Rabe, David


David Rabe 1940-

American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter.

Hailed by Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre, as “The most important writer we've ever had,” Rabe established his reputation in the early 1970s as the major playwright of the Vietnam-War era. His angry and violent depictions of men at war and veterans returning home struck a particularly powerful chord with those who lived through the conflict. Rabe's works tackle the difficult subjects of the disintegration of the American value system, the inability to communicate, and the search for a sense of self. He has also explored issues surrounding drug addiction and the abuse of women. Called by one critic “the Neil Simon of desperation and death,” Rabe features in his plays violence and brutality laced with black humor. Rabe commented on his own alienation as a returned veteran, “It wasn't just that I couldn't reach my family. I couldn't reach anybody. People would listen attentively, but not understand a thing.” Rabe dismisses the claim that he writes anti-war plays, “All I'm trying to do is define the event for myself and for other people. I'm saying, in effect, ‘This is what goes on,’ and that's all.”

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, Rabe attended a Catholic high school, where his teachers encouraged his writing talents. He entered the military in 1965 and did a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam during the war. After his return, he attended Villanova University on a Rockefeller Playwrighting Fellowship and again received encouragement from his teachers and fellow students, later becoming an assistant professor there. In fact, Rabe was so impressed by the nurturing environment at the university that he returned to Villanova for early productions of many of his plays and dedicated the 1993 publication of The Orphan to the teachers and students of Villanova. Joseph Papp was responsible for putting on Rabe's first professionally produced play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971). When Sticks and Bones opened later that year at the Anspacher, Rabe became the only playwright other than Shakespeare to have two plays performed concurrently at the Public Theatre. Although his next few plays did not meet with as much critical success, Streamers—first produced at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in 1976—received tremendous acclaim and is still considered by many critics to be his best work. In addition to his plays, Rabe has written or adapted numerous screenplays with varying success. He continues to write for the stage, and the body of scholarly analysis and criticism that has built up around his work testifies to his importance to American theater.

Major Works

Critics often refer to Rabe's “Vietnam Trilogy,” by which they mean his three plays about men involved in the Vietnam War: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers. Pavlo Hummel is the story of a young man who is attempting to create an identity for himself by becoming a soldier. Sticks and Bones, a highly symbolic play, utilizes neomodernist techniques to present the return of a disabled veteran to his home and family. Streamers—the title refers to parachutes that do not open—considered the most realistic of Rabe's plays, takes place in Vietnam but utilizes the setting as a symbol of the world in which, according to Gerald Weales of Commonweal, “eventually, everyone's parachute refuses to open.” According to Rabe, The Orphan (1973), based on the Oresteia, should be considered his fourth Vietnam play because, although it does not take place in Vietnam, its attempt to link modern violence with Greek mythology echoes his experience of the war.

Another of Rabe's plays that received considerable critical attention is Hurlyburly (1984). Set in a bachelor home in Hollywood, it explores the disintegration of American values. It features four men with entertainment careers, living a “free” and rootless life, using cocaine and alcohol, while engaging in casual, disinterested sexual relations. Rabe shows how imprisoned these men and their women are by their “free” lifestyle, their inability to communicate, and their loss of purpose. Noting stylistic changes from Rabe's earlier work, Robert Brustein commented that Hurlyburly lifted Rabe's writing to a higher level: “Like O'Neill, who achieved greatness only when he adopted an unadorned Ibsenian realism, Rabe's style is now informed by the implicit verismo of David Mamet rather than the tendentious exhortations of Arthur Miller … displaying a dazzling new technique—not just a flawless command of dialogue, but an informed understanding of the nuances of human conflict … Mr. Rabe remains a dynamic chronicler of the brutal games that eternally adolescent American men can play.” Newsweek's Jack Kroll called Hurlyburly a virtual masterpiece “a powerful permanent contribution to American drama” that combines comedy and violence. Rabe later adapted Hurlyburly into a screenplay, and it was produced as a movie.

Critical Reception

Rabe's use of strong language and visual acts of violence have helped earn him a number of dramatic awards, as well as a mixture of critical praise and chastation. Theater critic Clive Barnes surmised the overall critical reaction to Rabe's dramas in his commentary on Hurlyburly: “I was entertained, horrified, intrigued, and disturbed.” Inconsistencies between style and tone has been one of the major critical disagreements over Rabe's dramatic works. His reviews, in general, praise his strong first acts but denounce his weak second or third acts. This reaction was common for Hurlyburly and Goose and Tomtom (1982). The Vietnam Trilogy has been the most critically praised body of Rabe's work, with his later works garnering mixed reviews over questions of misogynistic motifs, long production times, and a tendency towards self-indulgence. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel received the Obie Award for distinguished playwrighting from the Village Voice, the Drama Desk Award, and the Drama Guild Award, all in 1971. Critics were mixed in their responses to Sticks and Bones, but in general found it to be powerful and passionate. It received several awards, including the prestigious Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play of the 1971-72 season on Broadway. Streamers received a New York Drama Critics Circle citation in 1972 and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play in 1976. Rabe was also presented with the National Institute and American Academy Award in Literature in 1976, the same year he was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Principal Works

