David Rabe Rabe, David (Vol. 8) - Essay

Rabe, David (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rabe, David 1940–

Rabe, an American playwright, is a Vietnamese War veteran; most of his work, which has been well received by both critics and the theater-going public, concerns the effect of this war on its soldiers and veterans. (See also CLC, Vol. 4.)

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel [is] a not unrewarding play by David Rabe. It concerns a confused young man who briefly comes to tragicomic life in the Vietnam war, then goes down in it to absurd and anonymous death. Rabe knows the war, having been through it; and knows, what is more, how to write. His able play nevertheless suffers from splits down the middle in two directions. Horizontally, it tries to be as much about the war and the sad and comic grossness of army life as about the peculiarities and tergiversations of a funny little man trying to find himself. It even wants, I think, to relate the home front (or lack of one) to the battlefront. In these dualities and overextensions it often manages to stretch beyond the breaking point. Vertically, though it is in perfect control when dealing with its subject as a piece of artfully heightened realism, it is also drawn into modishly antirealistic devices over which it exercises insufficient control, and which have a way of becoming top-heavy and crumbling. (pp. 347-48)

Rabe impressively avoids easy pathos by making the protagonist anything but prepossessing, and by making the bad guys—smarmy officers, Napoleonic noncoms, and brawling GI's—as human as villains can be, and often are. The play's horror tends to be comic, as is a nightmare that is so outrageous as to be almost amusing, except that it devastates all the same. What is frightening here is the semblance of logic, of benevolence even, about the inhumanity; the cheerfulness, or at least casualness, with which the worst befalls and befouls us. The dialogue has an assurance that gives it historic authority; it is also marshaled in a way that endows it with artistic dignity.

But there remain the problems of the above-mentioned rifts, as well as the difficulty of making a drama about armies, wars, and senseless death differ from other such plays, however superior to them it may be. (p. 348)

While in Pavlo Rabe considered the effect of the Vietnam war on its participants, in Sticks and Bones he examines the disasters of the home front. A Vietnam veteran, David, comes back blind to his silent-American family—parents and a brother—who manages to be far blinder than he. Their names derive from television: Ozzie, Harriet and younger brother Rick; it is Rabe's double nelson on America. (p. 387)

The play functions on three levels. There is a kind of heightened realism much striven for by Arthur Miller, but more successfully managed by Rabe. Here, for example, belong Ozzie's reminiscences about the great runner he once was (with a double entendre no doubt implied), and his repeated references to Hank, a friend we never see, whose archetypal American values and success drive Ozzie to admiration, envy and despair. Here, too, belong the outbursts of vindictiveness and castration that flash forth from beneath Harriet's placid kitchen-and-church surface. The next level is that of adroit black comedy …, and includes Rick's larger-than-life stupidity, [the family priest's] supposedly enlightened obscurantism, and any number of ferociously funny scenes and speeches. Lastly, there is a level intended to be pure poetry for David's scenes of painful self-searching and despair at his family; here the writing fails to rise to its intentions: "And then I knew that I was not awake but asleep, and in my sleep there was nothing and nothing"; or "The seasons will amaze … Texas is enormous; Ohio is sometimes green." Most disturbingly, the transitions between any two of these three modes are at times precipitous and jarring. And Rabe is youthfully prodigal of good ideas insufficiently worked out: he brings the Vietnamese girl David left behind onstage as a ghostly image that follows David around fitfully; except at the very end, the figure does not yield anywhere near its dramatic potential.

But the people live and the dialogue works because Rabe is aware of all the tics, absurdities and sadnesses that go into the making of his characters: he does not limit himself to the most obvious imbecilities or nastinesses to be punctured one after the other. Even pigheadedness is allowed to have its pathos. The recital of the horrors of war does not quite come off, though there is a powerful scene in which David projects what he sees as a film of the ravages of war, but the family and we perceive as blank frames coming from the projector, except for here and there a greenish spot. Throughout, the atmosphere of specious solicitude covering up genuine self-absorption is expertly caught. But the real strength of the play lies in its ability to satirize fiercely without losing a residue of sympathy and even compassion…. Rabe attacks with wit, passion, fury turning into despair, but not with hate and still less with modish self-righteousness. (pp. 387-88)

When I read that Rabe's The Orphan was an Orestes play set in both past and present and featuring two Clytemnestras, I resolved to expect little, but never, never would I have expected the author of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones to contrive such a strained, pretentious, muddled, clumsy and almost completely flavorless piece of claptrap. The idea, if it can be called one, is that Orestes is reincarnated in Charles Manson; that Agamemnon, Aegisthus, Calchas are the forerunners of the present American Establishment and its materialism, militarism and mumbo jumbo. Clytemnestra is America herself, the traitorous mother who becomes identified with the pregnant Sharon Tate…. The notion is not only an insult to poor Miss Tate, it may even be unfair to Charlie Manson. Aeschylus I won't worry about; to his peripatetic shade, it is merely a stinkweed among the asphodel.

