David Rabe Rabe, David - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

David Rabe 1940-

American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter.

Hailed by Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre, as “The most important writer we've ever had,” Rabe established his reputation in the early 1970s as the major playwright of the Vietnam-War era. His angry and violent depictions of men at war and veterans returning home struck a particularly powerful chord with those who lived through the conflict. Rabe's works tackle the difficult subjects of the disintegration of the American value system, the inability to communicate, and the search for a sense of self. He has also explored issues surrounding drug addiction and the abuse of women. Called by one critic “the Neil Simon of desperation and death,” Rabe features in his plays violence and brutality laced with black humor. Rabe commented on his own alienation as a returned veteran, “It wasn't just that I couldn't reach my family. I couldn't reach anybody. People would listen attentively, but not understand a thing.” Rabe dismisses the claim that he writes anti-war plays, “All I'm trying to do is define the event for myself and for other people. I'm saying, in effect, ‘This is what goes on,’ and that's all.”

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, Rabe attended a Catholic high school, where his teachers encouraged his writing talents. He entered the military in 1965 and did a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam during the war. After his return, he attended Villanova University on a Rockefeller Playwrighting Fellowship and again received encouragement from his teachers and fellow students, later becoming an assistant professor there. In fact, Rabe was so impressed by the nurturing environment at the university that he returned to Villanova for early productions of many of his plays and dedicated the 1993 publication of The Orphan to the teachers and students of Villanova. Joseph Papp was responsible for putting on Rabe's first professionally produced play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971). When Sticks and Bones opened later that year at the Anspacher, Rabe became the only playwright other than Shakespeare to have two plays performed concurrently at the Public Theatre. Although his next few plays did not meet with as much critical success, Streamers—first produced at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in 1976—received tremendous acclaim and is still considered by many critics to be his best work. In addition to his plays, Rabe has written or adapted numerous screenplays with varying success. He continues to write for the stage, and the body of scholarly analysis and criticism that has built up around his work testifies to his importance to American theater.

Major Works

Critics often refer to Rabe's “Vietnam Trilogy,” by which they mean his three plays about men involved in the Vietnam War: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers. Pavlo Hummel is the story of a young man who is attempting to create an identity for himself by becoming a soldier. Sticks and Bones, a highly symbolic play, utilizes neomodernist techniques to present the return of a disabled veteran to his home and family. Streamers—the title refers to parachutes that do not open—considered the most realistic of Rabe's plays, takes place in Vietnam but utilizes the setting as a symbol of the world in which, according to Gerald Weales of Commonweal, “eventually, everyone's parachute refuses to open.” According to Rabe, The Orphan (1973), based on the Oresteia, should be considered his fourth Vietnam play because, although it does not take place in Vietnam, its attempt to link modern violence with Greek mythology echoes his experience of the war.

Another of Rabe's plays that received considerable critical attention is Hurlyburly (1984). Set in a bachelor home in Hollywood, it explores the disintegration of American values. It features four men with entertainment careers, living a “free” and rootless life, using cocaine and alcohol, while engaging in casual, disinterested sexual relations. Rabe shows how imprisoned these men and their women are by their “free” lifestyle, their inability to communicate, and their loss of purpose. Noting stylistic changes from Rabe's earlier work, Robert Brustein commented that Hurlyburly lifted Rabe's writing to a higher level: “Like O'Neill, who achieved greatness only when he adopted an unadorned Ibsenian realism, Rabe's style is now informed by the implicit verismo of David Mamet rather than the tendentious exhortations of Arthur Miller … displaying a dazzling new technique—not just a flawless command of dialogue, but an informed understanding of the nuances of human conflict … Mr. Rabe remains a dynamic chronicler of the brutal games that eternally adolescent American men can play.” Newsweek's Jack Kroll called Hurlyburly a virtual masterpiece “a powerful permanent contribution to American drama” that combines comedy and violence. Rabe later adapted Hurlyburly into a screenplay, and it was produced as a movie.

Critical Reception

Rabe's use of strong language and visual acts of violence have helped earn him a number of dramatic awards, as well as a mixture of critical praise and chastation. Theater critic Clive Barnes surmised the overall critical reaction to Rabe's dramas in his commentary on Hurlyburly: “I was entertained, horrified, intrigued, and disturbed.” Inconsistencies between style and tone has been one of the major critical disagreements over Rabe's dramatic works. His reviews, in general, praise his strong first acts but denounce his weak second or third acts. This reaction was common for Hurlyburly and Goose and Tomtom (1982). The Vietnam Trilogy has been the most critically praised body of Rabe's work, with his later works garnering mixed reviews over questions of misogynistic motifs, long production times, and a tendency towards self-indulgence. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel received the Obie Award for distinguished playwrighting from the Village Voice, the Drama Desk Award, and the Drama Guild Award, all in 1971. Critics were mixed in their responses to Sticks and Bones, but in general found it to be powerful and passionate. It received several awards, including the prestigious Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play of the 1971-72 season on Broadway. Streamers received a New York Drama Critics Circle citation in 1972 and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play in 1976. Rabe was also presented with the National Institute and American Academy Award in Literature in 1976, the same year he was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

*The Bones of Birds 1968

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel 1971

Sticks and Bones 1971

In the Boom Boom Room 1973

Streamers 1976

Goose and Tomtom 1982

Hurlyburly 1984

Cosmologies (unfinished drama) 1990

Those the River Keeps 1991

A Question of Mercy 1997

Gilgamesh the Prince 1999

I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (screenplay) 1982

Streamers (screenplay) 1983

Casualties of War (screenplay) 1989

The Firm [with David Rayfiel and Robert Towne] (screenplay) 1993

Hurlyburly (screenplay) 1998

*This work was revised as Orestes and the E=MC2 in 1970 and as The Orphan in 1973.

