I wrote here at length about The Subject Was Roses almost ten years ago after I saw playwright Frank Gilroy’s grandson Sam Gilroy on stage at the Moore Theater in Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center. Meeting up with Frank Gilroy when he visited Dartmouth in 1971 for a screening of Desperate Characters, a film he had produced and directed as well as adapted from Paula Fox’s esteemed novel, was one of the highlights of my college experience.
Gilroy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Subject Was Roses in 1964. 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 vividly drawn marriage full of hurt and hate.
The play appears to have been torn from Giroy’s life, a nakedly autobiographical account of his family. On my way home from campus in 2009, I read the journals Gilroy excerpted in Writing For Love and/or Money. Gilroy’s journals confirmed my impression, or at least failed to dispel it.
One of the things I admire about the play (and the 1968 film) is the sympathy with which each of the three characters is portrayed. Watching the play and film as an adolescent, 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.
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.
The play isn’t performed very often and the film is rarely seen. It therefore seemed to me something of an event when the play was revived at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles with Martin Sheen, who had played Timmy on stage and in the film, now in the role of the father.
When the play was revived in 2010, Charles Isherwood reviewed it for the New York Times here. The Times also profiled Martin Sheen upon his return to the play here. The profile quoted Gilroy, then 84, on Sheen’s return. It’s neither a perfect play nor perfect film — the film’s attempt to open out the play beyond the Clearys’ apartment is particularly awkward — but it cuts close to the bone in ways that have moved me from the time I first saw it.
The play and the movie have both become dated in certain respects. When I spoke to Gilroy on campus in 1971, he expressed tactful disappointment with the film. He made the point that he had seen the actors give better performances during the show’s Broadway run.
My favorite Hollywood film is Cool Hand Luke. I missed my chance to tout it when it played on TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar this past Sunday. The Subject Was Roses comes up tonight at 6:00 p.m. (Eastern). I wanted to take the liberty of drawing it to the attention of readers who might find it of interest.