Rabe, David (Vol. 200)
David Rabe 1940-
(Full name David William Rabe) American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Rabe's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, and 33.
Regarded as one of the most important dramatists in American theater, Rabe garnered national attention for his Vietnam trilogy, a series of three plays that delve into the violence and chaos of the Vietnam War and its effects on young soldiers. Critics praise his exploration of sensitive issues such as the exploitation of women, the deleterious impact of drug use, the depravity of materialism, and the decline of the American value system. In his work, black humor, visible acts of violence, symbolism, and strong language provide the context for alienated characters who struggle to find meaning in the modern world.
Rabe was born March 10, 1940, in Dubuque, Iowa. He became interested in writing in high school. In 1962 he received his B.A. from Loras College. In 1965 he joined the military and was assigned to a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam, an experience that had a profound impact on his life and writing. After his return in 1967 he attended Villanova University on a Rockefeller Playwrighting Fellowship. He received an M.A. from Villanova in 1968. Two years later, he became an assistant professor there. In 1971 the influential producer Joseph Papp was instrumental in staging Rabe's first professionally produced play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. The play garnered favorable critical attention and Rabe received an Obie as well as Drama Desk and Drama Guild awards for the production. With his next few plays, he established himself as a leading American playwright noted for his exploration of difficult and controversial subjects. In addition to his well-regarded dramatic pieces, Rabe has written a novel, screenplays, and film adaptations. He has received several prestigious awards for his work, including a Tony Award in 1972, a National Institute and American Academy Award in Literature in 1976, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Rabe established his reputation as a playwright with his Vietnam trilogy: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1971), and Streamers (1976). Pavlo Hummel centers on the title character, a teenager estranged from his family who seeks companionship and meaning in his life by becoming a good soldier. In Vietnam he observes a lack of respect for humanity, participates in acts of violence, and dies a senseless death. Sticks and Bones is a symbolic presentation of society's refusal to acknowledge the horrors of the Vietnam War. When David, a blind, embittered Vietnam veteran, returns home to America and his family, he is haunted by his war experiences and unable to connect with his parents and brother. Considered Rabe's most accomplished play, Streamers focuses on three soldiers who live together in barracks while awaiting transport to Vietnam. The uneasy camaraderie of the group is disrupted by racial and sexual tension. Based on Aeschylus's Oresteia, The Orphan (1973, 1974) is sometimes considered Rabe's fourth Vietnam play, for although it does not take place in Vietnam, it echoes the experience of war.
In his other plays, Rabe dramatizes the deterioration of moral standards in contemporary American society. Boom Boom Room (1973) focuses on a female go-go dancer who is repeatedly humiliated and exploited by men. Hurlyburly (1984) is set in a Hollywood home where four men associated with the entertainment industry pass time by taking drugs and having sex with women whom they do not respect. Rabe dramatizes how drugs, liquor, meaningless sex, and the pervasiveness of popular culture have infected and undermined individual intelligence and morality in American society. The play was eventually adapted by Rabe into a feature film in 1998. In Those the River Keeps (1991), a former Mafia hit man cannot escape his criminal past. When an old mob buddy shows up at his house in California, he is tempted to abandon his newfound domestic tranquility and fall into his old ways. A Question of Mercy (1997) concerns the issue of assisted suicide. When Thomas asks his doctor to assist in the suicide of his AIDS-afflicted lover, the physician struggles with the decision before finally agreeing to end the terminally ill man's life. Rabe's latest play, The Dog Problem (2001), has been called an Italian mob comedy. When Joey, a mobster, sets out to avenge the sexual humiliation of his sister, Teresa, he ends up killing a dog instead of his sister's lover. Rabe's novel Recital of the Dog (1993) concerns the mental degeneration of a middle-aged painter after moving to a bucolic rural area with his family. When he brutally kills a neighbor's dog, he spirals into a complete mental breakdown. In addition to his plays and novel, Rabe has written or adapted numerous screenplays. His Casualties of War (1989) was based on an incident related in a 1969 New Yorker article. The movie follows a five-man combat unit fighting in the Vietnam War as they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman, gang-rape her, and finally murder her. When one of the men objects and refuses to participate, the others consider him a coward and traitor and turn against him.