The parallel between the Manson "family" and the House of Atreus is preposterous enough, but Rabe does not even try to work it out properly. In the first act, he tells the myth more or less straight in the standard contemporary mode of demystification, anachronism and gags, with occasional intrusions of the present, mostly in the shape of one of Manson's girls. In the second act, he deals chiefly with Manson-Orestes and the "family," but accords the mythic figures a few brief entrances and a bloody exit. To fret his scraggy texture further, he adds a microphone-carrying Speaker, who incessantly butts in either with smart-alec jibes or with lengthy disquisitions on the current state of science and technology and the latest scientific data on the workings of the human brain and heart. Meant either as Greek chorus or Brechtian alienation, the device creates only an obtrusive vocal palimpsest.

Rabe hits out against both secular and religious authorities; indeed, against God himself in the person of a slippery and unsavory Apollo; but, much as I sympathize with his thesis, it falls between parallels as surely as if they were stools. In the broad or abstract sense, Agamemnon & Co. are such obvious power figures that to spell out elaborately their contemporary relevance is sheer supererogation. When, however, specific analogues and far-fetched correspondences are forced on the Then and Now, the whole thing becomes ludicrously unconvincing. And Rabe cannot come up with a language suitable to both his Atreids and Mansonites; when he sticks to modern idiom, he does well enough, but his attempts at fusion confound him: "Think of yourself as a Vietnamese, Aegisthus; think of yourself as a duck, a squirrel!" Or: "Clytemnestra, you are too rich to have ever been anything but a whore!" Or: "You are incredible—how can I forget that you are absolutely disgustingly unbelievable?" Rabe stoops even to a rather heavy reliance on street-corner obscenities, which he does not even put into the appropriate mouths. (pp. 462-63)

John Simon, in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

David Rabe's plays are usually what some people deem "unpleasant." They are angry, brutal, obscene, with flecks of compassionate feeling that others may call sentimental, though they are not without streaks of fierce humor. It may also be claimed that they are wanting in the alleviation of "catharsis."

But all of them have impressed me as strong and, despite reservations, moving; their feeling is almost always inescapably authentic. Rabe seems to have been subjected to the "basic training" of his Pavlo Hummel, a play which showed that war bleeds and besmirches all sides and very often destroys the moral fiber in regard to one another or even those on the same side. Sticks and Bones was not just the woeful spectacle of a blinded war veteran but rather more about the calloused sensibility of the homes from which the veteran emerges and to which he returns—perhaps the ground for the very outbreak and social tolerance of wars. Boom Boom Room pictured ordinary people of lowly estate sunk in the sewers of our civilization, from which a few still attempt agonizingly to climb out.

It would not be very helpful at this juncture to set down the details of events in Rabe's latest play Streamers…. It takes place in a bare barracks room in Virginia, 1965. But it is not about the war or about the army. One of the room's occupants is a homosexual soldier but the play is not about his "problem," any more than it is about the "black problem" because two black soldiers are involved in the ensuing violence. The combined history of these men and a third—who is just a blandly decent fellow from Wisconsin—along with the sodden sergeants of long professional (military) experience, is not only bloody but a study of long-standing benightedness and misery.

A "universal" inference is evoked: humanity is composed of poor forked animals caught in a trap of which they can never understand the exact identity or the way out. As one of the black men—the most level-headed and innocent of the lot—says of his duties for which he has no more liking than have any of the others: "We're here, aren't we?," and carries on in resigned bewilderment. Rabe sees the bitter joke of this situation but evinces no scorn for any of his characters' ugliest or most shameful actions. There is a certain stoic objectivity (not without its heartbreak) in the depiction, free of any conscious will to shock or gratification in shocking. He simply echoes the pathos of "We're here, aren't we?" One of the play's ironies is that every character is dismayed or "turned off" by the mote in his neighbor's eye but does not consider the beam in his own. Each man has every reason to be considerate of the others, and each hurts the others terribly.

For all the cruel coarseness which agitates Streamers, it is a sober play which speaks, after all, in a "small" voice. (p. 574)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 8, 1976.

