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Theatre / The Subject Was Roses

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The Subject Was Roses is a 1964 play by Frank Gilroy.

The Bronx, 1946: Timmy Cleary, son of an Irish Catholic family, comes home after three years away fighting in World War II. His parents, Nettie and John, are naturally thrilled to have him back; Nettie makes him his favorite breakfast, while John skips a business meeting to spend a day out with his son. But there are problems lurking beneath the facade of domestic contentment, and soon enough, various hidden resentments — chiefly arising from Nettie and John's failed marriage — come bursting forth.

The original Broadway production featured Jack Albertson and Irene Dailey as John and Nettie and a young Martin Sheen in the big break of his acting career as Timmy. In 1968 the play was adapted into a film directed by Ulu Grosbard. Albertson (who earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) and Sheen reprised their roles, with Patricia Neal, in her first film after suffering a series of strokes, playing Nettie. Frank Gilroy adapted his own script for the screenplay. Judy Collins sings two songs on the soundtrack.

In a 2010 revival Sheen played the father, John.


  • Armchair Military: John is envious of Timmy for having served in the war, and claims that he would have been a great soldier in World War I but he was supporting his family. An indulgent Timmy agrees.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Borders between this and Downer Ending. Timmy, without siding with either parent, announces he can longer going to intervene in his parents' troubled marriage, and he is leaving home, to save himself. His parents reluctantly accept his position, and the three have one final breakfast together. The fate of John and Nettie's marriage is unsettled, but it's likely they soon divorced.
  • Dead Sparks: It turns out that John and Nettie probably should not have gotten married in the first place and whatever intimacy they may have once enjoyed is long gone, leaving them both trapped in a loveless marriage. The sparks are so dead that when John makes a sexual advance on Nettie, she angrily rejects him, leading to him trying to exercise the Marital Rape License, leading to the symbolic vase of roses getting smashed.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: The film ends with a rather sudden one of these, in the middle of another rant from John about the coffee, indicating that even if Timmy may have matured his father hasn't.
  • Kitchen Sink Drama: A simple story of a middle-aged couple who made a bad marriage and are paying for it, and the son caught between them.
  • Manly Tears: Timmy at the end when he finally says "I love you" to his father. John brims with Manly Tears as well and embraces his son.
  • Minimalist Cast: The play features only three parts. The film, surprisingly, sticks to that pretty closely, featuring only two more small roles: a woman at the nightclub who is clearly John's mistress, and an emcee at that same nightclub.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Timmy, by giving his father the roses to give to his mother. It initially seems to patch things up between the two parents, but, in the long run, causes things to go From Bad to Worse.
  • The One That Got Away: Nettie mourns over not accepting a proposal from her other suitor, a baker who wouldn't have been as successful as John but would have been more loving.
  • Shout-Out: Timmy quotes the "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you" line from Yankee Doodle Dandy. Later he sings the title song from Flying Down to Rio.
  • Title Drop: Timmy asks his father why he admitted the truth about the roses. A long rant follows in which John shouts about how Timmy has been pampered, in contrast to John's own childhood which involved dire poverty and John dropping out of school at ten when his father died. Timmy allows him to finish and then calmly replies "The subject was roses."