Rabe is recognized as an influential American playwright, but his work has met with mixed reviews. Critics contend that the subject matter of Rabe's plays is disturbing, which often results in commercial failure but critical acclaim for his individual plays. However, most critics commend him for inventive dramas that reflect his political and social consciousness and exhibit his command of dramatic technique. They contend that his early work, known as the Vietnam trilogy, provides insight into the social, political, and intellectual divisions that characterized the Vietnam era, while his later work concerns the shallowness of drug- and media-obsessed culture. Critics identify the quest for male friendship and camaraderie as a central theme in many of Rabe's plays. On a related note, feminist critics discuss the misogynist motifs in his work, particularly in Hurlyburly and Boom Boom Room, in which female characters are denigrated, exploited, and perceived as sexual objects. Rabe's work has been compared to that of Sam Shepard, particularly in its use of naturalistic and absurdist elements, its emphasis on homosocial bonds, and exploration of the deterioration of American culture and values.
*The Bones of Birds (play) 1968
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (play) 1971
Sticks and Bones (play) 1971
**Boom Boom Room (play) 1973
Streamers (play) 1976
Goose and Tomtom (play) 1982
I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (screenplay) 1982
Streamers (screenplay) 1983
Hurlyburly (play) 1984
Casualties of War (screenplay) 1989
Cosmologies (unfinished drama) 1990
Those the River Keeps (play) 1991
The Firm [with David Rayfiel and Robert Towne] (screenplay) 1993
Recital of the Dog (novel) 1993
A Question of Mercy (play) 1997
Hurlyburly (screenplay) 1998
Gilgamesh the Prince (play) 1999
The Dog Problem (play) 2001
*This work was revised as The Orphan, or Orestes and the E=MC2 in 1970 and as The Orphan in 1973 and 1974.
**This work was revised as In the Boom Boom Room in 1974 and 1976.
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SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Staging Hurlyburly: David Rabe's Parable for the 1980s.” Theatre Annual 41 (1986): 63-78.
[In the following essay, Kolin identifies the major themes of Hurlyburly and illustrates “how language, costume, gesture, movement, and stage symbol reveal character and idea” in the play.]
Hurlyburly is David Rabe's auspicious seventh and most recent play. According to Jack Kroll, the play “made theatrical history of a sort.”1 After a brief run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Hurlyburly was staged successfully in New York, not on Broadway but on off-Broadway, at the relatively small Promenade Theatre in the middle of the summer of 1984. It was directed by Mike Nichols (who also directed Rabe's earlier Streamers), boasted an all-star cast including Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Jerry Stiller, and others, and then, financially fortified, went on to 343 Broadway performances. While not all the reviews were rave, overall they were encouraging. Besides the praise from Kroll (“a powerful, permanent contribution to American drama”), Frank Rich observed that “Hurlyburly offers some of Mr. Rabe's most inventive and disturbing writing in a production of any playwright's dreams.”2 Robert Brustein predicted that Hurlyburly “may well go down in theatre history as a watershed of American...
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SOURCE: Cooper, Pamela. “David Rabe's Sticks and Bones: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Modern Drama 29, no. 4 (December 1986): 613-25.
[In the following essay, Cooper examines Rabe's utilization of expressionistic and absurdist techniques in Hurlyburly and views the play as an indictment of American capitalist culture.]
For David Rabe, the Vietnam war has been a source of artistic inspiration and creativity. His political and social consciousness, fused with his command of dramaturgy, produces taut expositions of the encounter between the American psyche and a war which assaulted some of the most traditional American values. His “Vietnam Trilogy” is clearly based on knowledge gained at first hand: he spent two years in Vietnam with a hospital support unit and later tried to return there as a war correspondent. This personal experience of the war is central to Rabe's career. A Fullbright Fellowship then enabled him to complete the first two plays of the Trilogy: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones.
