David Rabe is known primarily for his plays and screenplays. He is also the author of two novels, neither of which has been received as favorably as his dramatic works. Recital of the Dog (1993), the story of a painter terrorized by a dog, is told with Rabe’s characteristic humor and violence. Rabe has also written the novelization of a Sean Penn film, The Crossing Guard (1995).
While the aesthetic effectiveness of David Rabe’s dramas remains a matter for discussion and debate, it is an easier task to place his work within the context of his contemporaries and their concerns. Modern drama asserts, among other fundamental precepts, that the notion of heroism is outdated and that the principle of the individual’s alienation from the community provides the normative social standard. In his plays of disorder, violence, and lack of choice—in his “war” plays, in other words—Rabe conforms to the prevailing tradition as he addresses both psychological and political issues.
Like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, Rabe works on both the symbolic, or nonrealistic, and the naturalistic, or realistic, levels. Like Edward Albee, he uses surrealist or absurdist elements as he explores the implications of the failure of human contact, the enervation of American social values, the interplay between past and present, and the overwhelming finality of death. His misfits, like those of Lanford Wilson, endure a course of failure that he ordains for them, and Rabe attempts, as does Arthur Kopit, to chart their psychological landscapes as they struggle with the perennial question of identity. As Sam Shepard reveals the distorted, destructive fabric of family relationships and the commercialized corruption of American society, so does Rabe attempt to account for the same bewildering phenomena.
Bigsby, C. W. E. Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. The introduction to part 5, “The Theatre of Commitment,” includes a long discussion of Rabe’s work. Bigsby is respectful of the power and importance of Rabe’s work through Streamers. He says that Rabe’s Vietnam plays are less “about war than about loneliness and self-betrayal; less an account of political perfidy than of the failure of private morality.”
Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists, 1960-1990. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Cohn once called this chapter “Narrower Straits” but renamed it “Roaming Around” to point at an orientation away from Broadway conventions in the plays of Rabe, Ronald Ribman, John Guare, and David Hwang. Notes the revision of the early version of In the Boom Boom Room in 1986 but is silent regarding the hiatus from Hurlyburly to 1990.
Cole, Susan Letzler. Playwrights in Rehearsal: The Seduction of Company. New York: Routledge, 2001. Cole participated in rehearsals of plays by eight contemporary playwrights, to discover the writer’s role in bringing a script to the stage. Her chapter on Rabe follows his creative process in developing A Question of Mercy.