Many of David Rabe’s strongest works are closely linked thematically to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in America. He expresses this turbulent era of the debilitating war in Vietnam, racial strife in the streets, the horrific murders by Charles Manson’s clan, the puzzling generation gap, and the confusing sexual revolution as a dramatic world of violent confrontation. For the individual living in this setting, its most salient features are racial and sexual turmoil, family disintegration, social isolation, and personal inarticulateness. Whether the scene is an army barracks room, a middle-class American home, the ancient Greece of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), or a slimy bar in Philadelphia, Rabe’s characters live on a metaphoric battlefield. His plays, then, are war plays, and his protagonists lose their separate struggles with dispiriting inevitability. The chaos of their lives is figured, institutionalized, and sometimes justified by ritualistic activities that are symbolic of their alienation and lack of choice rather than of the communal experience and support that ritual ordinarily celebrates.
The Vietnam Plays
Rabe’s intense, critical reflections on the interrelatedness of war, sex, racism, the family, past, and present as they define the contemporary American battlefield are frequently provocative. His dramatic world of streamers is, however, all of a piece. Lacking complexity and nuance, it only sporadically achieves, beyond the transitory moment, the sustained dialogue between dramatist and playgoer or reader that is the essence of great art.
The title of Streamers suggests the bleak vision of Rabe’s work: A “streamer” is a parachute which unexpectedly fails to open, a fragile ribbon of silk that simply trails the unlucky jumper as he plummets toward his death. As he leaps out of the secure womb of the airplane, he is born, after a few seconds, into a brief life characterized by the terror of circumstance, the rule of irrationality, and the absence of alternatives to the destruction awaiting him. There is no possibility of introspection or insight and no reality except for the unambiguous fact of personal annihilation. Like the parachutist, the main characters in Rabe’s plays are hurriedly discovering death.
Although The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers, with their episodes of ritualistic violence, are often referred to as Rabe’s “Vietnam trilogy,” only the first includes actual combat, and that only briefly. Rabe uses the war in Vietnam as a generalized background for his presentation of the violence endemic to American life. In response to critics who proposed the “antiwar” label as an appropriate description of his work, Rabe asserted that he expected to achieve no political effect but simply sought to identify and diagnose the informing cultural and social phenomena around him.
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel
In The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the time-honored ritual of army basic training generates the controlling metaphor: the four-beat cadence of a basic training company’s marching and singing, the formal dance of bayonet practice, the impending trainee proficiency test. Into this arena, the classic loser Pavlo enters, leaving his dreary existence behind and seeking the clear confirmation of physical courage and sexual virility he expects military heroism to afford him. The two-act play opens with Pavlo’s ironic, nonheroic death in a Saigon whorehouse, following an argument with an army sergeant over a prostitute. The play then flashes back to portray the stages of Pavlo’s journey to this grim end. The drill sergeant’s tower, a constant reminder of army ritual, commands the stage.
Unfortunately for Pavlo, his pathetic expectations of army life clash with everything the audience sees about the army and the war. His enthusiasm for a career as an army “lifer” and his desire to excel in the community that is superficially symbolized by army ritual actually exclude him from his fellow draftees and from a realistic perspective on the war itself. As a foil to almost everyone else in the play, Pavlo is most clearly exemplified by his consistent naïveté and stupid fervor. For example, he persistently volunteers for menial duties and eagerly performs supplemental physical training. He takes solitary bayonet and port arms practice when he should be in formation and anxiously studies the conduct manual for the upcoming proficiency test.
In act 2, Pavlo enjoys the sexual experience that eluded him on his leave, despite his snappy dress uniform. The sergeant drills the men on one side of the stage as Pavlo makes four-beat love to Yen on the other. Reluctantly serving as a medic in a field hospital, Pavlo refuses to comprehend the vivid example of a soldier blown into a living stump. Only after he is actually wounded in combat does Pavlo recognize the vicious truth of the infantryman’s plight on the field. Whereas he formerly associated acts of violence in the barracks or on the battlefield with an affirmation of manhood, Pavlo simply wants to go home after he is wounded for the third time. Rewarded, instead, with a Purple Heart, he retreats to the whorehouse for a dalliance with Yen and the assignation with the grenade that finally kills him.
