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Theatre / The Rose Tattoo

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The Rose Tattoo is a play by Tennessee Williams, first produced in 1950.

Serafina was a peasant girl of fourteen when she married a Sicilian baron named Rosario delle Rose. They lived together in a small cottage next to a highway on the Gulf Coast, and its shutters rattled whenever the 10-ton truck that he drove for the Brothers Romano passed by. Their marriage lasted for twelve years, and Serafina counted the 4,380 nights that she spent in bed with her husband until the night when he didn't come home. He was shot at the wheel of his truck, which overturned and caught fire. In violation of Church laws, Serafina has his charred body cremated and the ashes placed in a marble urn.

Three years later, Serafina, still in the business of sewing dresses, has not dressed herself or gone out of her house since her husband died. Her daughter Rosa, now fifteen years old, is introduced to a young sailor named Jack Hunter at a High-School Dance. When Serafina finds out that Jack and Rosa have been dating, she is horrified and locks her daughter's clothes up until her teacher convinces Serafina to let her graduate with her class. She remains proud of the memory of a husband whom she believes to have been hers alone, and is violently perturbed when other women tell her that this was not the case. Suddenly a dark and handsome Sicilian truck driver by the name of Alvaro Mangiacavallo stumbles into her house, shares his miseries with her and finds his way into her heart.

The play was nominated for four Tonies in 1951: Best Play, Best Featured Actor (Eli Wallach as Alvaro), BestFeatured Actress (Maureen Stapleton as Serafina) and Best Scenic Design by Boris Aronson.

A film version was released by Paramount in 1955, starring Anna Magnani (in her first English-speaking role) as Serafina and Burt Lancaster as Alvaro.

