deftly and devastatingly examines the cyclical nature of pain within familial bonds. By the end of the play, the audience is gasping, not out of surprise or due to any huge plot twist, but from having to face the totality of familial strife: it is pervasive, hurtful, and, as seen through the eyes of Gilroy, unavoidable.

The play opens with John Cleary contemplating an army jacket hanging from his kitchen door. The jacket belongs to his son, who has just returned home the previous evening from a three-year tour of duty in the United States Army during World War II. The father examines the jacket with rapt attention, and furtively begins to try it on when he hears his wife, Nettie, returning home from grocery shopping. John scrambles to return the jacket to the hanger and sit down at the table, where he pretends to be engrossed in the newspaper. Immediately, it is clear that the character feels that he has something to hide from his wife, although it is not clear just how much.

Nettie enters the house and pronounces, ‘‘It’s a lovely day . . . is Timmy still asleep?’’ In playwright Gilroy’s excerpted notes from his diary on May 24, 1965, written while The Subject Was Roses was in rehearsal, Gilroy wrote, ‘‘I gave Irene (the actor playing Nettie) a new line to say at her first entrance: ‘It’s a lovely day.’ It sets her mood.’’ Through that line, the mood opens with the possibility of celebration—a ‘‘lovely’’ day, the memories of a party, a fond examination of the jacket. But, within one page of dialogue, the language settles into an all-too-familiar cadence of emotional war. Nettie muses about the party the previous night and wonders if Timmy, their son, had a good time. John mentions that it was the first time he had seen his son ‘‘take a drink,’’ and an argument begins that threads through the remainder of the play. Though the mood occasionally lifts, it is always a lingering specter, rushing back into the conversations between the characters with a constancy that only deeply ingrained patterns allow. John emphasizes this point a few lines later. He states, ‘‘It was a boy that walked out of this house three years ago. It’s a man that’s come back in.’’ Nettie tells him he ‘‘sounds like a recruiting poster,’’ and John retorts, ‘‘You sound ready to repeat the old mistakes.’’ She presses him to know what mistakes he is referring to, but he tries to skirt the issue, as he does repeatedly during the course of the play. In fact, all three of the characters habitually avoid answering questions posed by the other characters, to the point that the characters will be talking to one another but having completely different conversations. It is rather funny, but in a deeply pathetic way. For instance, when Timmy first enters the breakfast room, he tries to talk to his mother about his father, but she reverts back to talking about breakfast, and will do anything not to talk about her husband with her son, such as in the dialogue that follows:

Nettie: How did you sleep?

Timmy: Fine . . . How’s he feeling?

Nettie: All right.

Timmy: He looks a lot older.

Nettie: It’s been two years . . . It must have seemed strange. Sleeping in your own bed.

Timmy: Yes . . . How’s his business?

Nettie: Who knows?

Timmy: The coffee market’s off.

Nettie: I hope you’re hungry.

Timmy: I can’t get over the change in him.

Nettie: Guess what we’re having for breakfast.

Timmy: It’s not just the way he looks.

Nettie: Guess what we’re having for breakfast. Guess what we’re having.

Italics in the written script indicate yelling; Nettie is so desperate to not talk about her husband with her son, that she finally yells at him about something as unimportant as breakfast, just to force him back to the immediate and away from his thoughts. The play’s characters again show an inability, or unwillingness, to hear one another when John and Nettie are alone in the kitchen, the morning after they have had a searing fight. John states that his ‘‘[c]offee’s weak,’’ and Nellie replies, ‘‘Add water.’’ John says, ‘‘I said weak,’’ and launches into a series of taunts to try to draw Nettie into an argument. They fail to hear even the simplest comments made to one another. And earlier, when Timmy and John are discussing the possibility of college for Timmy, and Timmy tries to find out his father’s financial situation, John refuses to answer his questions. John says he will help Timmy out financially if college costs more than a G.I. Bill covers, and then asks Timmy not to tell anyone— including his wife—that he said that, because ‘‘I don’t want people getting wrong notions.’’ When Timmy asks what wrong notions, John answers, ‘‘That I’m loaded.’’ When Timmy point-blank asks if indeed he is ‘‘loaded,’’ John refuses to answer. Timmy continues, relentlessly, to try to pry out of John his net worth, but John refuses to budge. Even after John threatens to leave the house if Timmy asks him again whether he is ‘‘loaded,’’ Timmy’s subtle interrogation continues. He wants to know how much his father makes; he simply wants to know more about his father, but John continually cuts him off. In the next lines, Timmy prods John into talking about how John met Nettie. John starts to talk about Nettie, and how he met her on the subway, but when Timmy tells him that it ‘‘sounds like an ordinary pick-up to me,’’ John shuts down, claiming, ‘‘I Well, it wasn’t . . . I left some things out (of the story).’’ Timmy prods him on, asking what he left out, but John wants to retreat, and says only, ‘‘I don’t remember . . . It was twenty-five years ago.’’ John does start to recall more events regarding his meeting Nettie for the first time, but when he begins to recall the tension between his middle class family and Nettie’s evident higherclass upbringing, he eyes Timmy and grows embarrassed, silencing himself in the midst of his recollection. As quickly as the storytelling began to bring the men together, it ended.

