David Rabe Essay - Rabe, David (Vol. 4)

Rabe, David (Vol. 4)

Rabe, David 1940–

Rabe, an American dramatist, has won several important awards.

Occasionally in the theater one finds a play that drives deeper into the despair of existence than can be stated in clichés. David Rabe's Sticks and Bones is one such, and although I cannot fully comprehend its meaning, I am aware that it is invading with freshness and honesty some of the most painful ambiguities that afflict contemporary America….

It is impossible to be very explicit about some of Rabe's implications. For instance, there's a strong hint that the behavior of American soldiers in Vietnam is the logical extension of our worship of violence, and yet Rabe seems to say that there is also an honesty and a satisfaction in our recognition of our violent natures. Our violence may be, the play seems to imply, the antidote to a comfortable but vapid family life in which a non-communicative peace hides real feelings….

Sticks and Bones is not the complaint of one American soldier, but a remarkably ambitious attempt to explore a larger and more complex American dilemma.

Henry Hewes, "'Only Winter is White'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 27, 1971, pp. 70-1.

[Rabe's] first two plays, produced in 1971 and 1972, got much praise and many awards. Now it's 1973. His latest play, The Orphan, was recently produced at the Anspacher, and the critical consensus was that this writer of exceptional gifts had slipped somewhat and had written a play that didn't "work" (the current most popular critical cant word). To me, the play was merely infested with the disease that had been evident in the two earlier ones.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was one more good-hearted sentimental undergraduate play about the horrors of war—this time Vietnam—showing a simple-minded joe being savaged by vast cruel powers, using stale expressionist fantasy and even staler rhetoric to prove its humanitarianism and high-mindedness. Then came Sticks and Bones, which was at least a mixed bag. A blind Vietnam veteran returns to his home and is such a moral nuisance that his family induces him to commit suicide. The family stuff, done in sharp pop-art style (the parents were called Ozzie and Harriet), had good smiling bitterness; but the soldier's purple speeches and the device of his phantom Vietnamese girlfriend were straight out of Playwriting 435 (Permission of Instructor Required). The pop elements gave me some little hope for Rabe, which the new play drastically deferred. In The Orphan he opted completely for the purple prose, without let-up or remorse, the kind of rhetoric that brings a tear to the eye of a third-rate playwriting instructor. The disease hasn't just recently struck Rabe, it is now simply unopposed….

His one apparent avenue to effective writing led through anti-grandness; his critical reception in general led him to think—or anyway didn't discourage him from thinking—that he is equipped for the grand. Now those who myopically encouraged him can no longer blink at the bankruptcy; after the praise, now come the tsk-tsks. I don't mean that once having praised him they were obliged to go on praising him forever; I mean that The Orphan is not much different from or worse than the work they praised; and now they have to know it.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 26, 1973, pp. 22, 33-4.

"Boom Boom Room" is not a good play, not a good play at all….

The trouble is that Mr. Rabe's play never gets anywhere…. The play is loose, flaccid, unfocussed, wandering uncertainly in and out of realism and expressionism, comedy and serious drama—not fusing these opposites, not poising them effectively against each other, just wandering.

Mr. Rabe has not really figured out what to do with this material….

Still, "Boom Boom Room" is really not so terrible. What it does have to say about emptiness and confusion is neither unbelievable nor untrue. There is some good, funny comic writing….

If only Mr. Rabe had not been so over-praised before now, if only his play—so wrong for this theatre, this audience, this occasion—had not been given the dangerous honor of planting Mr. Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival flag on the virgin shores of Lincoln Center, it might be possible to acknowledge him as a promising playwright who had not yet put it all together, and leave it at that. But as things stand, it is necessary to say that "Boom Boom Room," which was meant to mark a proud new departure in the history of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, turns out to be only the latest of the many disasters that have taken place under that stylish, jinxed roof.

Julius Novick, "Papp Goes Boom at Beaumont," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1973 by The Village Voice, Inc.), November 15, 1973, p. 74.

[There] is a savage poet in Rabe rather than a naturalist. His humor contains venom, an uncontained rage. He is lacerated by the sordidness, the cruel craziness of our place and time. In his early plays Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, the objects of his horror and wrath were the war in Indochina and its aftermath at home, but in Boom Boom Room his aim is broader. Though the milieux here are those of the cheap night joints, the lowest working class, the detritus of U.S. civilization, the comic inferno he depicts leads to a quasi-universal accusation.

The play's colors are glaring. The intensity of the author's feeling and imagination reaches beyond verisimilitude to expressionistic declaration, a kind of super realism. Yet in its own special way there is something funny and probing within the ghastliness. The whole is uneven, at times forced and crude, but its power is unmistakable.

Harold Clurman, in The Nation, November 26, 1973, pp. 572-73.