*The Bones of Birds 1968

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel 1971

Sticks and Bones 1971

In the Boom Boom Room 1973

Streamers 1976

Goose and Tomtom 1982

Hurlyburly 1984

Cosmologies (unfinished drama) 1990

Those the River Keeps 1991

A Question of Mercy 1997

Gilgamesh the Prince 1999

I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (screenplay) 1982

Streamers (screenplay) 1983

Casualties of War (screenplay) 1989

The Firm [with David Rayfiel and Robert Towne] (screenplay) 1993

Hurlyburly (screenplay) 1998

*This work was revised as Orestes and the E=MC2 in 1970 and as The Orphan in 1973.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Robert Brustein (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “The Crack in the Chimney: Reflections on Contemporary American Playwriting.” Theater 9, no. 2 (spring 1978): 24.

[In the following excerpt, Brustein considers Rabe's use of the family to reflect societal problems.]

More often than not, American mainstream dramatists continue to explore the causes behind their effects; the event to be excavated is still the guilt of the (generally older generation) protagonists; and the drama retains the air of a courtroom, complete with arraignments, investigations, condemnations, indictments, and punishments.

Take David Rabe, perhaps the most typical and the most highly esteemed of the...

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Craig Werner (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Werner, Craig. “Primal Screams and Nonsense Rhymes: David Rabe's Revolt.” Educational Theatre Journal 30, no. 4 (December 1978): 517–29.

[In the following essay, Werner describes Rabe's attempts to overcome alienation in the American experience with a new form of expression.]

Ishmael, dreaming in the crow's nest but fearful of crashing to the solid deck, provides the standard image of the classic American writer trapped between irreconcilable forces of transcendence and reality. As Richard Chase suggests, the greatest works of the American imagination create “a profound poetry of disorder” and “achieve their very being, their energy and their form,...

(The entire section is 6411 words.)

Janet S. Hertzbach (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Hertzbach, Janet S. “The Plays of David Rabe: A World of Streamers.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, pp. 173–85. Munich: Max Hueber Verlag, 1981.

[In the following essay, Hertzbach examines Rabe's use of violence in his plays.]

The title and central metaphor of David Rabe's most recently produced play, Streamers (1976), provides a retrospectively useful way of describing the dramatic contexts of his four preceding plays as well. A streamer is a parachute which fails to open, and the thin ribbon of silk merely trails the hapless jumper as he plummets towards certain death. As he leaps out of the...

(The entire section is 6333 words.)

Philip C. Kolin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Notices of David Rabe's First Play, ‘The Chameleon’ (1959).” Resources for American Literary Study 17, no. 1 (spring 1990): 95–107.

[In the following essay, Kolin recounts Rabe's high school career and the production of his first play, now lost.]

Acknowledged as one of the most important playwrights in contemporary America, David Rabe (born 10 March 1940) established his reputation in the early 1970s as the major playwright of the Vietnam War. A veteran of that war, Rabe had seen some of its ravages. Joseph Papp, who helped launch Rabe's career at the New York Public Theater, exclaimed that “He is the most important writer we've...

(The entire section is 5136 words.)

N. Bradley Christie (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Christie, N. Bradley. “Still a Vietnam Playwright After All These Years.” In David Rabe: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinmah, pp. 97–111. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.

[In the following essay, Christie discusses the feeling of instability at the heart of Rabe's plays.]

David Rabe is a playwright of anomalies. His art consistently explores problematic cultural material or characters, and the artist himself is equally hard to pigeonhole. He is not really a “Broadway playwright,” nor a product of Off Broadway or the regional theatres. Because of the Papp connection with the early plays, some might lump him among the darlings of Off-Off...

(The entire section is 5584 words.)

Carla J. McDonough (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: McDonough, Carla J. “David Rabe: Men Under Fire.” In Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama, pp.103–32. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1997.

[In the following essay, McDonough examines Rabe's depiction of men in his plays.]

Although he originally established himself as a playwright of Vietnam plays, Rabe's central concern does not begin or end with war. His focus is more consistently upon myths of identity. Although he explored some myths concerning women in In the Boom Boom Room (1973), his other plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1971), Streamers (1976),...

(The entire section is 16976 words.)