The American theater may be short on lots of things, but one gift it's loaded with—the ability to make mountains out of molehills. A current playwriting molehill is David Rabe. Now that he has written a play that is not as artily imitative in form, not as rankly jejune and shallow as were, in varying degree, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, The Orphan and In the Boom Boom Room, he is hailed as near-Olympian and garlanded further with prizes. Streamers is called his best play and the best American play of the season. Both of those things may in fact be true; but they strike me as mournful.

Rabe has some ability to write dialogue (although it wavers …). He has some instinct for dramatic action and for the revelation of character through contest. But that's like saying of a painter that he understands perspective and can turn form with color. Then what? To begin with Rabe's fundamental lack, which would govern even if he were technically and stylistically more accomplished, he has no insights deeper than those of his audience. And his artistic gifts are insufficient to turn his commonplace percepts into strong dramatic emblems for us so that, even if he didn't enlighten, he could at least fix memorably what we've seen for ourselves. Rabe asks for our attention to tell us what we already know about ourselves and our society, and he puts what he has to say in very earnest but rickety form.

In Streamers he has at least abjured second-hand expressionism, bloated neo-classicism, melodramatic physical images. It's a linear play in realistic mode. Of course this doesn't preclude symbolism, of an internal "literary" kind, and Rabe hurries to exercise this option, beginning with the title. "Streamers" are paratroopers whose parachutes don't open. This play is set in an Army barracks in 1965, but it's not about paratroopers. So, you see—you quickly see—the title is symbolic….

The key incidents have the smell of matters that Rabe himself saw or heard of in the army, that greatly disturbed him, and that he wanted to make some statement about. But he has merely pushed some accidents into a sack. (Whether they are based on his experience or not, they are just accidents of occurrence.)… The incidents in the play remain accidents. The two stories—of homosexual tension, of black disquiet—are arbitrarily pushed together, as if there were some real relation between psychosexual drama and racial bitterness; and the two are hurriedly married at the end by a sheerly insane violent act, unfounded in character….

Outstanding amidst the gimmicks banked for later reference is "Beautiful Streamers," a paratroopers' song given to us early by two drunken old professional-army sergeants. (The tune is Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer.") We get it early, so that we can get it late—in that painful coda—a big windy metaphor which we are supposed to accept as Poetry without question. But what does it symbolize? What does the symbol of an unopened parachute mean to anything we have seen? Alternatively, what would an "opened parachute" have been in any of the lives we have seen tangled? (p. 20)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 12, 1976.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel … is the first of David Rabe's angrily talented plays. I liked Sticks and Bones even better, and Streamers the best. The three constitute a kind of triptych; though they do not all have the same theme, there is, along with the ferocity, a vein of moral hurt and compassion in all of them.

Pavlo Hummel is not an anti-war play in the conventional sense, nor for that matter are the others. It shows an ignorant, unhappy, guileless youth with no harm or malice in him slowly becoming degraded and brutalized by the "basic training" of an environment—in this case the Army—even before he serves in Vietnam. Environment might have had some of the same ugly consequences if he had remained at home with such a family as the one depicted in Sticks and Bones….

Pavlo is an innocent, so much so that his fellow trainees regard him as a freak…. But the change in Pavlo from the gutter Parsifal of the first act (we hear that he was a virgin at the time of his Army enlistment) to the later soiled and nasty Pavlo is not sufficiently marked. Thus there is a slight monotony in the performance, so that the final scenes, which should be even more bruising than the preceding ones, fall a little flat. (p. 602)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 14, 1977.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel … produced in 1971 but in the writing since 1968, today seems almost as dated as Anna Christie. This interests me particularly because I had, as the book jacket of the published play reminded me, compared Rabe favorably with O'Neill. Time has now come full circle, and I must again compare him to O'Neill, to the disadvantage of both. Pavlo's language begins to have the same literalness that O'Neill's had, and fails to achieve transcendence in its occasional leaps, exactly as O'Neill's failed.

This is the story of a somewhat unbright, somewhat dishonest, yet basically well-meaning bumbler…. Though he becomes moderately efficient as a soldier [in Vietnam], he ends up dying a death as silly as his life. Pavlo does, however, have his little decencies, and, finally, he is a human being; seeing him live and die so shabbily is moving, not the least because Rabe wisely refrains from any sentimentality. Nevertheless, I am fairly sure that much of the fervor in behalf of the play stemmed from its coming when it did and from whom it did—a Vietnam veteran writing with the war still on, and managing to capture some of it for us in a way that other Vietnam plays, written by people who hadn't been there, did not. (pp. 27-8)

John Simon, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 23, 1977.