Rabe worked on both plays simultaneously: he wrote several drafts of Pavlo while developing the early versions of Sticks and Bones.1 When Pavlo was finally produced, it brought Rabe the favourable attention of critics, and this success spurred him to revise and complete Sticks and Bones. It...
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SOURCE: Rabe, David, and Philip C. Kolin. “An Interview with David Rabe.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 3, no. 2 (spring 1989): 135-56.
[In the following interview, conducted on February 10, 1998, Rabe discusses his creative process, his use of symbolism, and aspects of individual plays.]
Coming from America's heartland (Dubuque, Iowa), David Rabe was drafted in 1965 at the age of 25 and completed a tour of duty in the literal Vietnam that he would later project symbolically on the American stage. Defining that event for himself, Rabe became one of the most promising playwrights of the post-1970 theatre. After his discharge from the Army, Rabe finished an M.A. in theatre at Villanova University and worked on the early drafts of what critics have labeled his Vietnam Trilogy—The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers. He then put in an 18-month stint as a feature writer for the Sunday Pictorial magazine of the New Haven Register, publishing more than two dozen hauntingly beautiful and painful stories on the draft resistance movement, drugs, sports, the arts, and various rituals in American society, topics that also surface in the plays. In 1970 Rabe began an eventful 12-year friendship with Joe Papp who introduced, directed, produced, and defended Rabe's early work. Papp's admiration for Rabe was unqualified: “He is the most important...
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SOURCE: Smith, Gavin. “Body Count.” Film Comment 25, no. 4 (July-August 1989): 49-52.
[In the following mixed review of Casualties of War, Smith contends that “the film misses out on the opportunity to provoke ideologically.”]
Brian De Palma and David Rabe's Casualties of War offers the familiar guilty pleasures of the Vietnam picture: the vicarious sensations of combat exhilaration and the relinquishment of moral, social and historical coordinates—as all hell breaks loose around you. But it also advances the evolution of the Vietnam genre, which has always sought to transcend the political disillusionment and absurdist nihilism upon which it was based, by entering the forbidden territory of American war atrocity, only until now glimpsed in Platoon and Apocalypse Now.
U.S. atrocity has been integral to people's perception of Vietnam and yet suppressed, unuttered. All agree Vietnam was a mistake; only some consider it criminal. Casualties of War inadvertently stumbles into that gap.
De Palma and Rabe attempt an exorcism of My Lai but in developing a metaphor about Imperialism as Will to Power—here, U.S. troops gang-rape a Vietnamese girl—they activate and then must deeply repress unpalatable propositions about the behaviorism of warfare and historical responsibility. This is exacerbated by the very strengths and style of...
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SOURCE: Simon, John. “The Enemy Was Us.” National Review 41, no. 18 (29 September 1989): 63-4.
[In the following review, Simon derides the ending of Casualties of War.]
Brian De Palma, who makes films in which women are brutally murdered, and David Rabe, a Vietnam veteran who writes plays about that war, have teamed up as director and screenwriter for Casualties of War, about an American platoon in Vietnam that kidnaps, gang-rapes, and finally kills a pretty, teen-aged Vietnamese farm girl. The film is based on Daniel Lang's 1969 New Yorker article, later published as a book. This is the true story as told by Private “Sven Eriksson” (only the names have been changed), the one member of the five-man squad opposed to the rape, who tried to stop it but couldn't, tried to save the girl's life but failed, suffered terrible pangs of conscience but, against overwhelming pressure from above, managed at least to bring his comrades to trial. It is an ugly and important story, and although I admire De Palma for telling it—some of it very well—I deplore the way he ultimately flubs it.
The film is already stirring up controversy. Movie critics are vehemently divided, veterans' organizations have lodged angry protests in Washington, David Rabe has registered his unhappiness with what De Palma did to his script. There should be discussion of the movie and the events...
