The plot of The Subject Was Roses takes on different meanings depending on which character appears as the major focus. This deliberate ambiguity emerges as a central theme of the play, as the three balanced characters intertwine their conflicting concerns. Each character sees himself or herself as the main character in his or her own story, and the different perceptions that result lead to their failures to understand one another and to their estrangement.
For Timmy, the central concern is coming of age. He had been protected, even spoiled, as an only child; at eighteen, he had left home to go to war. While he had, by his own admission, no significant adventures in the army, his experience away from home made it impossible for him to reenter his parents’ life and meet their expectations. Timmy’s play is, like Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound (pr. 1986) and Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (pr. 1964), about the struggle for independence from his parents.
For Nettie, the central focus is loss: loss of her son and loss of her hopes for regaining John’s affection. All had seemed possible. Timmy had come home, and the roses had briefly rekindled her romantic feelings; then both were gone again, along with her expectations for a good life, the life she imagines had existed in her father’s house.
For John, the play is a story of frustration. His first frustration had occurred long ago: The stock market crash and his failure to go to South America kept him from making a fortune. Now his marriage is clearly failing, and he has no prospects for a better future. He is at once jealous of his son for his experiences and prospects and frustrated that Timmy is not going to be the person he had hoped.
With each of the three characters caught in a different view of reality, the family falls apart. Each blames the other two for all the family’s problems, much as the characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956) blame one another. Some learning occurs, as Timmy speaks of his love and John lets Timmy leave home. It is only the audience, however, that can view the three different realities of the three characters, recognize the hopelessness of their estrangement, and pity and forgive all three.