The Subject Was Roses

by Frank D. Gilroy

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The Play

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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 courtship. Alone in the living room, Timmy amuses himself with snippets of various vaudeville acts. His retreat to bed leads Nettie to remonstrate with John for letting him get drunk again.

When her attention turns again to the roses, John attempts a clumsy seduction. Nettie, however, will have none of it: “One nice evening doesn’t make everything different.” They fight, and Nettie smashes the vase of roses on the floor. In his frustration and anger, John closes the scene and the act with the revelation that Timmy, not he, bought the roses.

Act 2 opens, like act 1, with breakfast. It is Sunday morning, and John is complaining about the coffee. When Timmy enters, he becomes the object of John’s irritation. He insists that Timmy come to church with him, but Timmy refuses. John leaves alone, giving mother and son another opportunity to talk. Once again, the talk is of John; with his father gone, Timmy is ready to defend him. He blames Nettie for caring more for her retarded cousin than...

(This entire section contains 1027 words.)

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for her husband. Angry, Nettie gathers up her large store of coins and leaves the house.

As the next scene opens, Nettie has not returned. It is now ten o’clock at night, and John and Timmy are worried. Timmy is, however, hiding his feeling by drinking. The two argue, until Timmy reveals that Nettie had fought with him before leaving. John uses this information to absolve himself of blame, but Timmy keeps the argument going until John hits him. At that moment Nettie enters.

She refuses to give a straight answer when John asks where she has been. She does claim, however, that “in all my life, the past twelve hours are the only real freedom I’ve ever known.” Timmy rushes from the room to be sick, and the scene ends with Nettie’s explanation of the argument that morning. She tells John of Timmy’s admiration for him.

Scene 3 is set in the middle of the night. Timmy enters to find his mother sitting in the dark. He tells her that he has decided to leave home the next day. Then, at his prompting, Nettie reveals that she had been thinking about the time she was hit in the eye with an apple core. Embarrassed by her black eye, she had failed to return to her new job and so lost it. The next job she found led to her meeting with John.

Again prompted by Timmy, she recalls what drew her to John: his energy, his determination, his ability to provide her with a good life. Left alone by Timmy, Nettie descends deeper into memory, recalling her need for love from her much-admired father.

The final scene occurs once again at the breakfast table. Nettie tells John that Timmy will leave, and John prepares to argue him out of it. Faced with Timmy’s obstinate insistence, he promises concessions. He even answers the earlier question of how much money he has. Finally he reverts to his usual posture of anger, to which Timmy responds by telling of a dream: “Someone would stop me and ask me why I was crying and I’d say, ‘My father’s dead and he never said he loved me.’” He then speaks the words himself to his father, telling him that he loves him. They embrace.

When Nettie enters, Timmy announces that he has changed his mind and will stay. His father intervenes, however, to tell Timmy that he must leave. Then he turns his attention to his coffee, complaining about it as the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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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 apple core that Nettie remembers in act 2, scene 3, comes to stand for the accidents that led her to her present condition. The waffles that stick during Timmy’s first breakfast at home symbolize the failure of all Nettie’s plans for their new life together. The “Welcome Home” banner sags. Nettie hoards coins, and she cannot make good coffee for her husband, a coffee salesman. Objects, actions, and words take on significance beyond themselves, yet they acquire this significance naturally and realistically, as they do in everyday life.

Even the roses do not become an obtrusive symbol. Like any object that carries emotional significance because of past associations, the roses are valued. As a gift to Nettie from John, they may stand for a renewal of their relationship. When John violates that new relationship with a crude pass, the roses, the symbol of her hopes, must be destroyed. Then with the revelation that it was Timmy who bought them, they again take on value. Nettie’s relationship with Timmy still seems possible. She forgets that the flowers will fade.

Historical Context

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American Realistic Drama
Realistic drama attempts to give the audience the illusion that what they are watching is true to life. It will usually feature ordinary, average characters experiencing the everyday ups and downs and challenges of living. Realism began to dominate American theater in the 1930s. Playwrights of that period discovered that the middle-class domestic play, set in the present, was a useful vehicle for the exploration of psychological themes. Such plays were often set in living rooms and were about the personal lives of members of a family as they dealt with matters such as money, careers, and marriage. Some dramatists used this small-scale work as an opportunity to comment on wider social issues, such as the Great Depression, but others felt that domestic affairs were in themselves valid material for drama.

Realism continued its hold on the theater right up to the early 1960s. By that time, Broadway was losing some of the prestige it had enjoyed during its so-called golden age in the 1950s. This was due in part to the growing importance of new venues such as off-Broadway for the production of plays in New York. The theaters that made up off-Broadway, and later off off-Broadway, were less tied to the need for large commercial success, and they gave young dramatists such as Edward Albee and Sam Shepard the opportunity to experiment with new dramatic forms and content.

