Although David Rabe has repeatedly denied that Streamers was conceived of as such, many commentators view the work as the last piece in a Vietnam War trilogy that also includes The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1970) and Sticks and Bones (1972). Like most of the playwright’s works, Streamers had a rather involved composition history from its initial conception to its final form. It started out as a one-act play under the working title ‘‘Frankie’’ and was actually begun before Rabe started working on either Basic Training or Sticks and Bones, but it was not completed and staged until both those works had been produced. According to the dramatist, the one-act ‘‘contained, in an abbreviated form, the first act of Streamers.’’
Rabe knew the one-act was not ready for production and in 1969 refused an offer for an Off-Broadway staging. Instead, when he went to work as a journalist in New Haven, Connecticut, he developed the play into a full-length work, first by adding the stabbing of Billy and then by expanding the roles of Sergeants Cokes and Rooney. It was finally ready for production at the end of 1975.
The full-length version of the play was premiered at the Long Warf Theater in New Haven, where it opened on January 30, 1976. Under the direction of Mike Nichols, the main players included Michael-Raymond O’Keefe as Martin, Peter Evans as Richie, Joe Fields as Carlyle, John Heard as Billy, Herbert Jefferson, Jr. as Roger, Dolph Sweet as Cokes, and Kenneth McMillan as Rooney. Nichols also directed the play’s restaging in New York at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, where it was produced by Joseph Papp and opened on April 21, 1976. Some of the original cast reprised their roles, but changes included Michael Kell as Martin, Dorian Harewood as Carlyle, Paul Rudd as Billy, and Terry Alexander as Roger. In New York, it ran for over 400 performances and was enthusiastically received by many important critics, including Rex Reed, Christopher Sharp, Edwin Wilson, and Martin Gottfried. A few demurred, including John Beaufort, who, in a review for the Christian Science Monitor, argued that the work was too sensational and was devoid of new insights.
Despite its crude content, for many Streamers remains Rabe’s best work. Its violence and vulgarity may continue to offend some, but the play is certainly the most accomplished part of the so-called trilogy, upon which Rabe’s high reputation to some measure still rests. The genius of Streamers was clearly recognized when the play was first staged. Among other awards, it was named the Best American Play for 1976 by the New York Drama Critics and received a Drama Desk Award. It is still the most often staged play in Rabe’s dramatic canon.
Act I Summary
Streamers takes place in a large cadre room in one of the barracks on an unidentified U. S. Army base located in Virginia near Washington, D.C. It is about 1965, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it soon becomes clear that the soldiers quartered in the barracks, some fresh from basic training, are transients awaiting orders that will most likely send them to Vietnam. The cadre room houses three soldiers: Richie, Billy, and Roger.
At rise, Richie is trying to calm down another soldier, Martin, who has made an aborted attempt to kill himself by slitting one of his wrists. Richie is intent on hiding Martin’s attempt from the other soldiers, but Martin is distraught and can only talk about how much he hates the Army and how he wants to get out.
The two men are interrupted by Carlyle, a restless black soldier dressed in grease and sweatstained fatigues. He is looking for Roger, the black barracks mate of Richie and Billy. Martin immediately tells Carlyle of his suicide attempt, much to Richie’s dismay, but Carlyle seems completely unfazed by the disclosure and leaves. Billy enters, and Martin also informs him, again explaining how much he hates the Army. After they all leave, Roger enters and starts doing pushups on the floor. Billy returns and talks with Roger about the Army and the ‘‘ole sarge,’’ Rooney, a demolitions expert and veteran of World War II who now shakes so badly from alcoholism that he cannot light his own cigar. The two friends banter about the ‘‘regular’’ Army, the ‘‘real’’ Army that Roger wants to be in or be shorn of the military altogether not headed for Vietnam or Disneyland, where the ‘‘ole sarge’’ is going ‘‘to be Mickey Mouse.’’ Billy, after asking Roger whether he would rather fight a war in the freezing cold or a place where there were lots of snakes, talks of his experiences at home, before he was drafted.