Robert Brustein (essay date 1978)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “The Crack in the Chimney: Reflections on Contemporary American Playwriting.” Theater 9, no. 2 (spring 1978): 24.

[In the following excerpt, Brustein considers Rabe's use of the family to reflect societal problems.]

More often than not, American mainstream dramatists continue to explore the causes behind their effects; the event to be excavated is still the guilt of the (generally older generation) protagonists; and the drama retains the air of a courtroom, complete with arraignments, investigations, condemnations, indictments, and punishments.

Take David Rabe, perhaps the most typical and the most highly esteemed of the...

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Craig Werner (essay date 1978)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Werner, Craig. “Primal Screams and Nonsense Rhymes: David Rabe's Revolt.” Educational Theatre Journal 30, no. 4 (December 1978): 517–29.

[In the following essay, Werner describes Rabe's attempts to overcome alienation in the American experience with a new form of expression.]

Ishmael, dreaming in the crow's nest but fearful of crashing to the solid deck, provides the standard image of the classic American writer trapped between irreconcilable forces of transcendence and reality. As Richard Chase suggests, the greatest works of the American imagination create “a profound poetry of disorder” and “achieve their very being, their energy and their form,...

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Janet S. Hertzbach (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hertzbach, Janet S. “The Plays of David Rabe: A World of Streamers.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, pp. 173–85. Munich: Max Hueber Verlag, 1981.

[In the following essay, Hertzbach examines Rabe's use of violence in his plays.]

The title and central metaphor of David Rabe's most recently produced play, Streamers (1976), provides a retrospectively useful way of describing the dramatic contexts of his four preceding plays as well. A streamer is a parachute which fails to open, and the thin ribbon of silk merely trails the hapless jumper as he plummets towards certain death. As he leaps out of the...

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Philip C. Kolin (essay date 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Notices of David Rabe's First Play, ‘The Chameleon’ (1959).” Resources for American Literary Study 17, no. 1 (spring 1990): 95–107.

[In the following essay, Kolin recounts Rabe's high school career and the production of his first play, now lost.]

Acknowledged as one of the most important playwrights in contemporary America, David Rabe (born 10 March 1940) established his reputation in the early 1970s as the major playwright of the Vietnam War. A veteran of that war, Rabe had seen some of its ravages. Joseph Papp, who helped launch Rabe's career at the New York Public Theater, exclaimed that “He is the most important writer we've...

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N. Bradley Christie (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Christie, N. Bradley. “Still a Vietnam Playwright After All These Years.” In David Rabe: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinmah, pp. 97–111. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.

[In the following essay, Christie discusses the feeling of instability at the heart of Rabe's plays.]

David Rabe is a playwright of anomalies. His art consistently explores problematic cultural material or characters, and the artist himself is equally hard to pigeonhole. He is not really a “Broadway playwright,” nor a product of Off Broadway or the regional theatres. Because of the Papp connection with the early plays, some might lump him among the darlings of Off-Off...

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Carla J. McDonough (essay date 1997)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: McDonough, Carla J. “David Rabe: Men Under Fire.” In Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama, pp.103–32. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1997.

[In the following essay, McDonough examines Rabe's depiction of men in his plays.]

Although he originally established himself as a playwright of Vietnam plays, Rabe's central concern does not begin or end with war. His focus is more consistently upon myths of identity. Although he explored some myths concerning women in In the Boom Boom Room (1973), his other plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1971), Streamers (1976),...

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Criticism: Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Zinman, Toby Silverman, and David Rabe. “Interview.” In David Rabe: A Casebook, pp. 3–15. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.

[In the following interview conducted in 1990, Rabe discusses his influences and interests, including language and ancient folk legends.]

[Those the River Keeps is Rabe's first new play in more than six years, and thus constitutes a major event in the theatrical community. It will open under his direction at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton early in 1991. It takes up the character Phil from Hurlyburly, his marriage, and his life in California as it is interrupted by the appearance of Sal from his gangster past. When...

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Thomas P. Adler (essay date 1979)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Adler, Thomas P. “‘The Blind Leading the Blind’: Rabe's Sticks and Bones and Shakespeare's King Lear.Papers on Language and Literature 15, no. 2 (spring 1979): 203–06.

[In the following essay, Adler compares Sticks and Bones with King Lear.]

Near the end of Sticks and Bones, the middle play of David Rabe's Vietnam trilogy, the son David, returning home from the war physically blinded but with moral insight, chides his father Ozzie, “They will call it madness. We will call it seeing.”1 He thereby links together the drama's two pervasive verbal and visual image patterns of reason in madness and sight in...

