It's been 50 years since an Irish American family who lived in a cramped Bronx apartment became the unlikely toasts of the town.
They were the Cleary family. There was Nettie, the mother; John, the father; and their son, Timmy, just back from serving his country in World War II.
The Clearys were the main characters in Irish American writer Frank D. Gilroy’s autobiographical play "The Subject Was Roses," which went on to become the sleeper hit of Broadway’s 1965 season. The play won a Pulitzer, Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
The original cast featured Hollywood veteran Jack Albertson as well as Irish American actress Irene Dailey (sister of song and dance legend Dan Dailey) as the husband and wife, whose exterior happiness is a mask to hide some dark secrets. Performing the pivotal role of the Clearys’ troubled son was another Irish American actor, a young up-and-comer named Martin Sheen.
Last month came the sad news that after a long life in the writing business – and putting one of his sons on the path to Hollywood blockbuster success – Gilroy died at the age of 89.
Though Gilroy wrote many plays, novels, screenplays and more, he will always be remembered for his poignant portrait of Bronx Irish Catholic family life.
Around the time of one of many "Roses" revivals on Broadway Gilroy, a Bronx native himself, told The New York Times, “I’d like to walk into a room sometime and be introduced as the author of something other than that play. There’s always one thing in a career that has more impact than anything else. In my case, 'The Subject Was Roses' was that thing.”
In the wake of Gilroy’s passing, it’s an interesting time to revisit what Gilroy referred to as “that play,” which was turned into a 1968 movie.
Sheen and Albertson, who won an Oscar in the role, made the move to the big screen, while Patricia Neal took the role of Nettie Cleary over from Irene Dailey.
"The Subject Was Roses" is not exactly a perfect play. It is melodramatic at times, and many of today’s viewers might find the simmering secrets at the center of the play a touch overblown.
Way back in 1972, famed theater critic John Simon confessed to being left cold by Gilroy’s play. Knowing fans of "Roses" have compared it to the work of Eugene O’Neill, Simon dismissed the play as “A Short Day’s Journey into Night.”
But "Roses" remains very important, not least because of its portrait of Irish American life. After all, from either movies or theater, what are some of the more authentic and enduring portrayals of big-city Irish American life? There aren't all that many.
Roses manages to capture the bright as well as dark side of the immigrant dream. This was important to remember in the 1960s, when it was widely accepted that the Irish had “made it” in America.
Perhaps they had. But what price was paid? Unlike so many other people, Gilroy did not avoid this question.
John Cleary, in the play, is a relatively successful man. But he is haunted by the ghost of immigrant poverty.
“I’ll tell you what rough is, being so hungry you begged,” he says. “Being thrown out in the street with your few sticks of furniture for all the neighbors to enjoy. Never sleeping in a bed with less than two other people. Always hiding from collectors. Having to leave school at the age of 10 because your father was crippled for life and it was your job to support the house.”
There is a running conflict in the play about why Timmy drinks so much. His battling parents and military service didn’t help. But perhaps attention should also be paid his family’s bitter journey to America.
"Roses" remains a popular play. It was revived in New Jersey just a few years back.
Frank Gilroy’s son Tony, meanwhile, is now a Hollywood A-lister who wrote and directed the George Clooney hit "Michael Clayton" and has directed and written entries in the popular "Bourne" franchise.
Perhaps the most poignant recent revival of "Roses" was in Los Angeles in 2009. It once again featured Martin Sheen. This time, though, Sheen played John Cleary rather than Timmy.* Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com.