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SOURCE: Colakis, Marianthe. “The House of Atreus Myth in the Seventies and Eighties: David Rabe's The Orphan and Joyce Carol Oates's Angel of Light.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 9, no. 2 (winter 1989): 125-30.
[In the following essay, Colakis compares the use of the House of Atreus myth in Rabe's The Orphan and Joyce Carol Oates's novel Angel of Light.]
Even in the last two decades, when Greek myths are no longer a part of general knowledge, they have not lost their appeal to certain of our dramatists and novelists. When contemporary authors place timeless situations and characters in settings that reflect modern consciousness, we cease to think of myths as the lore of a bygone culture, and we feel anew their hold on our imaginations. This is particularly true of the House of Atreus myth; within the twentieth century alone it has appealed to otherwise diverse authors—von Hofmannsthal, Eliot, O'Neill, Sartre, and Giraudoux, among others.
The myth has retained its appeal because it addresses both personal concerns (the dynamics of a family) and larger questions (the possibility of achieving justice). However much they differ in other respects, both David Rabe and Joyce Carol Oates found the House of Atreus myth suited to their concerns. Both writers in earlier works had examined the potential for violence and despair within the contemporary...
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SOURCE: Fenn, Jeffery W. “Conditioned Response: David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.” Canadian Review of American Studies 21, no. 2 (fall 1990): 157-72.
[In the following essay, Fenn asserts that The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel exemplifies the defining characteristics of the genre of the Vietnam war drama and places the play within the context of Rabe's Vietnam trilogy.]
David Rabe's “Vietnam Trilogy,” comprising The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummell (1968), Streamers (1976), and Sticks and Bones (1969), exemplifies many of the recurring themes and motifs that came not only to characterize, but virtually to define, the genre of drama that emerged from the Vietnam War. This genre of dramatic literature constantly and consistently reflects the stresses, anxieties and tensions that shattered the social equilibrium of the America of the 1960s, and focusses on the consequences of these stresses for both the individual and his society. The events of the period fractured American society in a manner unknown since the Civil War, and the stresses associated with the Vietnam conflict exacerbated the social, political and intellectual divisiveness which characterized this period of American history.
The individual and collective psychological trauma of American society has been characteristically interpreted by American playwrights in...
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SOURCE: Wade, Les. “David Rabe and the Female Figure: The Body in the Boom Boom Room.” Text and Performance Quarterly 12, no. 1 (January 1992): 40-53.
[In the following essay, Wade provides a feminist interpretation of In the Boom Boom Room, focusing on the equivocal implications of the closing scene of the play.]
Although few would argue that In the Boom Boom Room is David Rabe's best work, the play's closing image is as provocative and compelling as any found in his celebrated Vietnam War plays. The power and success of this closing lie less in Rabe's mastery of dialogue or characterization than in his simple deployment of the lead actor, who, in the role of Chrissy, concludes the play with an erotic dance, one she performs in mask, with bikini briefs and bare breasts. This scene proves the crowning stroke of Rabe's rhetorical agenda, which indicts male hegemony (he quotes chauvinistic excerpts from Aquinas as preface to the play); yet, authorial intent aside, the very serious question arises as to whether or not Rabe's work reproduces the oppression it repudiates. The erotic dance may advance the playwright's polemic. However, Rabe's use of female nudity may itself involve an element of sexual subjection. How is the female actor implicated in this instance? How is the authority of the text confirmed or undermined by the body's presence? How is Rabe's disposal of the nude...
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SOURCE: Stafford, Tony J. “The Metaphysics of Rabe's Hurlyburly: ‘Staring into the Eyes of Providence.’” American Drama 1, no. 2 (spring 1992): 60-76.
[In the following essay, Stafford argues that “the root cause of the social conditions in Hurlyburly arises from metaphysics, more specifically epistemology and ontology.”]
