Last night, my wife and I ventured up to Los Angeles to see a new production of Frank Gilroy’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Subject Was Roses.” A simple domestic drama set in 1945 with only three characters—a husband, a wife, and a son just back from WW II—the play was revived by the production company of Martin Sheen (famous for darkly brooding in the film Apocalypse Now and liberally pontificating in television’s “The West Wing”). Sheen played the son in the original Broadway production and in the 1966 film version. In the new version at LA’s Mark Taper Forum, Sheen plays the hard-drinking, hard-driven Irish father, originally played by Jack Albertson. (The wife, originally played by Patricia Neal, is played by Frances Conroy, best known for her role as the mother in the TV series “Six Feet Under”; the son is played by Brian Geraghty, who can currently be seen in the film The Hurt Locker.)
In my efforts to understand the unique characteristics of the short story as a genre, I have often considered its relationship to other literary forms. Based on my study, I think the short story’s affiliation with the novel is less significant than its relationship to poetry, for example, because of its emphasis on language and form rather than plot and character. I also think there is much to be learned about the development of the short story by studying how it evolved out of the essays and sketches of British 18th and 19th-century writers such as Goldsmith Addison and Steel, Lamb, as well as 19th century American writers, such as Washington Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, who experimented with many different generic forms. I have not spent as much time considering the short story’s relationship to drama, but thought about it last night when my wife and I enjoyed “The Subject Was Roses.”
Charles McNulty, the Theatre Critic for the Los Angeles Times, condescended to the production, calling it “dated” and “old-fashioned.” What got me to thinking about drama’s relationship to the short story was McNulty’s comment: “Instead of sinking into the realism, I found myself often observing good actors act.” Aside from the obvious fact that a drama critic should not apologize for “observing good actors act,” I was interested in his complaint about not “sinking into the realism.”
I am not sure that it is possible for a staged drama to be “realistic,” allowing, even encouraging, the audience to forget that the people on the stage are actors. The Mark Taper is a sort of “theatre in the round,” with a limited number of seats in a semicircle around an open stage. The set for “The Subject was Roses” was a kitchen and a living room, side by side, with no wall between them. Scenes, separated by a fade-to-black, were enacted by the actors, in one of the two rooms. There was no way one could get lost in the “realism” of the scenes, as if the characters are real people in the real world, in spite of the fact that everything looked real. You still knew that when characters left the set to go out the front door or enter a bedroom that they were going back stage. You knew there was no “real” world out there. I am not even sure how it would be possible for LA Times critic McNulty to sink into the “realism,” since “realism” is a style, a set of conventions for representing reality, not reality itself. Gilroy's drama is a highly formalized group of set pieces, carefully staged to explore the complexity of a mysterious human relationship.
One of the complaints often lodged against the short story is that, as opposed to the novel, one cannot get lost in the “reality” of the story. Why? Because it is too short, because we seldom have a background context for the action or the characters, because it often draws attention to itself as a language-construct rather than a clear glass through which we can see something we like to find comforting as “reality.” Short stories are more like dramas than they are like novels because neither the short story nor the play wants us to sink into some as-if reality, but rather to participate in a highly formalized similitude that has some unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, core that gives it form and meaning. Reality, on the other hand, is formless and meaningless, that is, until someone gives it form and meaning, and then it is a representation or enactment, calling attention to itself as a creation, not just something lying around out there on which you might stub your toe.
All dramatists know this, of course. My favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet, because Shakespeare never lets us forget that it is a play. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet cries, a highly formalized, even ritualistic, pattern of enactment. Even in “The Subject Was Roses,” which, like many short stories centers on an important symbolic object, has a brief little moment of self-reflexive acknowledgement, when the son points to the audience and refers to some fictional spectator sitting in the back, as if he were an actor in a play, which, of course he is. The famous critical conundrum about Hamlet’s inability to revenge the death of his father—an inability to act that is the central action of the play—is due, of course to the fact that he is acting.
Like the drama, the short story’s relationship to “reality” is much more complex than a simple replication. And reality, as the artist always tries to remind us, is more complex than the stuff we experience everyday. Neither drama nor the short story invites us to “sink into realism,” but rather to pay careful attention to the means by which meaningful artifice is created.