The theme [of Boom Boom Room], the ravaging of a female social-sexual victim, is so familiar that one counts on the familiarity, in a way: one assumes that the author would never have chosen it unless he was convinced he had new insights or an artistic vision of the subject that in itself would afford new insights…. Not so. Not Rabe. Clearly, one can say after the fourth experience of him, his notion of playwriting is to get a clever device, impressively flashy, then just fill in the rest of the play as needed. Previously he has used old German expressionist anti-militarist dream techniques; or a blind Vietnam veteran with an invisible Vietnamese girlfriend in his Midwest home; or a combination of the Oresteia myth with Mylai and Charles Manson. After these initial gimmicks, he seems to have said, who could question my gravity or power?

Some can—even after his new gimmick. He puts Boom Boom Room in a multiple set, with six large gilded cages hanging from the roof, rope ladders going up to each. At the start five go-go girls come out and climb to the cages. From time to time, they writhe, comment, come down and do numbers with their leader; but their real purpose is to show that Rabe is theatrically brilliant. I didn't feel I needed them around continuously to emphasize the heroine's sex-object fate; it was Rabe who needed them.

Because without that flashy device, it would have become clear quickly that an adolescent intellect was pompously restating what all of us over 14 know: that he has padded these social-characterological clichés with torturous fake-emotional ramblings, peopled his play with stereotypes (the three principal men are a shy clerk, a truckdriver and a homosexual), and has lolled in long detours of reminiscence that are like plastic Chekhov. And besides studding his dialogue with old jokes, he keeps re-using a stale naturalistic dialogue device. Someone is talking about subject A, suddenly interpolates something about B (as if in a sting of memory), then continues with A; finishes that; pauses, then wistfully returns to B. In Rabe's heavy hands, it becomes a vaudeville formula.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 1, 1973, p. 22.

The new play which most interested me thus far this season is … David Rabe's Boom Boom Room. Once again, and through another milieu, this young dramatist vents his hurt and anger at a world in which moral insensibility and a lack of real values breed cruelty and grief, breakdown and horror—what an early 20th-century Russian writer once called "red laughter."

But Rabe is a man of feeling, a poet whose wounds cry out to us. His savagery does not make us turn away in disgust. In this play, as in earlier ones (Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones), the "little" men and women he writes about are people in whom, beneath the filth of stupid habit, grinding mechanization, tumultuous inanity, mindless verbiage and ugly frivolity, there are still remnants of natural human desire and aspiration….

The play, I repeat, begins as though it were a naturalistic study—it never strays far from the individual girl—but it gradually evolves into a soul-searing schizophrenic rave. There are, in other words, both a subjective intimacy in the play's composition and a general statement which declares itself in speeches and scenes which exceed realism.

Harold Clurman, in The Nation, December 3, 1973, p. 603.

The shock of David Rabe's play ["Boom Boom Room"] is the shock of truth, the most valid dramatic use of that emotion. Rabe's intention couldn't be clearer. By the creation of a repugnant world of anti-human cruelty, ugliness, and degradation, he throws into sharp relief the plight of his heroine, Chrissy, the go-go dancer and onetime hooker who is desperately trying to escape from that world. There is something fierce about the way he throws himself into Chrissy's tortured soul, not only examining but sharing all the doubt and pain and fear, every drop of the anguished self-loathing she feels for herself. The depth of his capacity for compassionate empathy is astonishing.

But Rabe is also hellbent on wringing the same compassion from his audience. To make you share his sympathy for the vulnerable Chrissy, his whooping pride in her tentative steps toward self-respect and self-awareness, his anguish when she is defeated, it is crucial for him to draw an uncompromising vision of the social forces which created her and which are conspiring to keep her down. In other words, Rabe has set himself the task of creating a dramatic vision of a woman's personal hell. If the hell isn't hellish, and the demons aren't loathsome, Chrissy's triumphs, defeats, and ultimate despair and capitulation lose their intensity and their value.

Neither Rabe's play nor the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of it succeeds in creating this living hell, primarily because the play's surrealism is insufficiently vivid. Chrissy's world of home and nightclub, and the family, friends, and lovers who populate it, are meant to be nightmares and the demons who populate nightmares—surreal, not in the sense of unreal, but in the sense of more-than-real. If they are grotesque, it is not for the purpose of shocking you, but to jolt your sensibilities, to make their reality so vivid you cannot ignore or escape the truth of it. That's the way Chrissy sees her life, and that is the way you must see it to understand her and feel for her.

And yet, a lot of people are shocked by "Boom Boom Room," a surprisingly large number of critics among them. Morally shocked. By the language, the ugliness, the brutality, the gross sexuality of Chrissy's world. Ironically, it might be argued that the production is too modest, too conservative in conceptualizing in theatrical terms the full scale of the horror that Chrissy calls her life. As objective reality, the dramatic landscape is overdrawn; as a vision of the surreal, the stylized abstraction of Chrissy's interior subjective reality, it is insufficiently bold, inadequately audacious. The nightmare isn't fearsome enough; the demons on stage aren't as horrifying as the devils that howl down the corridors of the mind. The audience is confused; they think they are watching the merely real, and they sense that it is too strong. And so, they are shocked.