The worrisome picture of contemporary American society as presented in David Rabe's Hurlyburly has been variously described as “an America suffering from confusion, violence, and an obsession with image making” (Kolin 63), “a market society … carried to extremes” (Klein 5), “a world based on whim and whine” (Coale 131), “a parable about the drug generation” (Klein 65), “the babble of Late Capitalism,” “an era of decadent collapse” (Coale 132-33), and a “disabling tumult” (Klein 65). However one describes it, clearly the surface of the play presents a society devastated by drugs, alcohol abuse, casual sex, meaningless relationships, abandoned children, failed marriages, Hollywood hype, the shallowness of the mass media, the emptiness of friendships, the threat of violence, the uncertain state of the world, the menace of catastrophic extinction, the hollow values of a materialistic society, the bartering of human souls, and, on a personal level, the fragmentation and disintegration of the human psyche.1
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SOURCE: Brown, James. “Inside the Head of a Headcase.” Chicago Tribune Books (7 February 1993): 6.
[In the following review, Brown views Recital of the Dog as an allegory about crime and punishment.]
In the introduction to the first publication of his award-winning plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, David Rabe remarked that earlier in his life he wrote both plays and novels and that he was “not dedicated to any one form.” But upon receiving a Rockefeller grant in playwriting not long after he returned from the Vietnam War, Rabe's thought, as he recalled it, was, “I'll dash off some plays real quick, then focus in on the novel. [Playwriting] seemed artificial beyond what was necessary … [and] if things had turned out differently, I don't know if I would have written what I have in the way I have, but the grant was a playwriting grant.”
So it was plays that Rabe wrote. Then it was scripts, for the films Casualties of War, his own Streamers and, most recently, the adaptation of John Grisham's popular novel The Firm. And now, some 20 years after receiving that Rockefeller grant, Rabe has written his first novel, Recital of the Dog.
It's a strange story, full of anger and violence, but not the sensational kind of violence. There is a larger purpose to Rabe's novel, as there is in his...
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SOURCE: Filkins, Peter. “Fetch, Speak, Play Dead.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 April 1993): 7.
[In the following review, Filkins maintains that “despite a flaw or two, Recital of the Dog is a novel as well-crafted as it is brutal, as obsessive as it is superbly controlled.”]
“If you've never murdered a dog,” cautions the narrator of David Rabe's first novel, “or done any of the other things I've done … then you will have to believe that when these things happen, they happen the way I've said.” Such is the challenge the award-winning playwright poses for himself in Recital of the Dog, for in leading his reader through the gruesome world of a painter who goes mad after shooting a dog, the author must try to make enough sense out of the man's complete derangement to hold our attention, while also taking us on a convincing journey through madness, murder and mayhem.
In fact, the author of Sticks and Bones and Streamers succeeds quite well at this difficult task. Despite a flaw or two, Recital of the Dog is a novel as well-crafted as it is brutal, as obsessive as it is superbly controlled. Reading it, one experiences a harrowing realm that few of us would wish to come close to, but which Rabe makes comprehensible, if not meaningful, through his conscious artistry.
“I'm trying to transform into words this knot of...
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SOURCE: Austin, April. “A Hoodlum in the Existential Mode.” Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 119 (17 May 1993): 12.
[In the following review, Austin provides a mixed assessment of Those the River Keeps.]
Mafia ruthlessness and machismo have provided material for a numbing array of plays, movies, and books. The mob holds a fascination for dramatists who seek an environment in which the worst instincts of men are cultivated, giving the writer permission to explore dark realms of human behavior.
In David Rabe's new play, Those the River Keeps (produced as part of the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages program), the mob plays a subsidiary role, but has a strong presence nonetheless. The story concerns a former hit man named Phil (played by Paul Guilfoyle) who has yanked himself out of the New York gangster scene and moved to California with hopes of becoming an actor. He has married a much younger woman and lives in comparative peace in a Hollywood bungalow.
In his head, Phil tries to rewrite his past brutal escapades, but guilt and self-condemnation rise to the surface in countless small and large ways. He's insecure and restless, and can't explain to his wife why he doesn't want to have a child.
