To talk in terms of a single theme in Hurlyburly would be to ignore the density of the play’s content. David Rabe himself, in an essay written for the Grove Press book club edition of 1985, explained that he thinks in terms of at least two levels of meaning, the psychological and the philosophical. In the early stages of rehearsal, without understanding completely what he was saying, Rabe told the actors, “Eddie, through the death of Phil, was saved from being Mickey.” In time, Rabe says that he came to understand that the play deals with the psychological union of opposites.
The house represents a whole self, an individual. In this house, Mickey and Eddie are, in Rabe’s terms, “king,” two sides to the same individual personality. Phil is the shadow side of the same personality, the powerful forces of vitality and disorder of the unconscious. Mickey’s way of dealing with the “Phil” part of the self is to mask it behind cynicism, rejection, and resentment—the socially accepted way of dealing with this side of the human personality. Eddie, drawn to the “Phil” force within himself, seeks to channel these powers before they can overwhelm large and essential quantities of himself. Rabe says that while Mickey might oppose the threat of Phil by means of rational condemnation and thus keep himself removed from any possible influence, Eddie is unable to maintain such a purely cerebral stance and is “drawn toward the dangers of conflict and disorientation as if spellbound.” This theme, Rabe declares, is “the essence of the play itself.” Mickey represents the conventional and rational way of dealing with the “inferior side of the inner man.” Eddie, sympathetic and supportive of Phil, accepts the shadow self, has compassion for the “inferior inner man,” and thus is able to accept “the Self.”
On another level, the play has strong philosophical overtones. The note Phil sends to Eddie occurred to Rabe quite by surprise as he wrote; he insists that it contains another theme, which is that out of accidents destiny is hewn. What Phil’s note says, ultimately, is that chance is destiny. This idea harks back to the nineteenth century naturalists such as Thomas Hardy and Stephen Crane. Rabe says that this idea was very much on his mind when he was writing this play.
On a third level, the play may also be seen as a parable of contemporary American life, of a society caught up in the hurlyburly of dehumanization and despair. The characters struggle with language and meanings, they dress often in tattered and patched clothing, suggesting their unraveled lives, and they resort to a wide variety of pharmaceutical experimentation, looking for tranquillity in a frenetic, disjointed world.