David Rabe Rabe, David (Vol. 200) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

*The Bones of Birds (play) 1968

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (play) 1971

Sticks and Bones (play) 1971

**Boom Boom Room (play) 1973

Streamers (play) 1976

Goose and Tomtom (play) 1982

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

Streamers (screenplay) 1983

Hurlyburly (play) 1984

Casualties of War (screenplay) 1989

Cosmologies (unfinished drama) 1990

Those the River Keeps (play) 1991

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

Recital of the Dog (novel) 1993

A Question of Mercy (play) 1997

Hurlyburly (screenplay) 1998

Gilgamesh the Prince (play) 1999

The Dog Problem (play) 2001

*This work was revised as The Orphan, or Orestes and the E=MC2 in 1970 and as The Orphan in 1973 and 1974.

**This work was revised as In the Boom Boom Room in 1974 and 1976.

Philip C. Kolin (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Staging Hurlyburly: David Rabe's Parable for the 1980s.” Theatre Annual 41 (1986): 63-78.

[In the following essay, Kolin identifies the major themes of Hurlyburly and illustrates “how language, costume, gesture, movement, and stage symbol reveal character and idea” in the play.]

Hurlyburly is David Rabe's auspicious seventh and most recent play. According to Jack Kroll, the play “made theatrical history of a sort.”1 After a brief run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Hurlyburly was staged successfully in New York, not on Broadway but on off-Broadway, at the relatively small Promenade Theatre in...

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David Rabe and Philip C. Kolin (interview date 10 February 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabe, David, and Philip C. Kolin. “An Interview with David Rabe.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 3, no. 2 (spring 1989): 135-56.

[In the following interview, conducted on February 10, 1998, Rabe discusses his creative process, his use of symbolism, and aspects of individual plays.]

Coming from America's heartland (Dubuque, Iowa), David Rabe was drafted in 1965 at the age of 25 and completed a tour of duty in the literal Vietnam that he would later project symbolically on the American stage. Defining that event for himself, Rabe became one of the most promising playwrights of the post-1970 theatre. After his discharge from the Army, Rabe finished...

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Gavin Smith (review date July-August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Gavin. “Body Count.” Film Comment 25, no. 4 (July-August 1989): 49-52.

[In the following mixed review of Casualties of War, Smith contends that “the film misses out on the opportunity to provoke ideologically.”]

Brian De Palma and David Rabe's Casualties of War offers the familiar guilty pleasures of the Vietnam picture: the vicarious sensations of combat exhilaration and the relinquishment of moral, social and historical coordinates—as all hell breaks loose around you. But it also advances the evolution of the Vietnam genre, which has always sought to transcend the political disillusionment and absurdist nihilism upon which it...

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John Simon (review date 29 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “The Enemy Was Us.” National Review 41, no. 18 (29 September 1989): 63-4.

[In the following review, Simon derides the ending of Casualties of War.]

Brian De Palma, who makes films in which women are brutally murdered, and David Rabe, a Vietnam veteran who writes plays about that war, have teamed up as director and screenwriter for Casualties of War, about an American platoon in Vietnam that kidnaps, gang-rapes, and finally kills a pretty, teen-aged Vietnamese farm girl. The film is based on Daniel Lang's 1969 New Yorker article, later published as a book. This is the true story as told by Private “Sven Eriksson” (only the...

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Marianthe Colakis (essay date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Colakis, Marianthe. “The House of Atreus Myth in the Seventies and Eighties: David Rabe's The Orphan and Joyce Carol Oates's Angel of Light.Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 9, no. 2 (winter 1989): 125-30.

[In the following essay, Colakis compares the use of the House of Atreus myth in Rabe's The Orphan and Joyce Carol Oates's novel Angel of Light.]

Even in the last two decades, when Greek myths are no longer a part of general knowledge, they have not lost their appeal to certain of our dramatists and novelists. When contemporary authors place timeless situations and characters in settings that reflect modern consciousness,...

