The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Subject Was Roses begins on Saturday morning after a welcome-home party for Timmy Cleary. The year is 1946, and twenty-one-year-old Timmy is home after fighting in World War II.

One by one, the three members of the family appear for breakfast. Though they try to hide their differences, it is clear from their conversation that John and Nettie Cleary are uncomfortable with each other and that Timmy is aware of their problems. They discuss last night’s party, which was a success, although Timmy drank too much and was sick during the night.

Nettie and John exchange accusations over Timmy’s drinking, with references to their ongoing disagreements. Money is part of the continuing argument, and the quest for more money sends John out to a business appointment on this Saturday morning, instead of going to a ball game with his son.

Left alone with his mother, Timmy muses about how his father has aged. He is oblivious to his mother’s attempts to change the subject and turn his attention to his favorite breakfast. When Timmy fails to appreciate the waffles and then recoils from a possessive touch, Nettie is hurt. When the waffles stick in the waffle iron, she breaks down. This long-anticipated homecoming is not turning out as she had planned.

Timmy breaks the mood by turning on the radio and dancing with his mother. He promises to go with her to visit her mother and cousin. They are still dancing when John returns to go to the ball game after all, and the two men leave.

Scene 2 begins that afternoon, after the ball game. John and Timmy enter, drunk, carrying a bouquet of roses. Timmy insists that his father tell Nettie that the roses are from him; then he asks, half jokingly, how much money his father has. When John reacts angrily, Timmy asks to hear the story of how his parents met. John is in the midst of a sentimental memory when Nettie enters and again the tensions emerge.

Nettie sees the roses, accepts them as a gift from John, and tries to express her pleasure. The more grateful she seems, however, the more uncomfortable John becomes. He changes the subject, and to keep the mood light, he proposes dinner and a night on the town; the three prepare to leave.

In scene 3 the family returns after their night out. John and Timmy are drunkenly discussing Timmy’s plans to become a writer. When John looks for more to drink, Nettie follows him into the kitchen, where they reminisce briefly, and touchingly, about their...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Subject Was Roses is a realistic play, thoroughgoing and consistent in its use of the devices of realism. It takes place in a Bronx apartment, and the stage set is meant to be completely functional. The toaster and waffle iron must work; the radio must play; the kitchen cabinets must be fully stocked. The play is probably more successful in an arena theater than on a proscenium stage, where the intimacy of the apartment is harder to achieve.

Within the realistic set, Frank Gilroy provides realistic characters, plot, and dialogue. The three characters are very ordinary, so much so that John Chapman, reviewing the Broadway opening for The Daily News, found them “uninteresting.” There is nothing exceptional about the Clearys; their conflicts, ambitions, and disappointments are all very normal. In them, audiences see people whom they know very well.

The plot is similarly low-keyed: small, ordinary, familiar. The dialogue is realistic. Chapman complained of the “naturalistic exchanges,” citing lines such as “I couldn’t sleep last night.” “Neither could I.” However, it is Gilroy’s ear for real speech, along with his refusal to write artificially “dramatic” scenes, that gives the play its strength. The Subject Was Roses stands as a model of realism, combining all the techniques of realism in a single play.

Significantly, this realistic play includes a substantial element of symbolism....

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

American Realistic Drama
Realistic drama attempts to give the audience the illusion that what they are watching is true to life....

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The play is a realistic drama, and the set makes an important contribution to the theme. The stage directions describe...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1940s: Automobile production was suspended during World War II and as a result, stocks are low. In 1945, there are 25 million...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the history of the family in U.S. society over the last one hundred years. What are the main changes that have taken place? Are...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Subject Was Roses was made into a movie by MGM in 1968, starring Patricia Neal, Jack Albertson, and Martin Sheen. It was directed...

(The entire section is 38 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Gilroy’s I Wake Up Screening!: Everything You Need to Know about Making Independent Films, Including a Thousand Reasons Not To...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Berkowitz, Gerald M., American Drama of the Twentieth Century, Longman, 1992.

Bradshaw, John,...

(The entire section is 330 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Adler, Thomas P. “‘Over There’ and Over Here.” In Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987.

Gilroy, Frank. About Those Roses: Or, How Not to Do a Play and Succeed. New York: Random House, 1965.

Laufe, Abe. Anatomy of a Hit: Long Run Plays on Broadway from 1900 to the Present Day. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1966.

Weales, Gerald. The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960’s. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

(The entire section is 83 words.)