I believe that. I believe that if Rabe and his director Joseph Papp had intensified the surreal quality of the horror, making it all noisier, dirtier, uglier—not in a naturalistic style, but in the supra-reality of nightmare—the reality of Chrissy's dilemma would have taken on a purer poignancy….

The remarkable quality about David Rabe is his willingness to confront the alien culture of the Boom Boom Room and the level of society it represents. Not only does he face it head on, and attempt to understand and communicate the dynamics of the people who live in it, but he also finds amidst the wretchedness and ugliness a good deal of character and dignity. Chrissy—remember—is not one of us, but one of Them. Maybe that's the real threat, the fear that if we look hard enough at Them, "the others," we might see beyond the effects of their dehumanization. We might even see the humanity of these people we would prefer to avoid in life. And if we are forced to look through the unsavory reality that "shocks" us on a superficial level, we might feel compassion for the fellow human beings who live in this alien world; we might even feel a share of responsibility in shaping their lives. We might even feel the urge to help, to change the shape of social patterns which we have always accepted and acquiesced in.

To feel responsibility is frightening. One could almost call it shocking.

Marilyn Stasio, in Cue (copyright © 1973 by Cue Publications, Inc.), December 3, 1973, p. 2.

Boom Boom Room is Rabe's most ambitious play to date—it runs three hours—but for me it remains much what it was when I saw it as a work-in-progress more than a year ago at Villanova: an unnecessarily long chronicle of a not very bright girl's unsuccessful search for a self, for meaning, for love. Rabe has turned away from the direct treatment of social problems that marked his celebrated anti-Vietnam plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, but he retains his preoccupation with American violence and with our habit of kidding ourselves about public and private disasters. These concerns are implicit, and occasionally explicit, all through Boom Boom Room, and I suspect that he means Chrissy, his go-go heroine, to be a representative figure like Pavlo Hummel or the TV family of Sticks and Bones. America is still his subject, but Chrissy is both too idiosyncratic and too stereotypical to give Boom Boom Room the kind of stature for which it seems to be reaching. The characters are finally too special to tell me anything very startling about myself and my society, and what they tell me about themselves is too commonplace and too predictable to give them much dramatic validity. Oddly, in Sticks and Bones, Rabe begins with a situation-comedy family which, under the stress of the action, outgrows its generic limits; in Boom Boom Room he begins with characters, who have at least the individuality of mental and physical ties, but whose edges are knocked off by dramatic and psychological clichés.

The play is interestingly conceived because its actual dramatic line is in conflict with the one that might be presumed from the heroine's central emotional concern. Boom Boom Room is a quest play with the quester defeated at every turn….

Although much of Boom Boom Room is overextended and overexplained, at his best Rabe has an oblique style which is attractive because it suggests more than it defines, because it opens the audience to possibility.

Gerald Weales, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 14, 1973, pp. 294-95.

[Unlike] most of those who have written antiwar plays, Rabe refuses to grind the axe, to present pure victims and pure monsters. Although the army helps Pavlo [of Pavlo Hummel] to become a killer, it does so with his own eager cooperation. It does not "dehumanize" him, to use that much overused and generally meaningless word; it gives him the occasion to cultivate his basic capacity for the inhumane. At the end, Pavlo has, perhaps, achieved a partial self-identity, but the what or the why of that identity is never really clear. It is as if Rabe himself had not quite decided. Or perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the Pavlo of Act 1 and the Pavlo of Act 2 are really very much the same, neither hero nor villain, neither bad nor good guy, but a lonely, confused, and infinitely fallible man.

If the ambiguity of Pavlo is at times disturbing, there is a reverse of the coin that gives the play much of its impact and dimension. Rabe does not make anything—apart from the hell and absurdity of war—that black and white. He avoids both easy sentimentality and facile point-scoring and—and this, too, is a welcome relief—he realizes that horror and comedy, like tragedy and comedy, are seldom far apart. His Vietcong are no more heroic than his Americans (which by now seems almost refreshing). It is war itself that becomes the horror story, a tragicomic nightmare in which no one really can win, in which casual cruelty and indifference are as likely to be found in the black pajamas of the Vietcong as in GI battle dress. It is that and the refusal to be simplistic, together with Rabe's ability to create pungent, evocative, and believable dialogue and unstereotyped characters, that lifts Pavlo Hummel above such agit-prop exercises as Viet Rock, Pinkville, and the rest and makes it, diffused focus and all, one of the best, if not the best play to come out of America's Vietnam nightmare.

Catharine Hughes, "'The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel'," in her Plays, Politics and Polemics, Drama Book Specialists, 1973, pp. 77-82.