One day an old mobster buddy shows up, reigniting Phil's fears that he is permanently attached to the mob and escape is useless. Sal (Jack...
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SOURCE: Radavich, David. “Collapsing Male Myths: Rabe's Tragicomic Hurlyburly.” American Drama 3, no. 1 (fall 1993): 1-16.
[In the following essay, Radavich argues that what separates Hurlyburly from other works that explore male homosocial relationships is Rabe's use of comedy and satire.]
Dramatic narratives of decadent, confused patriarchy under siege have dominated American theatre of the 1970s and '80s. David Mamet's stage works document the struggle of men to maintain close ties against a backdrop of mutual competitiveness, fear of and hostility toward women, and distrust of intimacy longed for but incapable of being acknowledged. Sam Shepard and David Rabe have mined the same area, with concentrated focus on the shifting tectonics of masculine longing, fear, and distrust. Rabe's Hurlyburly, one of the richest of these plays, anatomizes the homosocial quest for lasting male friendship in a world of fractured relations with women, corrupting work demands, and confused fraternal loyalties. What distinguishes this play from others of its kind is the singular linking of elegiac emotion with a tragicomic structure signifying promise and denial, arousal and defeat. On another level, Hurlyburly enacts what Raphael has called a “freestyle” initiation involving the “death of the boy” (4, 50-51): an inarticulate ritual of pain without clarification, of primitive...
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SOURCE: Hutchings, William. Review of Recital of the Dog, by David Rabe. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (spring 1994): 371.
[In the following review, Hutchings cites parallels between Recital of the Dog and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.]
Not since the Ancient Mariner wantonly shot the albatross has the more or less capricious killing of an animal touched off so bizarre and perverse a series of events as those that occur after the shooting of Barney the dog at the beginning of playwright David Rabe's first novel, Recital of the Dog. These repercussions become increasingly ominous for the book's first-person narrator, an artist who has withdrawn to the countryside with his wife and son in pursuit of rustic tranquillity: he is beset by hand tremors that prevent him from painting, a guilt-ridden obsession with the aged owner's futile search for the missing pet, and finally a compulsive attraction to the old man's fields, home, and life. Notwithstanding the summer's heat, the narrator dons an old worn greatcoat, a garment of contrition that seemingly becomes a shamanistic appurtenance as his tale unfolds.
In “Something Monstrous on the Loose,” the second (and most interesting) of the novel's four “books,” the protagonist becomes a literal surrogate for the old man's now-vanished dog. Through a series of steps that are savage,...
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SOURCE: Andreach, Robert J. “Unredeemed Savagery in The Orphan: David Rabe's Contemporary Oresteia.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 15, no. 4 (summer 1995): 329-44.
[In the following essay, Andreach discusses The Orphan as a modern dramatization of Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy.]
While composing an afterword for the 1993 publication of his four Vietnam plays spawned by the war, David Rabe discovered the past to be alive. “Vietnam,” he writes, “rises before me as our communal manifestation of an urge toward a shadowy savagery innate in all human character but with specifics reflecting the individuality of our society, the true assertion of our deepest, unacknowledged values.”1 He does not link the savagery and Dionysian energy in this passage, although the fourth play, The Orphan, does by linking Apollo and Dionysus. The afterword links the contemporary world and the ancient world, his theater and the theater of classical Greece. The penultimate paragraph states that the issues the first three plays raise are revisited in The Orphan but “not so much resolved as transmogrified and mythologized. These trends in the human psyche are viewed as ancient and eternal, as they return and evolve in order to reoccur ‘differently’” (196).
The ancient and eternal truths that The Orphan mythologizes are those...
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SOURCE: Demastes, William W., and Michael Vanden Heuvel. “The Hurlyburly Lies of the Causalist Mind: Chaos and the Realism of Rabe and Shepard.” In Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 255-74. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Demastes and Vanden Heuvel contend that the works of Rabe and Sam Shepard embody a new direction in American theater, one that incorporates realism and absurdism to subvert “the bastion of traditional, strictly linear and causal realist theatre in an attempt to reveal the indeterminate and chaotic nature of the world.”]
