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About Those Roses

Asked where they had their most memorable campus experiences, Dartmouth students polled back when I was an undergraduate most frequently identified the Hopkins Center for the Arts. It is certainly the site I would have identified if asked. I still recall, to take just one example, the one-man show derived from the works of Samuel Beckett that Jack MacGowran performed at the Hop’s Moore Theater just before MacGowran died in 1973.

Live shows performed in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium by Gordon Lightfoot, Don McLean, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Duke Ellington also come to mind. I saw Milton Friedman give an excellent lecture there in 1970 or so. I saw John Kerry speak as leader of the Vietnam Vets Against the War at the Top of the Hop in 1972, an event made memorable by an astute student who shouted out that Kerry was a self-promoting phony.

Also memorable were many of the films I first saw at Dartmouth Film Society screenings in Spaulding including screenwriter/director Frank Gilroy’s Desperate Characters. Gilroy also met with students after the screening of “Desperate Characters” in a dorm common room. This too was one of the most memorable experiences for me at Dartmouth.

Gilroy was the acclaimed author of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Subject Was Roses, a play I loved. The play portrays the homecoming of Timmy Cleary from Europe to the Bronx after his military service in World War II. Timmy’s parents, John and Nettie Cleary, are trapped in a vivldly drawn marriage full of hurt and hate.

One of the remarkable things about the play (and the 1968 film) is the sympathy with which each of the three characters is portrayed. The play appears to have been torn from Giroy’s life, a nakedly autobiographical account of his family. The roses of the play’s title refer to Timmy’s unsuccessful attempt to reconcile his parents with each other. Timmy needs to escape from his family. The play climaxes in Timmy’s announcement that he intends to leave home.

Timmy’s father begs him to stay. Timmy responds by telling his father of a recurring dream in which he learns his father is dead. In the dream Timmy runs crying into the street. He tells his father that in his dream someone would stop him and he’d say, “My father is dead and he’s never said he loves me.” He says he realizes that by the same token, he’s never said those words to his father. “I say them now–,” he says, “I love you Pop.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John says. Both finally in tears, John and Timmy embrace, yet the tears are quickly suppressed upon Nettie’s appearance to make breakfast.

Watching the play and film as a teen-ager, I naturally identified with Timmy. Over the years, as age and experience have changed my perspective, I’ve also come to identify with Timmy’s parents.

I was one of about three or four students who showed up in the dorm common room to meet up with Gilroy. He talked about the difficulties of dramatic form, wondering even if good playwrights might be limited to a total of four or five plays (I believe he cited Chekhov). I asked him a question or two about the film version of The Subject Was Roses compared to the play and about independent filmmaking, and that was that.

Over the years I’ve kicked myself many times over for not having asked Gilroy instead what happened to his parents after the time portrayed in The Subject Was Roses. Even if he had only told me not to confuse life with art, I would love to have heard what he had to say.

I spent the past weekend at Dartmouth visiting my daughter. On Saturday evening she played with the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra for its winter concert, a program including Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. To my roster of memorable experiences at Hopkins Center I now add this magnificent performance of the DSO, Anthony Princiotti conducting.

On Friday evening, while my daughter was rehearsing with the DSO, I went to see the student production of Frank Galati’s renowned theatrical adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath at the Hop’s Moore Theater. The play’s production and stagecraft were outstanding, but I found the play virtually unwatchable. It was full of deadly speeches lacking in drama or tension.

One actor in the cast stood out. By far the best actor was Sam Gilroy (’09) as the lapsed cleric and Christ figure Jim Casy.

The Gilroy name of course brought back a few memories. Doing a quick Google search on Saturday, I discovered that he is Frank Gilroy’s grandson. Sam Gilroy’s father is Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter responsible for all three Bourne films. Sam Gilroy appeared in Michael Clayton, also written and directed by his father.

In that Google search I noticed that Frank Gilroy had recently published the memoir Writing for Love and/or Money about his career. I picked up a copy at the Dartmouth Bookstore and read it on the way home last night.

Gilroy must be a compulsive journal writer. The text of The Subject Was Roses in book form includes Gilroy’s journal “About Those Roses or How Not to Do a Play and Succeed.” In book form, incidentally, Gilroy dedicates the play to his parents. The journal provides an entertaining chronicle of the play’s long path to production on Broadway starring Jack Albertson, Irene Dailey and Martin Sheen. (Patricia Neal took Dailey’s role in the film.)

Writing for Love and/or Money is also in the form of a journal. In it Gilroy traces his tortuous path to success as a playwright. The memoir begins in 1939 when Gilroy becomes an aspiring writer at age 14 and ends with Gilroy writing The Subject Was Roses. The heart of the memoir recounts his many failures and frequent bouts with penury along the way.

Gilroy also covers his unlikely admission to Dartmouth in 1946 as a World War II veteran with an undistinguished academic record. He says his mother wept upon his admission. His own reaction was equally intense. “When I get into Dartmouth,” he writes, “I felt the door to heaven open.” I identify with Gilroy in this respect too. There he became editor of the college newspaper and wrote his first plays.

When he experiences his first professional success, Gilroy gets married. He borrows his father’s car for the honeymoon and receives his father’s advice along with it: “Don’t drive in the dark.” He says it is only the fourth piece of advice his father gave him.

He then recalls the other three pieces of advice his father gave him. The first was when he entered the Army: “Always wear a rubber.” The second was when he squandered the money with which he returned from Europe: “You’ll never know how much a hundred dollars is worth until you try to borrow it.” The third was: “Never tell a man to shove his business up his ass because it’s a hell of a dark place to have to go looking for business.”

Gilroy’s mother appears in the memoir less vividly than his father, but thanks to Writing for Love and/or Money I can quit kicking myself. I find that Frank Gilroy has answered my unasked question regarding his parents these many years later.

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