The Subject Was Roses, however, was not part of this new wave of American drama that began during the 1960s. Very much in the earlier tradition of domestic realism, it continued a form of drama that was familiar to audiences and did not challenge their basic ideas about what a stage play might attempt to do.

Irish and Jews in the Bronx
Although the play gives no indication of when John Cleary’s Irish father immigrated to the Bronx, which is one of the boroughs that make up New York City, it may have been during the boom years that began around 1890. From then until 1925, the Bronx developed from being a mosaic of small villages and farms into a city of over one million people. Cleary might have come earlier, however. The Bronx had long been a destination for the Irish, who in the early and mid-nineteenth century were fleeing famine in Ireland. Many of these early Irish immigrants worked as laborers, and they helped to construct such landmarks as the High Bridge over the Harlem River, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the Croton Aqueduct.

Other ethnic groups were part of the influx of people who settled in the Bronx in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Many came to escape poor living conditions in nearby Manhattan, including Yugoslavians, Armenians, and Italians. But the largest group was Jews from central and eastern Europe. There were sometimes tensions, misunderstandings, and violence between the Jewish newcomers and the more established Irish.

This is the background against which John Cleary’s anti-Semitism in the play can be understood. He uses an ethnic slur to describe Jews and claims that they were responsible for World War II. Later, he retracts his remark and tells Timmy that he helped a Jewish man who was being attacked by a gang of Irish hoodlums in the neighborhood. (John actually refers to the gang as ‘‘those bums from St. Matthew’s,’’ which may be a name of a parish and suggests Irish origins.)

Literary Style

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The play is a realistic drama, and the set makes an important contribution to the theme. The stage directions describe it as a middle-class apartment but point out that the heavily upholstered sofa and chairs, equipped with antimacassars (small covers on the backs and sides to prevent soiling) are of the type that was fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s. This suggests that the Clearys are not well off and have to make do with what they have. In the play, Nettie brings attention to the sofa when she says it is on its last legs, and she also points to the poor condition of the rugs. The shabby genteel setting helps to reinforce the theme of lack of money that emerges in the first scene. Nettie makes it clear that she needs ten dollars to replace the worn-out curtains in Timmy’s room and then another five dollars for her housekeeping. John hands the money over reluctantly.

Since this is a family that has difficulty talking openly with each other, Gilroy uses a technique whereby in conversations they talk completely across each other. That is, one person is barely listening to the other and carries on his own line of thought. This occurs in the beginning of act 2, scene 2, for example, when Timmy recalls his feelings when he was six and his baby brother died in infancy, but John does not hear him because he keeps wondering aloud where Nettie is and why she left. John has a similar habit when the conversation with Nettie turns awkward. He refuses to respond directly, reciting instead nonsense phrases like ‘‘Bless us and save us said Mrs. O’Davis.’’ The dialogue is also extremely effective in conveying the festering influence of old quarrels between John and Nettie. Act 1, scene 1 is a good example of this. Both characters are masters of the sarcastic, niggling remark that reveals their contempt for each other and hides the love that may still be buried far beneath the surface.

Dramatic Conflict
The nature of drama is conflict; characters in a scene will want, expect, or demand different things, and they will clash. The skilled dramatist uses these differing expectations and needs to create tension and climaxes. He or she will control the rhythm of the buildup, both in individual scenes and in the drama as a whole, to create the right dramatic effect. In this play, most of the scenes build to an explosion of anger or frustration between either husband and wife, mother and son, or father and son.

The first part of the first scene deftly reveals the tension between husband and wife, for example, but without any raised voices. The impression is more of resignation, of things that started a long time ago and have acquired the nature of habit. The second half of the scene shows mother and son struggling to adapt to each other. The tension erupts in Nettie’s outbursts and crying and is resolved physically through their dance, before erupting again at the end of the scene over the visit to Willis.

The next scene is quieter and more hopeful, as a necessary contrast to the previous one. The tension here is more in the audience, since they are aware of the deception over who bought the roses and know that the deception will have consequences. But the consequences do not come until the following scene, in which the intensity of the drama is ratcheted up again. The family’s evening out has been a success, but Nettie’s unease with the two men’s drinking introduces an ominous note. John’s unwelcome sexual advance and Nettie’s deliberate smashing of the vase, which is followed by a few moments of silence, is the climax of the first act (husband-wife conflict). It has been carefully prepared for. As in most of the moments when the conflict flares up directly instead of being hidden like an iceberg beneath the surface, it is accompanied by physical movement or some other action on the stage that makes a strong visual impact.

