In both style and content, Hurlyburly marks a new direction for David Rabe, although in some ways it is a continuation of his earlier work. Such plays as Sticks and Bones (pr. 1969, pb. 1972), The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (pr. 1971, pb. 1973), and Streamers (pr. 1976, pb. 1977) stamped Rabe as a playwright of the Vietnam War. Only in In the Boom Boom Room (pr. 1974, pb. 1975) had Rabe departed from the subject of the soldier and the Vietnam experience. The Vietnam plays tended to be somewhat abstract and nonrealistic, at least in terms of external stage appearances.
In his three Vietnam War plays, Rabe’s focus is on the individual who, as seemingly helpless and unwitting victim, is caught up in a violent and chaotic situation created by a society that appears to be indifferent to the soldier’s needs. Whether it is Pavlo, who must keep reliving bits and pieces of his life in attempting to arrive at some sense of meaning, or Rick, who, returning from the war, is disoriented and cannot reenter a society which had sent him off to war, or the paratroopers in Streamers, who see the image of the unopened parachute as a symbol of their helplessness, Rabe’s characters, confused and frightened, appear helpless to control their own destinies.
If, as Rabe himself intimates, Hurlyburly takes up the question of the nature of one’s destiny, then it is both a continuation and a break with his earlier plays. Set in the jungle of Hollywood rather than Vietnam, it features characters who seem a bit brighter and much more articulate; accordingly, they arrive at a more clearly defined answer: Destiny is shaped by chance.
Stylistically, Hurlyburly is unequivocably a departure. Rabe’s early plays make use of a variety of nonrealistic stage practices, yet while planning Hurlyburly, he has said, he was drawn to attempt a realistic or “well-made” play. It is a measure of his talent as a playwright that he has not been content simply to repeat himself, as is the fate of so many writers who achieve early success.