When Richie comes back in, he tells Roger about what Martin had done. It is soon clear that Richie, openly attempting to establish his homosexuality, enjoys teasing and flirting with Billy, much to Billy’s annoyance. When Richie goes to take a shower, Billy and Roger discuss his effeminate behavior. Roger is convinced that Richie is not really gay, but Billy is not so sure. The friends then prepare to clean the room. Billy goes off to get wax, and Roger opens Richie’s locker to look at a pinup hanging inside the door, his proof that Richie is really a heterosexual just putting on an act. Carlyle enters, demanding to know...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
Act II Summary
Act II, scene i
It is late afternoon, presumably of the next day. Roger convinces Billy, who is vaguely unhappy, to go to the gym to work out, but before leaving their cadre room Billy attempts to explain why he had once thought about becoming a priest. He also talks about getting an off-duty job at a bar and his interest in a girl who works there. The pair also relate how they became friends, then begin doing pushups in preparation for their gym workout. Richie enters and suggests in innuendos that their physical exercise is some sort of ersatz gay sex. Billy, again irritated with Richie’s behavior, throws a basketball at him, knocking a bottle of cologne from his hand, and then heads for the door. Richie douses Billy with some cologne as Roger and Billy exit.
Richie, alone, starts to read on his bed, but Carlyle enters and breaks his concentration. Richie informs him that Roger is out and learns that Martin is going to be shipped home. Richie closes the door to the room and offers Carlyle a cigarette. Quite aggressively, Carlyle begins suggesting that Richie, ‘‘a punk,’’ wants Carlyle to show him his ‘‘rope.’’ Richie, sensing Carlyle’s barely repressed violence, begins fending him off, unwilling to get in too deeply. Carlyle becomes alternately abusive and friendly, and he eventually settles down on Richie’s bed. However, he is irritated by his perpetual K.P. duty and becomes annoyed with the fact that Richie has never been on K. P. With a final explosive insult, he drives Richie out of the room into the hall.
Billy enters, startled to find Carlyle on Richie’s bed. Carlyle asks him if Richie is the ‘‘only punk’’ in the room, but Billy, who is growing physically sick, denies that Richie is gay. Then Richie re-enters and immediately insults Carlyle as ‘‘one of them who hasn’t come down far out of the trees yet.’’ Carlyle, shifting his mood, attempts to be friendly again. He tells Billy and Richie that he was just ‘‘jivin’’’ when he called Richie a punk.
After Carlyle leaves, Richie asks Billy whether the story he had told about Frankie was really a story about himself, an allegation which infuriates Billy. He tells Richie that his brain is ‘‘rancid.’’ The encounter between the two is interrupted by Roger, who enters dressed in civilian clothes. He is planning to go out on the town with Carlyle and wants to borrow some money, which Richie provides. Although he has many reservations about Carlyle and his ideas, when invited by Roger to go along, Billy agrees to accompany them, but Richie declines. They talk of going to a brothel, which Richie finds ‘‘disgusting.’’ Carlyle then enters, and informed that Billy is going with him and Roger, finds it ‘‘beautiful’’ because they will all be friends. When Richie asks about his part in the new friendship, the other three stare at him momentarily, then depart, leaving him to his solitude.
Act II, scene ii
It is night. Taps is being played while the four soldiers Billy, Richie, Roger, and Carlyle lounge about the room. Richie tells of his father’s desertion of the family when Richie was very young, prompting Carlyle to speak of his father, a butcher who never even acknowledged his paternity. Richie then recalls seeing a television documentary about the homeless in San Francisco, and seeing a ‘‘bum’’ he knew was his father. Carlyle talks of the new friendships, what will become ‘‘one big happy family,’’ but almost immediately antagonisms surface. Richie informs Billy that Carlyle is going beat Billy’s time with him because Carlyle is decisive. Billy gets furious with Richie, but he lightens up when they all begin talking about school.
Richie, hoping to make Billy jealous, tries to get Roger and Billy to leave so that he can serve Carlyle’s desires, but...
(The entire section is 1587 words.)