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Jeffery W. Fenn (essay date fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fenn, Jeffery W. “Conditioned Response: David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.Canadian Review of American Studies 21, no. 2 (fall 1990): 157-72.

[In the following essay, Fenn asserts that The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel exemplifies the defining characteristics of the genre of the Vietnam war drama and places the play within the context of Rabe's Vietnam trilogy.]

David Rabe's “Vietnam Trilogy,” comprising The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummell (1968), Streamers (1976), and Sticks and Bones (1969), exemplifies many of the recurring themes and motifs that came not only to characterize, but virtually to...

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Tony J. Stafford (essay date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stafford, Tony J. “The Metaphysics of Rabe's Hurlyburly: ‘Staring into the Eyes of Providence.’” American Drama 1, no. 2 (spring 1992): 60-76.

[In the following essay, Stafford argues that “the root cause of the social conditions in Hurlyburly arises from metaphysics, more specifically epistemology and ontology.”]

The worrisome picture of contemporary American society as presented in David Rabe's Hurlyburly has been variously described as “an America suffering from confusion, violence, and an obsession with image making” (Kolin 63), “a market society … carried to extremes” (Klein 5), “a world based on whim and...

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James Brown (review date 7 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, James. “Inside the Head of a Headcase.” Chicago Tribune Books (7 February 1993): 6.

[In the following review, Brown views Recital of the Dog as an allegory about crime and punishment.]

In the introduction to the first publication of his award-winning plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, David Rabe remarked that earlier in his life he wrote both plays and novels and that he was “not dedicated to any one form.” But upon receiving a Rockefeller grant in playwriting not long after he returned from the Vietnam War, Rabe's thought, as he recalled it, was, “I'll dash off some plays real quick, then focus...

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Peter Filkins (review date 4 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Filkins, Peter. “Fetch, Speak, Play Dead.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 April 1993): 7.

[In the following review, Filkins maintains that “despite a flaw or two, Recital of the Dog is a novel as well-crafted as it is brutal, as obsessive as it is superbly controlled.”]

“If you've never murdered a dog,” cautions the narrator of David Rabe's first novel, “or done any of the other things I've done … then you will have to believe that when these things happen, they happen the way I've said.” Such is the challenge the award-winning playwright poses for himself in Recital of the Dog, for in leading his reader through the gruesome...

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April Austin (review date 17 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Austin, April. “A Hoodlum in the Existential Mode.” Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 119 (17 May 1993): 12.

[In the following review, Austin provides a mixed assessment of Those the River Keeps.]

Mafia ruthlessness and machismo have provided material for a numbing array of plays, movies, and books. The mob holds a fascination for dramatists who seek an environment in which the worst instincts of men are cultivated, giving the writer permission to explore dark realms of human behavior.

In David Rabe's new play, Those the River Keeps (produced as part of the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages program), the mob plays a subsidiary...

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David Radavich (essay date fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Radavich, David. “Collapsing Male Myths: Rabe's Tragicomic Hurlyburly.American Drama 3, no. 1 (fall 1993): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Radavich argues that what separates Hurlyburly from other works that explore male homosocial relationships is Rabe's use of comedy and satire.]

Dramatic narratives of decadent, confused patriarchy under siege have dominated American theatre of the 1970s and '80s. David Mamet's stage works document the struggle of men to maintain close ties against a backdrop of mutual competitiveness, fear of and hostility toward women, and distrust of intimacy longed for but incapable of being acknowledged. Sam Shepard...

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William Hutchings (review date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hutchings, William. Review of Recital of the Dog, by David Rabe. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (spring 1994): 371.

[In the following review, Hutchings cites parallels between Recital of the Dog and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.]

Not since the Ancient Mariner wantonly shot the albatross has the more or less capricious killing of an animal touched off so bizarre and perverse a series of events as those that occur after the shooting of Barney the dog at the beginning of playwright David Rabe's first novel, Recital of the Dog. These repercussions become increasingly ominous for the book's first-person narrator,...