The second act proceeds in similar fashion. In scene i, John’s bad mood builds inexorably to a full-scale explosion over Timmy’s refusal to attend mass (father-son conflict) and then builds again to a mother-son conflict over how Timmy was always forced to do things he did not want to do on Sunday. Scene ii builds slowly to a father-son conflict that results in an act of physical violence. The following scene is necessarily quieter, more reflective, and the final scene brings the changes. Instead of conflict, there is reconciliation (father-son), culminating in the physical embrace, before the old pattern of suppressed tensions reasserts itself at the end.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: Automobile production was suspended during World War II and as a result, stocks are low. In 1945, there are 25 million registered vehicles in the United States, but over half of these are more than ten years old. But immediately after the war, there is a boom in production and by 1950, U.S. production of automobiles accounts for two-thirds of the world total.

1960s: Studebaker-Packard introduces seat belts as standard equipment on all models, the first U.S. auto manufacturer to do so. Ford introduces the Mustang at a base price of $2,300. But the U.S. auto industry is losing ground to world competition. By 1965, the United States is producing only 45 percent of world output.

Today: Whereas in 1946 in America owning a car was a sign of success, today owning a car is considered a necessity. Today’s automobiles are far superior in terms of safety, reliability, and performance, to those of a generation ago. In addition, they cost a smaller percentage of most workers’ incomes than they did in 1964. (The base retail price of a 2002 Ford Mustang is $17,475 to $28,645.) However, the United States is no longer the leading manufacturer of automobiles, running second to Japan.

1940s: After World War II, religion in America undergoes a resurgence. This includes Catholicism as well as Protestant Christianity. The notion of church and family as the fundamental pillars of society becomes established.

1960s: As the social changes of the 1960s begin to make themselves felt, traditional Christian religious beliefs and practices are called into question. The number of young men in the United States who enter the Catholic priesthood begins to decline. The decline will continue for thirty years, until 1997.

Today: There are 63 million Catholics in the United States. This is the largest religious group in the country. The Catholic Church is also the nation’s largest provider of private education, with 2.7 million students attending Catholic schools. However, in 2001 and 2002, the Church is shaken by a series of scandals involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

1940s: World War II is over, and America is prosperous. Having developed and used the atom bomb to end Japanese resistance, the United States is the sole nuclear power in the world, but the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union is looming on the horizon.

1960s: The buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam begins after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which North Vietnamese patrol boats are alleged to have fired on U.S. ships.

Today: Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the United States is engaged in a war very different from either World War II or Vietnam. The enemy is not a nation but a terrorist organization that transcends national borders.

Media Adaptations

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The Subject Was Roses was made into a movie by MGM in 1968, starring Patricia Neal, Jack Albertson, and Martin Sheen. It was directed by Ulu Grosbard with a screenplay by Gilroy. It is currently available on VHS videotape.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Bradshaw, John, Bradshaw On: The Family, Health Communications, Inc., 1988.

Brooks-Dillard, Sandra, ‘‘Timing Bad for Outdated ‘Subject,’’’ in Denver Post, January 19, 1996, p. G–11.

Filichiahe, Peter, ‘‘Gentle Touch Revives Roses; Theater Restores Play’s Bloom by Emphasizing Comedy over Its No- Longer-Thorny Social Issue,’’ in Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), March 29, 2000, p.33.

Gilroy, Frank D., About Those Roses or How Not To Do a Play and Succeed, and the Text of ‘‘The Subject Was Roses,’’ Random House, 1965.

———, The Subject Was Roses, in Best American Plays, Sixth Series 1963–1967, Crown Publishers, Inc, 1987, pp. 567–594.

Monji, Jana J., ‘‘Theater Beat; Looking for Old Family Patterns in Roses,’’ Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2001, p. F–44.

Scanlon, Tom, Family, Drama, and American Dreams, Greenwood Press, 1978, p. 4.

Simon, John, ‘‘Three by Three,’’ in New York, June 24, 1991, p. 52.

Taubman, Howard, Review of The Subject Was Roses, in The New York Times Theater Reviews, 1920–1970, Vol. 7, Arno Press, 1971, 1964 Je 7, 11:1:1.

Further Reading
Lewis, Allan, American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, rev. ed., Crown, 1970. This is a readable survey of plays and playwrights from 1957 to the late 1960s. Lewis intends it as a guide to the complex diversity of the theatre of his day. Gilroy is briefly mentioned.

Murphy, Brenda, American Realism and American Drama, 1880–1940, Cambridge University Press, 1987. Although this survey ends well before Gilroy’s era, it is a valuable study of how domestic realism came to be the dominant form of American theater.

Reynolds, Catherine, ‘‘Recommended: Frank D. Gilroy,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 75, October 1986, pp. 71–72. This is an appreciation of Gilroy’s work as a whole, with particular reference to The Subject Was Roses, the one-act Present Tense, and the novel, Private.

Roudané, Matthew C., American Drama since 1960: A Critical History, Twayne, 1996. Roudané concentrates on about two-dozen dramatists who have shaped American drama since 1960. He pays particular attention to African-American and women playwrights as well as to prominent male figures such as Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and Arthur Miller.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide