The Rose Tattoo
When you think of the Tennessee Williams play, The Rose Tattoo, you think of passion, tradition, superstition, religion, loss and denial. The play’s main character, Serafina Delle Rose, encompasses all of these things. She is the play.
Serafina is a stereotypical Italian mother and wife. Her main defining physical characteristics are her plumpness, especially up top, and her sensuality, dressing only to please her husband. Her home is a reflection of her in that it is filled with religious icons and worn down furniture and is decorated with rose wallpaper and rose colored carpeting. Articles of clothing and fabric are scattered about as she is a seamstress by trade.
Though the play is set in 1950s Louisiana, she could easily fit in any place during any time period. The drama of the play revolves around Rosario's inability to cope with the suspicious death of her husband. He smuggled illegal items on the same truck that he “accidentally” dies in on the day that he is going to tell his bosses that he won’t smuggle for them anymore. She idealizes her husband, looking beyond his flaws, the biggest one being that he was cheating on her. She shelters her daughter, Rosa, and tries to keep her confined to the house. She condemns her for not taking her father’s death harder. When Serafina meets a perspective romantic interest, Alvaro Mangiacavallo, it becomes clear that she is trying to relive her marriage.
I would argue that this play is Williams’s most passionate. The climate is sticky, hot and tropical. Williams notes that there are palm trees and pampas grass in the vicinity of Serafina’s house. She is always sweating, wearing as little clothing as possible. She speaks of her husband passionately, telling the local medicine woman that he doesn’t need any herbs to make him want her/perform. She repeatedly mentions his bare chest and the rose tattoo on it. You get the sense that their relationship was very physical.
Even after he is gone, Serafina keeps the blaze burning. She allows herself to become attracted to Alvaro as she sees him as the second coming of her husband, tattoo and all. Due to his overwhelming amount of passion, which is one way to look at it, Rosario took a second lover. In general, Serafina is a passionate woman. She is passionate about maintaining the appearance of a typical family. She is passionate about her religious beliefs. She is passionate about keeping her daughter pure. She is passionate about being passionate.
Serafina, while exotic, is a traditional woman. She lives in a Sicilian neighborhood and is surrounded by other Italian families. She plays the roles of mother and wife well and values said roles. She keeps a home for her family. While she earns money of her own, she knows her place and brags only about her husband’s job. The happiness of her husband brings her the only true joy in her life. She makes it clear that he is the man, the boss, the breadwinner and she is only a woman, born to serve. She raises her daughter in the way that her mother raised her and worries that Rosa won’t do the same.
For Serafina, religion and superstition go hand in hand. She sees signs everywhere and believes they are sent by the Virgin Mother. She doesn’t act on anything or make a decision unless she has the approval of Mary. She knows she is pregnant because, after making love to her husband, she feels a pinprick on her chest and swears she sees a rose tattoo there, the mark of her husband. After she sleeps with Alvaro for the first time, she knows she is pregnant for this same reason. She believes in the “evil eye” and steers clear of Strega, a woman who Serafina believes to be a witch. Yet, she is friends with the local medicine woman, Assunta, who sells potions and powders. Serafina speaks of magic in the air and is in tune with the elements.
It wouldn’t be a Williams’s play without the theme of loss. Serafina loses her beloved husband to an “accident” early in the play. She loses a piece of him when she learns he had an affair. When we find out that everyone knew about the affair expect for Serafina, we realize that the believability of the facade of the Del Rose Family being perfect was lost long ago. She loses her daughter when Rosa runs off with a boy. By this act, she also loses the fight of making her daughter become like her. She loses some of her moral integrity when she sleeps with a man she barely knows. She loses her grasp on reality by not being able to come to terms with his Rosario’s death.
The theme of denial weighs heavily on the play. To begin with, she learns that her husband had an affair. The proof of the affair abounds. The neighbors all know. The woman he was cheating with steals his picture. She confronts Serafina with the information. Yet, Serafina, believing Rosario to be free of flaw, doesn’t allow herself to believe that this affair took place. Her denial is ridiculous to all. When her husband dies, on some level, she denies this loss of life. She feels him everywhere. He still exists to her. You get the feeling that a part of her mind believes he is just around the corner. For many of us who have lost someone, this part of denial is familiar. She further denies his death by taking up with someone like him. To her, if she can build an identical life with this man, Rosario will still be alive. While we may see her sleeping with Alvaro as an example of a one night stand, she sees it as a continuation of the life she had with Rosario. She lives her life mentally asleep, in a bubble of denial.
The Rose Tattoo is my favorite play for many reasons. It is well-written. The story is touches on many emotions. The themes are timeless. The characters are three-dimensional and honest. Serafina is a woman I can relate to. Being brought up to know the Italian culture, I see Serafina in my aunts and grandmother. They are passionate about their beliefs, believing said beliefs to be the only way to see things. They live in their memories, looking back to an easier time when men were men and women were women. They defend their men wholeheartedly, seeing the good where others may see bad. They are melodramatic. They rely on religion for answers. They put family first. Still, even without this background, I would still see value in this play. Like all of Williams plays, The Rose Tattoo shines a spotlight on a tragic character allowing us to feel catharsis. His plays prove to remind us that we are not alone in our pain or exceptional human beings because of our flaws.
Donald Rosenberg on February 15, 2010:
The story is set in Louisiana where coconut palms do not grow, except possibly in a glass-enclosed New Orleans botanical garden. To shoot the film among the prolific and lush growth of these trees in Key West, is an outrageous blemish on an otherwise superb story. Am I the only one to notice this absurdity that matches an igloo on Bourbon St.? would have not been more out of place.