In his essay “Naturalism in Context” (1968), Martin Esslin announced that though the early, turn-of-the-century interest in naturalism in the theatre may since have been replaced by other dramatic forms, naturalism's legacy to those new forms—the key surviving element of naturalism in the theatre today—is “an experimental exploration of reality in its widest possible sense.”1 In “The Experimental Novel” (1893), Emile Zola observed that the naturalist author “gives the facts as he observes them, suggests the point of departure, displays the solid earth on which his characters are to tread and the phenomena to develop.”2 What develops from Zola's agenda is a process in which the author “sets his characters going so as to show that...
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SOURCE: Daniels, Robert L. Review of A Question of Mercy, by David Rabe. Variety 366, no. 5 (3 March 1997): 78.
[In the following review, Daniels provides a favorable assessment of A Question of Mercy.]
David Rabe's gripping new drama, A Question of Mercy, confronts the timely topic of assisted suicide. With unsettling candor and disturbing insight, the play arouses pity and understanding of a troubling subject. Director Douglas Hughes has staged the play with conviction, drawing urgency and resonance from his fine principal players.
Based on a New York Times Magazine essay by Dr. Richard Selzer, the drama builds in intensity and dramatic tension after Thomas (Stephen Spinella) asks a retired surgeon (Zach Grenier) to assist in the suicide of his lover, Anthony (Juan Carlos Hernandez), ill with AIDS. Although Anthony is physically exhausted, depressed and experiencing uncommon pain, the doctor, whose training and philosophy has always been for the preservation of life, is reluctant to intervene.
But the physician's compassion is aroused after a meeting with the patient. A plan unfolds requiring methodical tutoring in the administration of a massive dose of barbiturates. The action proceeds to its harrowing conclusion as if a perfect crime is being devised.
The play sticks single-mindedly to its subject with little digression into...
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SOURCE: Rabe, David and Stephanie Coen. “When Reason Fails.” American Theatre 14, no. 6 (July-August 1997): 22.
[In the following interview, Rabe discusses his dramatic adaptation of A Question of Mercy.]
[Coen]: What led you to dramatize the essay by Richard Selzer?
[Rabe]: The piece was originally published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and when I read it, I was stunned by it as it unfolded. I had been in talks with American Playhouse about doing an adaptation of something else, so they were on my mind—I first approached them about doing it on television, and they said yes and optioned it.
I doubt that I'd have thought of making it into a play [A Question of Mercy] off the top of my head, but once I got into it I started to feel it as a play. When I turned it in to American Playhouse I said, “If you don't do this, I want to make a play out of it.” Then they lost their funding and gave me all their rights to it, and I just had to get the theatrical rights from Dr. Selzer, which happened very quickly.
What made you think of it as a play?
The richness and the contrast of the language—the reasonableness of the language against the insanity of the dilemma felt very theatrical to me. When I first read it, I was overwhelmed by the nature of the event and, of...
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SOURCE: Barbera, Jack. “The Emotion of Multitude and David Rabe's Streamers.” American Drama 7, no. 1 (fall 1997): 50-66.
[In the following essay, Barbera details the dramatic techniques used by Rabe to express what W. B. Yeats called the “emotion of multitude.”]
In a single-paragraph essay on drama, “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats makes a dramatic claim about what “all the great masters have understood.” “There cannot be great art,” he says, “without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it.” What Yeats calls the “emotion of multitude” is evoked when a playwright is able to stimulate our imagination, so we feel the drama ringing out into wider significance. And how do playwrights so stimulate our imagination? Greek drama “got the emotion of multitude from its chorus,” Yeats tells us, and Shakespearian drama from “the subplot which copies the main plot.” In the realist drama of Ibsen, Yeats goes on to say, greater import is suggested by vague symbols (such as the wild duck in the attic) “that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion.”
