David Rabe 1940-
(Full name David William Rabe) American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Rabe's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, and 33.
Regarded as one of the most important dramatists in American theater, Rabe garnered national attention for his Vietnam trilogy, a series of three plays that delve into the violence and chaos of the Vietnam War and its effects on young soldiers. Critics praise his exploration of sensitive issues such as the exploitation of women, the deleterious impact of drug use, the depravity of materialism, and the decline of the American value system. In his work, black humor, visible acts of violence, symbolism, and strong language provide the context for alienated characters who struggle to find meaning in the modern world.
Rabe was born March 10, 1940, in Dubuque, Iowa. He became interested in writing in high school. In 1962 he received his B.A. from Loras College. In 1965 he joined the military and was assigned to a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam, an experience that had a profound impact on his life and writing. After his return in 1967 he attended Villanova University on a Rockefeller Playwrighting Fellowship. He received an M.A. from Villanova in 1968. Two years later, he became an assistant professor there. In 1971 the influential producer Joseph Papp was instrumental in staging Rabe's first professionally produced play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. The play garnered favorable critical attention and Rabe received an Obie as well as Drama Desk and Drama Guild awards for the production. With his next few plays, he established himself as a leading American playwright noted for his exploration of difficult and controversial subjects. In addition to his well-regarded dramatic pieces, Rabe has written a novel, screenplays, and film adaptations. He has received several prestigious awards for his work, including a Tony Award in 1972, a National Institute and American Academy Award in Literature in 1976, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Rabe established his reputation as a playwright with his Vietnam trilogy: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1971), and Streamers (1976). Pavlo Hummel centers on the title character, a teenager estranged from his family who seeks companionship and meaning in his life by becoming a good soldier. In Vietnam he observes a lack of respect for humanity, participates in acts of violence, and dies a senseless death. Sticks and Bones is a symbolic presentation of society's refusal to acknowledge the horrors of the Vietnam War. When David, a blind, embittered Vietnam veteran, returns home to America and his family, he is haunted by his war experiences and unable to connect with his parents and brother. Considered Rabe's most accomplished play, Streamers focuses on three soldiers who live together in barracks while awaiting transport to Vietnam. The uneasy camaraderie of the group is disrupted by racial and sexual tension. Based on Aeschylus's Oresteia, The Orphan (1973, 1974) is sometimes considered Rabe's fourth Vietnam play, for although it does not take place in Vietnam, it echoes the experience of war.
In his other plays, Rabe dramatizes the deterioration of moral standards in contemporary American society. Boom Boom Room (1973) focuses on a female go-go dancer who is repeatedly humiliated and exploited by men. Hurlyburly (1984) is set in a Hollywood home where four men associated with the entertainment industry pass time by taking drugs and having sex with women whom they do not respect. Rabe dramatizes how drugs, liquor, meaningless sex, and the pervasiveness of popular culture have infected and undermined individual intelligence and morality in American society. The play was eventually adapted by Rabe into a feature film in 1998. In Those the River Keeps (1991), a former Mafia hit man cannot escape his criminal past. When an old mob buddy shows up at his house in California, he is tempted to abandon his newfound domestic tranquility and fall into his old ways. A Question of Mercy (1997) concerns the issue of assisted suicide. When Thomas asks his doctor to assist in the suicide of his AIDS-afflicted lover, the physician struggles with the decision before finally agreeing to end the terminally ill man's life. Rabe's latest play, The Dog Problem (2001), has been called an Italian mob comedy. When Joey, a mobster, sets out to avenge the sexual humiliation of his sister, Teresa, he ends up killing a dog instead of his sister's lover. Rabe's novel Recital of the Dog (1993) concerns the mental degeneration of a middle-aged painter after moving to a bucolic rural area with his family. When he brutally kills a neighbor's dog, he spirals into a complete mental breakdown. In addition to his plays and novel, Rabe has written or adapted numerous screenplays. His Casualties of War (1989) was based on an incident related in a 1969 New Yorker article. The movie follows a five-man combat unit fighting in the Vietnam War as they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman, gang-rape her, and finally murder her. When one of the men objects and refuses to participate, the others consider him a coward and traitor and turn against him.
Rabe is recognized as an influential American playwright, but his work has met with mixed reviews. Critics contend that the subject matter of Rabe's plays is disturbing, which often results in commercial failure but critical acclaim for his individual plays. However, most critics commend him for inventive dramas that reflect his political and social consciousness and exhibit his command of dramatic technique. They contend that his early work, known as the Vietnam trilogy, provides insight into the social, political, and intellectual divisions that characterized the Vietnam era, while his later work concerns the shallowness of drug- and media-obsessed culture. Critics identify the quest for male friendship and camaraderie as a central theme in many of Rabe's plays. On a related note, feminist critics discuss the misogynist motifs in his work, particularly in Hurlyburly and Boom Boom Room, in which female characters are denigrated, exploited, and perceived as sexual objects. Rabe's work has been compared to that of Sam Shepard, particularly in its use of naturalistic and absurdist elements, its emphasis on homosocial bonds, and exploration of the deterioration of American culture and values.