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Samuel J. Bernstein (essay date 1980)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernstein, Samuel J. “Sticks and Bones by David Rabe.” In The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama, pp. 95–107. Boston: Northeastern University, 1980.

[In the following essay, Bernstein examines and discusses criticism of Sticks and Bones and shows how the play combines realism and absurdism.]


David Rabe's Sticks and Bones1 joins his plays The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers to form a trilogy ostensibly concerned with military matters and the moral outrage of war.2 Both Sticks and Bones and Pavlo Hummel were...

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Pamela Cooper (essay date 1986)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Cooper, Pamela. “David Rabe's Sticks and Bones: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Modern Drama 29, no. 4 (1986): 613–24.

[In the following essay, Cooper provides a critical analysis of Sticks and Bones.]

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...

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Criticism: The Orphan

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Andreach, Robert J. “Unredeemed Savagery in The Orphan: David Rabe's Contemporary Oresteia.Classical and Modern Literature 15, no. 4 (summer 1995): 329–44.

[In the following essay, Andreach compares Rabe's The Orphan with the original Greek work that inspired him to write it.]

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...

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Criticism: In The Boom Boom Room

(Drama Criticism)

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): 40–52.

[In the following essay, Wade discusses Rabe's use of a nude female dancer at the end of In the Boom Boom Room and its significance both to the play and to varied members of the audience.]

The closing scene of David Rabe's play In the Boom Boom Room employs a female nude in its rhetorical attack on sexism; the principal character resigns herself to the emotional and economic pressures of the male dominated order and appears finally on stage as a topless dancer. Although Rabe's play clearly evinces a...

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Philip C. Kolin (essay date 1986)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Rabe's Streamers.Explicator 45, no. 1 (fall 1986): 63–4.

[In the following essay, Kolin describes Streamers as a coming-of-age story.]

The last play in his Vietnam trilogy,1 David Rabe's Streamers (1976) explores an archetypical theme—the rite of passage into manhood—in the lives of four young soldiers (Billy, Roger, Richie, Carlyle) who are in a period of transition from stateside Army life to Viet Nam combat. The testing ground for these young men is a barracks frequently described as “a home,” “my house,” or a “happy family” where they are to learn the “obligations” of...

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Owen Brady (essay date 1997)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Brady, Owen. “Blackness and the Unmanning of America in Dave Rabe's Streamers.War, Literature, and the Arts 9, no. 1 (spring 1997): 141–52.

[In the following essay, Brady discusses Rabe's use of racism and other prejudices in his plays, focusing on Streamers.]

In his 1973 “Introduction” to the volume comprised of the two earliest plays in his Vietnam trilogy, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, Dave Rabe links the Vietnam experience to American tribalism of which racism is a part rooted in “sex, or more exactly miscegenation” (Rabe Two Plays xxiii). Both these early plays explore the immediacy of...

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Robert Leiter (review date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Leiter, Robert. “Theater Chronicle.” Hudson Review 38, no. 2 (summer 1985): 297–99.

[In the following, Leiter reviews Mike Nichols's production of Hurlyburly.]

Hyperbole as a staple of drama criticism is nothing new, and the nearly unanimous praise that has greeted David Rabe's Hurlyburly is a prime example of the phenomenon. The play is by no means “a powerful permanent contribution to American drama”; rather, it is overly long, unconvincing, muddled in thought and filled with bombastic language masquerading as the height of realistic speech. Yet what is most frustrating about the work is that lurking beneath the tiresome rhetoric is a fine...

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Gerald Weales (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “American Theater Watch, 1984-1985.” Georgia Review 39, no. 3 (fall 1985): 619–21.

[In the following essay, Weales comments on an interview with Rabe and Neil Simon on the dark comedy found in Hurlyburly.]

There was a joint interview with Neil Simon and David Rabe in The New York Times Magazine for 26 May 1985, and, as the Times said in its introductory remarks, “their attitudes and methods of play writing turned out to be strikingly similar.” That might at first seem a little odd since Simon is the most triumphantly successful Broadway playwright of the last twenty-five years, and Rabe, since he arrived in New York in...

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Criticism: A Question Of Mercy

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Upchurch, Michael. “Oh ‘Mercy’! This Production is Full of Emotion.” Seattle Times (13 May 1999).

[In the following review, Upchurch critiques a production of A Question of Mercy performed at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, Washington.]

A David Rabe play is like a supple dance done with sharp instruments. Its movement arrests you, even as its scalpel edges threaten you. That, at least, is how A Question of Mercy works in Intiman Theatre's taut, if occasionally overly mannered production.

While Rabe's recurring focus is the extremes of human behavior, those extremes, in his hands, can consist of giddy absurdities as much...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Barbera, Jack. “The Emotion of Multitude and David Rabe's Streamers.American Drama 1, no. 2 (fall 1997): 50–66.

Explores Rabe's use of dramatic technigues that stimulate imagination and give Streamers wider significance.

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, pp. 255–76. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Discusses the realistic use of chaos by Rabe and Sam Shepard in their plays.


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