David Rabe's Streamers provides an excellent focus for consideration of techniques by which plays transcend the particularities of their plots, because it...
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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Hello from Hollywood.” New Republic 220, no. 3 (18 January 1999): 26.
[In the following review, Kauffmann discusses Hurlyburly as a reflection of contemporary American morality.]
The time capsule will be chock full. If such a capsule is arranged in the year 2000 to be opened a century later, and if it includes a fair sampling of films that reflect the moral climate of our time, it's going to be crowded. American films about American morals have been plentiful from the beginning, but as the century ends, the graph line is climbing. Just in recent months we've had Happiness and Your Friends and Neighbors and Very Bad Things and Bad Manners, among others. Now there's Hurlyburly (Fine Line).
If it's argued that these films reflect only a small portion of the population—about as un-Heartland as one could get—it can be countered that this is the way that our time thinks of itself, or at least is tacitly eager to be shocked at itself. Some scholars have argued that Restoration comedy did not truly represent Restoration society; nonetheless, this was at least the theater that the society of the time relished. American morality today is of course much more varied than the films above indicate, but that's not the most important point. These films in themselves, quite apart from the question of their verity, are...
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SOURCE: Hofler, Robert. Review of The Dog Problem, by David Rabe. Variety 383, no. 4 (11 June 2001): 25.
[In the following review, Hofler offers a negative assessment of The Dog Problem.]
The bruised male egos and themes of compromised manhood of David Rabe's best plays are all on display in his latest, The Dog Problem. This time out he wraps them in the format of an Italian mob comedy, a not-very-high concept he probably came up with before The Sopranos but not before we all saw Married to the Mob or Prizzi's Honor. What Rabe is doing in hit-man territory with The Dog Problem is anybody's guess.
As always in Rabe's world, dog is God spelled backward, and neither God nor the dog have to deal with the moral confusions besetting man. Once again, the men in Rabe's play are having real problems being men.
Joey (David Wike) is out to avenge the sexual humiliation of his sister, Teresa (Andrea Gabriel), whose one-night stand with Ray (Larry Clarke) culminated with his paying too much attention to his dog at the moment of climax. Ray's best friend Ronnie (Joe Pacheco) owes Joey money, so he sets up Ray so Joey can inflict punishment.
Unfortunately, Ray isn't appropriately groveling during his ordeal with a couple of garbage cans, so someone must die—and Joey has an uncle in the mob, Malvolio (Victor Argo), who's...
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SOURCE: Zinman, Toby Silverman. “What's Wrong with This Picture?: David Rabe's Comic-Strip Plays.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 229-39. New York: Routledge, 2001.
[In the following essay, Zinman suggests that the characters in Rabe's plays are similar to cardboard cutouts and comic-strip characters in the vein of Roy Lichtenstein's paintings.]
There is something oddly anachronistic in David Rabe's radically contemporary plays, but his use of anachronism is neither the conventional reference to something too modern for its context, nor the reverse, the nostalgic drift of so much contemporary art; it creates, rather, a puzzling and powerful distantiation.
Rabe's sort of anachronism is perfectly expressed by Phil in Hurlyburly:
This is sex we're talking about now, Phil. Competitive sex.
That's what I'm saying. I need help.
You're such a jerk-off, you're such a goof-off. … I don't believe for a second you were seriously desperate about trying to pick that bitch up.
That's exactly how out of touch I am, Artie—I have methods so out-dated they appear to you a goof.
Here is a post-modernist critical dilemma:...
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Scheck, Frank. “Off-Broadway Opts Not to Keep Those the River Keeps.” Christian Science Monitor 86, no. 52 (8 February 1994): 12.
Elucidates the major weaknesses of Rabe's 1994 stage production of Those the River Keeps.
Additional coverage of Rabe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 59, 129; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 8, 33; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 228; DISCovering Authors Modules, Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 16; Drama for Students, Vol. 3, 8, 13; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.
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