This play contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: The radio play portrays Alvaro as more innocent and good-natured, and doesn't admire Rosa while she sleeps like he does in the play. Instead, Rosa tells Serafina of the man on her sofa, and Serafina, ashamed of having slept with Alvaro, forces him to leave the house.
  • Butter Face: Alvaro Mangiacavallo has a finely sculpted body, but his face looks as ridiculous as his last name sounds. Serafina keeps repeating to herself that he has a clown's face on her late husband's body.
  • Catchphrase: Alvaro announces his entrances with the happy greeting "Rondinella felice!"
  • Cheerful Child: Bruno, Salvatore and Vivi, three children who never speak, though their playful actions are played for Narrative Filigree. One of the boys is bouncing a rubber ball at the wake, much to Rosa's outrage.
  • Companion Cube: According to the stage directions and author's production notes, the dummies should be poseable to make it look as if they were carrying on conversations with each other and Serafina.
  • Confess in Confidence: Serafina becomes very angry when Father de Leo, who used to hear Rosario's confessions, refuses on principle to tell her whether or not her late husband was having an affair with another woman.
  • Cuckold Horns: After two gossips disclose to Serafina that her late husband had an affair with another women, she angrily and repeatedly denies it, saying that her husband would not have put "the nanny-goat's horns" on her head. There is also an actual goat that is troubling her. (Oddly enough, the Italian words for this are not used.)
  • Give Me a Sign: Serafina goes to her shrine of the Madonna and prays for a sign.
  • Gossipy Hens: The ladies of the neighborhood do a lot of gossiping about Serafina, who even calls them hens at one point.
  • Gratuitous Italian: The play has many characters, especially Serafina, who speak Italian. It helps that most of the characters are Sicilian-American, though they limit their Italian conversations to short phrases.
  • Groin Attack: The fight Alvaro gets into culminates with him taking a hit to the groin from the Traveling Salesman's knee.
  • High-School Dance: Rosa meets Jack at her high school dance and, misinterpreting her mother's advice, dances too closely with him. (This is only mentioned in the play, but shown in the film.)
  • I Kiss Your Hand: When Rosa begs Jack to kiss her mother, she demurs and offers her hand for him to kiss instead. He kisses it loudly.
  • In the Blood: Alvaro comically boasts that he is the grandson of the village idiot of Ribera.
  • Meaningful Name: Rosa delle Rose. The Italian meaning of her name is "rose of roses"; Estelle Hohengarten, after looking over her, tells her, "You're a twig off the old rose-bush."
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted and lampshaded. Alvaro is in tears after his fight with the salesman, but he's ashamed of being so sensitive, because he believes that as a man he shouldn't be.
  • Mess of Woe: Serafina dresses herself very properly while her husband is alive. However, after he dies, she doesn't leave her house for years and wears only a dirty pink slip, having grown too fat to fit into her former clothes.
  • The Mistress: Estelle Hohengarten, a blackjack dealer from Texas who works at the Square Roof on the Esplanade, has an affair with Rosario delle Rose whose one-year anniversary was to have been celebrated on the day of his funeral. Of course, everybody knows about it but his wife, who only acknowledges it several years later.
  • The Mourning After: Serafina treasures the memory of her late husband of twelve years as "the first best, the only best." She jealously keeps watch over his ashes (which she keeps in defiance of Catholic doctrine) and is proud to say that he was "never touched by the hand of nobody" except her, which is unfortunately untrue.
  • Painted-On Pants: Serafina examines her daughter's sailor boyfriend from the front and back and asks him why they make Navy pants so tight. "That's a question you'll have to ask the Navy," he tells her.
  • Piggy Bank: Serafina fills a piggy bank with the small change she earns from her sewing. Rosa smashes it in the final scene and scoops out a bunch of coins before running off.
  • Posthumous Character: Rosario delle Rose, Serafina's husband, succumbs to death by Retirony before he can appear on stage. The film of the play does show him briefly on screen (alive), though his actor (Larry Chance) remains uncredited.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Estelle Hohengarten orders Serafina to make a man's shirt out of a piece of rose-colored silk. When Serafina objects that it's not a man's color, Estelle tells her, "This man is wild like a Gypsy." Serafina is not pleased to hear, years later, that Estelle was The Mistress of her late husband.
  • Relatively Flimsy Excuse:
    Miss Yorke: You are talking about the Hunter girl's brother, a sailor named Jack, who attended the dance with his sister?
    Serafina: "Attended with sister!"—Attended with sister!—My daughter, she's nobody's sister!
  • Replacement Goldfish: Serafina notices that Alvaro, aside from his face, has a body like that of her late husband Rosario. She is startled again when Alvaro mentions that the truck he drives has bananas in it, though it's an 8-ton truck, not a 10-ton truck like the one Rosario drove, and it's just bananas. When Serafina tells Alvaro that Rosario had a rose tattoo on his chest, Alvaro gets one for himself, and puts rose oil in his hair to make the resemblance almost complete.
  • Retirony: When Assunta tells Serafina that her husband's job smuggling dope under bananas in his 10-ton truck could lead him to get killed, Serafina protests that tonight is his last run for the Brothers Romano and that he can start making his own living tomorrow. Serafina waits in vain for the return of the truck and its driver, which meet a fiery end together before next morning.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The play has roses and rose-flavored things everywhere, starting with the names of Rosario delle Rose, the original owner of the tattoo, and his daughter Rosa.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Averted with Serafina. The shock of her husband's death causes her to have a miscarriage.
  • Something about a Rose: The play is practically suffocating in rose symbolism. The original owner of the rose tattoo is named Rosario delle Rose. His wife, who compares his skin to a yellow rose petal, likes to wear a rose in her hair and imagines the tattoo appeared on her breast when she conceived, which is perhaps why her daughter is named Rosa. The symbolism doesn't stop there.
  • Talking to the Dead: Serafina delle Rose, at least according to her daughter, talks to her late husband's ashes as if he were still alive.
  • That Liar Lies: When Flora and Bessie tell Serafina that her late husband was having an affair with Estelle Hohengarten, she flies into a rage and attacks the two clowns with a broom, howling at them: "Liar!—Lie-arrrrr!" When she recalls this with Alvaro, she doesn't want to say what lie they told about her husband, only how terrible the thought made her feel:
    "I don't want to talk about it! I just want to forget it; it wasn't true, it was false, false, false!—as the hearts of the bitches who told it..."
  • Time Skip: The first three scenes form a sort of prologue to the rest of the drama, which takes place three years later.
  • Traveling Salesman: A straw-hatted salesman who pays a call to Serafina, trying to sell novelties. He's also a Jerkass to Alvaro.
  • Unfortunate Names: Alvaro's last name is Mangiacavallo. Its Italian meaning, "Eat-a-Horse," cements his status as clown.
    "It's a comical name, I know. Maybe two thousand and seventy years ago one of my grandfathers got so hungry that he ate up a horse. That ain't my fault."
  • Warding Gestures: Serafina makes the mano cornuta gesture to ward off the "evil eye" of the Strega and the black goat often seen in her yard. After one of these encounters, she also tells her daughter to "wash your face with salt water and throw the salt water away."
  • Wine Is Classy: Serafina, proud of having married a baron though she was born a peasant, keeps a stock of Sicilian Spumanti bottles from the house of her late husband's family.
  • You're Just Jealous:
    Serafina: You are, you are, dirty talk, all the time men, men, men! You men-crazy things, you!
    Flora: Sour grapes—sour grapes is your trouble! You're wild with envy!
    Bessie: Isn't she green with jealousy? Huh?