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William W. Demastes and Michael Vanden Heuvel (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: 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, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 255-74. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Demastes and Vanden Heuvel contend that the works of Rabe and Sam Shepard embody a new direction in American theater, one that incorporates realism and absurdism to subvert “the bastion of traditional, strictly linear and causal realist theatre in an attempt to reveal the indeterminate and chaotic nature of the world.”]

In his essay “Naturalism in...

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Robert L. Daniels (review date 3 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Daniels, Robert L. Review of A Question of Mercy, by David Rabe. Variety 366, no. 5 (3 March 1997): 78.

[In the following review, Daniels provides a favorable assessment of A Question of Mercy.]

David Rabe's gripping new drama, A Question of Mercy, confronts the timely topic of assisted suicide. With unsettling candor and disturbing insight, the play arouses pity and understanding of a troubling subject. Director Douglas Hughes has staged the play with conviction, drawing urgency and resonance from his fine principal players.

Based on a New York Times Magazine essay by Dr. Richard Selzer, the drama builds in intensity and...

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David Rabe and Stephanie Coen (interview date July-August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabe, David and Stephanie Coen. “When Reason Fails.” American Theatre 14, no. 6 (July-August 1997): 22.

[In the following interview, Rabe discusses his dramatic adaptation of A Question of Mercy.]

[Coen]: What led you to dramatize the essay by Richard Selzer?

[Rabe]: The piece was originally published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and when I read it, I was stunned by it as it unfolded. I had been in talks with American Playhouse about doing an adaptation of something else, so they were on my mind—I first approached them about doing it on television, and they said yes and optioned it.


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Jack Barbera (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barbera, Jack. “The Emotion of Multitude and David Rabe's Streamers.American Drama 7, no. 1 (fall 1997): 50-66.

[In the following essay, Barbera details the dramatic techniques used by Rabe to express what W. B. Yeats called the “emotion of multitude.”]

In a single-paragraph essay on drama, “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats makes a dramatic claim about what “all the great masters have understood.” “There cannot be great art,” he says, “without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it.” What Yeats calls the...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 18 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Hello from Hollywood.” New Republic 220, no. 3 (18 January 1999): 26.

[In the following review, Kauffmann discusses Hurlyburly as a reflection of contemporary American morality.]

The time capsule will be chock full. If such a capsule is arranged in the year 2000 to be opened a century later, and if it includes a fair sampling of films that reflect the moral climate of our time, it's going to be crowded. American films about American morals have been plentiful from the beginning, but as the century ends, the graph line is climbing. Just in recent months we've had Happiness and Your Friends and Neighbors and Very...

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Robert Hofler (review date 11 June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hofler, Robert. Review of The Dog Problem, by David Rabe. Variety 383, no. 4 (11 June 2001): 25.

[In the following review, Hofler offers a negative assessment of The Dog Problem.]

The bruised male egos and themes of compromised manhood of David Rabe's best plays are all on display in his latest, The Dog Problem. This time out he wraps them in the format of an Italian mob comedy, a not-very-high concept he probably came up with before The Sopranos but not before we all saw Married to the Mob or Prizzi's Honor. What Rabe is doing in hit-man territory with The Dog Problem is anybody's guess.

As always in...

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Toby Silverman Zinman (essay date 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zinman, Toby Silverman. “What's Wrong with This Picture?: David Rabe's Comic-Strip Plays.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 229-39. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Zinman suggests that the characters in Rabe's plays are similar to cardboard cutouts and comic-strip characters in the vein of Roy Lichtenstein's paintings.]

There is something oddly anachronistic in David Rabe's radically contemporary plays, but his use of anachronism is neither the conventional reference to something too modern for its context, nor the reverse, the nostalgic drift of so much...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Scheck, Frank. “Off-Broadway Opts Not to Keep Those the River Keeps.Christian Science Monitor 86, no. 52 (8 February 1994): 12.

Elucidates the major weaknesses of Rabe's 1994 stage production of Those the River Keeps.

Additional coverage of Rabe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 59, 129; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 8,...

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