David Rabe Biography

David Rabe was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965 and spent two years in the service, the last year of which he fought in Vietnam. That experience is the basis for most of his plays. After completing his tour of duty, Rabe resumed his studies at Villanova, where he had been doing graduate work before being drafted. During this period, he wrote his first play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which is considered one of the first important works of literature to treat the Vietnam War. His subsequent plays—Sticks and Bones (about a family dealing with their newly blinded son’s return from Vietnam) and Streamers—were also based on his war experiences. Highly charged language and the depiction of intense violence characterize his work.

Facts and Trivia

  • Rabe’s writing is not exclusively about war. He also focuses on the themes of family life, religion, media, and sexuality.
  • Rabe has been married to actress Jill Clayburgh for 28 years. Their daughter Lily Rabe is also an actress.
  • Rabe wrote the lyrics for the song “Baby When I Find You,” which was featured in his play Sticks and Bones.
  • In a departure from his usual work, Rabe’s play A Question of Mercy was inspired by an article by Dr. Richard Selzer about helping an AIDS patient commit suicide.
  • Rabe wrote the screenplay Casualties of War.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

David Rabe (rayb) is one of America’s most uncompromising dramatic commentators on the Vietnam War. The three major Rabe plays, sometimes referred to as “the Vietnam trilogy” (Sticks and Bones, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and Streamers), are intense, compelling analyses of a society forever altered by a controversial war, of a generation that lost its innocence in battle.

Illustration of PDF document

Download David Rabe Study Guide

Subscribe Now

David William Rabe was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on March 10, 1940, to William Rabe, a high school teacher who later became a meat packer, and his wife, Ruth McCormick Rabe, a department store employee. Educated at two Catholic schools in Dubuque—Loras Academy and Loras College, where he earned his B.A. degree in English in 1962—Rabe went on to graduate school at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, where he began work on a degree in theater. Two years in the U.S. Army, which included eleven months in Vietnam, interrupted Rabe’s graduate work; he resumed his studies upon his return from Vietnam, completing his master’s degree in 1968. The next year he married Elizabeth Pan. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1979 Rabe married actress Jill Clayburgh.

Rabe’s tour of duty in Vietnam proved to be a major turning point in the future playwright’s life. Assigned to a hospital group, Rabe never actually experienced combat, although he witnessed the fighting at close range and observed the American troops both in and out of combat. It was the extreme youth and inexperience of these soldiers that made an impression on Rabe, who later described them as like kids “standing around some bar like teenagers at a soda fountain, talking coolly about how many of their guys got killed in the last battle.” Rabe’s first two plays were the result of his frustrating return to society after Vietnam. Both were written while he was in graduate school but not produced until they came to the attention of the influential Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which opened on May 21, 1971, ran for 363 performances at the Newman Theatre in 1971 and 1972 and earned for Rabe an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award. Sticks and Bones was even more critically successful than The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, winning for Rabe the 1972 Tony Award, the Outer Circle Award, and a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle. A Variety poll named Rabe the most promising playwright of 1972. The play was not, however, a popular success, and...

(The entire section contains 985 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this David Rabe study guide. You'll get access to all of the David Rabe content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Critical Essays