I wrote here at length about “The Subject Was Roses” last year after I saw author Frank Gilroy’s grandson Sam on stage at the Moore Theater in Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center. Meeting up with the author 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 undergraduate 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. Reading the journals Gilroy excerpted in Writing For Love and/or Money confirms this impression, or at least fails to dispel it.
One of the things I admired 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 hasn’t even made it to DVD. It therefore seemed to me something of an event when the play opened last month 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.
The play, however, has gotten critical reviews, mostly attributed to its not having aged well. Charles McNulty’s Los Angeles Times review is here; Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review is here. The Times also profiled Sheen upon his return to the play here. The profile quotes Gilroy, now 84, on Sheen’s return to the play.
All I can say is that if I were in the vicinity of Los Angeles before the play closes on March 21, I wouldn’t miss it.
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