From start to finish, Pavlo Hummel is doomed—as trainee, medic, or combat infantryman. Army ritual overtly offers community, song, and some humor as both a mask and an excuse for the violence that awaits Pavlo. Life for the enlisted man in Vietnam, however, actually means every man for himself. The interweaving of past and present, the use of simultaneous action, and the play’s Surrealist and absurdist elements demonstrate Pavlo’s self-centered confusion and his failure to develop. In some respects, he is so one-dimensional that it is difficult to maintain sympathy for him.
Sticks and Bones
Like The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones begins with the ending, the ritualistic suicide of the protagonist David, a blinded Vietnam veteran. Shockingly, his father, mother, and younger brother encourage and assist him in this act. As Pavlo’s army “family” rebuffs him, so do Ozzie, Harriet, and Ricky reject David. Unlike Pavlo, however, David denies his family, too; they mutually repel one another. In his naming of the characters, Rabe parodies the popular situation comedy The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: This middle-class American family is the antithesis of the television Nelsons.
The ritual matter of Sticks and Bones arises from what Rabe considers the symbols of modern American culture: racism and television. Both destroy communication and, thus, indicate the mutual alienation of David and his family. Television offers a desirable fantasy life redolent of money and materialism. Related to sexual fear and insecurity, racism answers the need to feel superior to some group. From the instant when David is virtually delivered home, he and his family are strangers to one another. Ozzie even considers checking his son’s dental records to verify his identity.
Although he is physically blind, David’s moral vision has been expanded by his experiences in Vietnam and also by his sense of guilt over the Vietnamese girl, Zung, whom he loved but, typically, deserted. A symbol of continuity between his past and present, the wraithlike Zung appears intermittently throughout the play and, until the climax, is “seen” by David only. She embodies the immediate motivation for the mission he assumes in his parents’ home, as their moral blindness is exemplified by virulent racial and sexual prejudice. Their contempt for the Vietnamese recalls that of the soldiers in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel in its perverted preoccupation with sex. Neither Ozzie nor Harriet can tolerate the notion that David might have engendered children with yellow faces and, worse, that he might have brought them home. Both in the field and at home, Rabe charges, the Vietnamese are despised by the Americans, who profess to help them.
David’s abrasive presence and his withering accusations cause his parents’ superficial veneer of middle-class respectability to blister and peel away. Ozzie is deeply troubled that his combat experience has been confined to his safe childhood, when he regularly beat up “Ole Fat Kramer.” During World War II, his army service consisted of truck maintenance. Operating as a catalytic agent, then, David releases his father’s suppressed capacity for violence. Zung becomes visible to Ozzie, who, refusing to “see” her, nevertheless strangles her. Ricky suggests that David should cut his wrists, and Harriet provides pans and towels so that the blood will not stain the carpet. With this ritualistic self-sacrifice, David is exorcised from the mainstream of the middle-class consciousness and can pose no further challenge to the self-deluded but triumphant American way of life.
In this grotesque family portrait, Rabe demonstrates that domestic violence is as terrible as the military violence in Vietnam. Through language and action, he indicates the irreconcilable division within the family and charges that racism was a basic cause of the war in Vietnam. The polarization of the family, concurrently, is a source of the play’s most disabling flaw. The dramatist would have his audience simplistically concede that a blinded Vietnam veteran, by definition, possesses greater moral stature than his family, that he is entitled, because of his combat experiences, to instruct them in moral concerns. David’s sufferings, however, have not enhanced his capacity for understanding and compassion, the requisites for the moral stature he assumes, but have only refined his ability to hate. Like Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, David remains a cipher despite the truth of much of his indictment of American life.
Additionally, the names of the characters finally detract from Rabe’s message as well because their names isolate them from the audience. The television Nelson clan, in all its saccharine perfection, is so one-dimensional a target that the playwright’s generalizations about...
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