The Subject Was Roses presents a family that has never learned how to tell stories to one another or how to share memories. Memories are the keystones to familial bonding—the stories family members tell one another bond them together and help an individual to understand why he sees the world as he does. Often, it is the way a story is told that introduces a truce or reminds individuals why they remain in their relationships. When the ability to hear and understand one another’s stories breaks down, a communication gap builds until it is nearly impossible to relate to one another. John, Nettie, and Timmy reached this breaking point before Timmy left for the war. In the interim, John and Nettie have continued the vicious emotional cycle of isolation and distrust. When Timmy returns, John and Nettie are prepared to return to their habitual use of their son as both a weapon and a shield against one another. However, while they have stagnated, Timmy has changed, and he is no longer willing to be a pawn in his parents’ games. After he has a painful argument with his father one morning, Timmy immediately regrets the fight. Furious with himself, he asks, ‘‘I should have gone with him. . . . Why didn’t I just go? Why did I have to make an issue?’’ Nettie tries to comfort him by telling him that it is not his fault, to which he responds, ‘‘It never is.’’ Nettie continues by telling him that when John is ‘‘in one of those moods,’’ there is nothing to be done, and when Timmy recalls that John referred to Timmy and Nettie as ‘‘the alliance,’’ Nettie prattles on with a cold retort, ‘‘Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs.’’ But, something clicks in Timmy; he hears the real anguish—of loneliness—causing his father’s anger. In a flash, Timmy imagines what it might have been like to have been his father, and a rush of compassion sweeps through him. When he tries to make his mother see what has been wrong in their relationship, in the way that she has always pitted herself and Timmy against John, she refuses to see his point of view. Timmy explains to her, ‘‘[t]hat’s what we must seem like to him—an alliance. Always two against one. Always us against him. . . . Why?’’ Nettie ignores his question completely, saying, ‘‘If you’re through eating, I’ll clear the table.’’ But, Timmy will not be ignored. ‘‘Didn’t you hear me?’’ he asks. She ignores him again, and he resorts, much like his father, to shouting:

Timmy: I’m not talking about this morning.

Nettie: There’s no need to shout.

Timmy: You, and him, and me, and what’s been going on here for twenty years. . . . It’s got to stop.

Nettie: What’s got to stop?

Timmy: We’ve got to stop ganging up on him.

Nettie: Is that what we’ve been doing?

Timmy: You said you’ve never understood him.

Nettie: And never will.

Timmy: Have you ever really tried? . . .

Nettie: Go on.

Timmy: Have you ever tried to see things from his point of view?

Nettie: What things?

Timmy finally makes her discuss the situation, but the ensuing conversation is an exercise in ingrained opinion. Either she cannot or will not move beyond her version of the story she tells herself about her relationship with her husband. Finally, her son, like her husband, resorts to cruelty to shock her out of her opinions. For the first time, Timmy sees his father’s side of the story, and the only way he can defend his father is by attacking his mother. Timmy tells his mother that he is leaving to meet up with John, and that he will only go to dinner at Nettie’s mother’s house if John goes, as well. When Nettie tries to play the guilt card by telling Timmy that he is disappointing his handicapped cousin by not making an appearance, it is too much. Timmy launches a full attack, telling his mother how cruel she had been in dragging him to his cousin’s house every Sunday during his childhood, filling him with guilt whenever he did not go. He tells her, ‘‘I hate Sunday, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. But I’m going to try.’’ He tried to work with his mother on reconciling things with his father; this failing, he returned to the familiar cycle of answering hate with hate, only regretting his actions after it was too late—the verbal assault has been unleashed, his relationship with his mother irrevocably altered. Nettie exits the room after Timmy’s attack on her, her hurt evident. Timmy immediately regrets his actions and tries to find a way to reconcile with her, but she goes to her room, gathers her purse full of coins, and moves toward the front door. Timmy begs her to say something, to which she responds, ‘‘Thank you for the roses,’’ and exits. She has shattered any hope in Timmy of his parents’ reconciliation. The roses line makes clear to him that his father has told his mother that the roses she received the day before were from Timmy, and not John’s idea at all. The fact that the gift of the roses was the first act in a long time that warmed Nettie toward John becomes a cruel joke, when she discovers that that one thing to which she had pinned her hopes with regard to her relationship with her husband was a lie. At the moment she utters this line, it is clear to Timmy that the circumstances that led he and his parents into their cycle of hatred cannot be blamed on one particular person—rather, it was a confluence of events, and of each character’s personal history, that led to the way things are. As Timmy later explains to Nettie, ‘‘When I left this house three years ago, I blamed him for everything that was wrong here. . . . When I came home, I blamed you. . . . Now I suspect that no one’s to blame . . . Not even me. Good night.’’ It is a conciliatory gesture, one that lets everyone off the hook. When Timmy moves out of the house the next day, it is without blame and with an acceptance that he has the power to change his own mind, but neither the power nor the desire to will his parents from their stubborn states.

There is a ring of horror that pervades the almost sanguine story in The Subject Was Roses. It seems to be the thesis of the play that no one escapes unharmed from family life, that it does not matter who, in the end, is to blame—every member of a family suffers from the indignities of emotional distance and the intuitive, predatory human habit to attack before being attacked. Jealousy comes round to jealously, compassion to compassion, love to love, hate to hate, and life, in the end, is an endless loop out of which an individual must step on his own.

Source: Allison Leigh DeFrees, Critical Essay on The Subject Was Roses, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


Critical Overview