The Play

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As Hurlyburly opens, the half-dressed Eddie is asleep on the couch, and the television on the coffee table is droning out the morning news. Phil enters and wakes Eddie with the news that he and his wife had a big fight the night before, because he was stoned and she would not let him explain his plan “to save the world.” Phil reports that he “whacked” her and left her for good.

Shortly after Mickey enters, Eddie and Phil snort some cocaine and smoke some marijuana; Phil tells Eddie about a part he might get in a film with a certain director, and Eddie gives him the inside story on the director. Phil then exits with one of the scripts on which Eddie and Mickey are working. Left alone, the roommates begin to discuss Darlene, a “dynamite lady” whom Eddie dated and then introduced to Mickey, who has just had dinner with her “in order to, you know, determine the nature of these vibes.”

Artie shows up with Donna, whom he says he found in his elevator; he has brought her to be used however the roommates wish. Eddie says sarcastically that Mickey would not want to fool around with Donna, since he has the dynamite lady, Darlene. When Artie tells them that he has a meeting with a certain Herb Simon, Eddie tries to give him the lowdown on people such as Simon. After Artie exits, Donna returns from the bathroom; while she tells about her experiences in Artie’s elevator, Mickey tries to caress and undress her. Phil reenters, and Eddie explains to him how Donna was brought as a care package “for people without serious relationships.” Eddie takes Donna away from Mickey and into the bedroom; they are followed by Phil, who professes delight with “the bachelor’s life.”

Scene 2 opens on the evening of the same day. Darlene is seated at the kitchen counter when Eddie enters, and they begin to squabble over his tendency to create confusion with thoughts and words. Entering with groceries, Mickey proceeds to tell them that he was outside listening before he came in and that what he heard, underneath the squabbling, was real passion. Such honesty allows everyone to confess the truth: that Eddie does have feelings for Darlene, that she cares for him, and that Mickey will eventually return to his wife and kids. After Mickey exits, Eddie and Darlene try to express their feelings.

Scene 3 begins in the late afternoon of the next day; Donna is watching television and listening to the record player when Phil comes in. They get into a shouting match; it is clear that Phil is highly distraught. When Eddie enters, Phil complains about Donna being there when all he wanted was to talk to Eddie about his problems and watch the football game. After Eddie leaves the room, Donna tells Phil that she wants to watch the game too, but he roughhouses with her and causes her to cry. When Eddie reenters, Phil claims that he was showing her something about football; Donna exits, swearing. Phil tells Eddie that he might return to his wife, who wants to have a baby, but Eddie urges him not to do it thoughtlessly. Donna enters and announces that she is “taking a hike” as act 1 ends.

Act 2 opens in the same house a year later. It is evening, and Phil and Artie are telling Eddie and Mickey how Phil knocked a fellow unconscious in a bar. This story leads into a discussion of Phil’s violent nature, which Eddie explains in reference to Phil’s baby...

(This entire section contains 1026 words.)

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having been born and his divorce having been finalized in the same month. He decides that what Phil needs is a woman, and he sets him up with Bonnie. Everyone begins to share an assortment of “pharmaceutical experiments”—marijuana, cocaine, liquor, and beer—after which Bonnie and Phil leave together.

Artie then turns on Eddie, assuring him that he is deceiving himself about the kind of person Phil is. Mickey agrees and prepares to leave with Artie, who tells Eddie—who has switched to vodka and begun to get mean-spirited—that he has taken in too much chemical pollution.

Bonnie comes through the door, her clothing ripped and dirty and her body bruised. She is furious at Eddie for having introduced her to Phil, who almost killed her by pushing her out of the car while it was moving. Eddie continues to drink heavily, and soon Phil arrives, apologetic and self-deprecating. Eddie rambles drunkenly about how depressed he is, Phil rushes out to get something from the car, Artie and Mickey enter, and Bonnie leaves in disgust. Phil reenters with his baby, having taken it while his wife was asleep, and announces that he is going to beg his wife to take him back.

Act 3 begins several days later, in the early evening. Mickey and Darlene are engaged in a joking conversation when Eddie walks in. Mickey leaves, and Eddie begins to criticize Darlene for being unable to choose when she has two alternatives, whether the decision has to do with men or restaurants. The telephone rings; Eddie picks it up and hears that Phil has died in a car accident.

Scene 2 opens with Eddie, Mickey, and Artie returning from Phil’s funeral. After a brief discussion of the funeral, Artie leaves. Eddie is startled to find a letter from Phil in his mail; he opens it to read, “The guy who dies in an accident understands the nature of destiny.” Mickey tells Eddie to forget it, but Eddie, determined to find out what Phil meant, begins consulting a dictionary. As he deciphers it, the message means, “If you die in a happening that is not expected, foreseen or intended, you understand the inevitable or necessary succession of events.”

Alone, and once again drugged, Eddie turns on the television set and carries on a dialogue with it until Donna enters. He tells Donna abut Phil’s death, and she tries to comfort and reassure him. Finally, they lie down on the couch to go to sleep in each other’s arms as the lights come down.

Dramatic Devices

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Since Hurlyburly is basically a realistic play, nonrealistic or constructionist dramatic devices are inappropriate. However, Rabe still creates powerful dramatic effects, primarily through rich, evocative images, strong action, and visual tableaux.

From the opening scene, when Phil walks in on Eddie, who is asleep with the television on, to the last scene, when Eddie, left alone onstage, turns on the television and begins his dialogue with Johnny Carson, the television set is ever-present as an object of fascination and contempt. Ironically, whenever Eddie watches television, rather than listening and watching passively, he argues with and harangues it in a grotesque, surreal demonstration of failed communication: The television does not listen to him nor he to it, yet each roars on at the other. Another irony arises from the fact that while television provides careers for the characters, they—especially Eddie—are repulsed by it.

The ingestion of beer, marijuana, cocaine, vodka, and Valium, which recurs with dizzying frequency, constitutes a major motif. More than once, Eddie takes out his box of stash and, like a high priest ceremoniously holding up a holy object, begins the ritual of laying out vials, pills, and powders, sometimes in order to share it with friends, at other times to perform his religious ceremony alone. The ironic fulfillment of the drug motif occurs toward the end of the play in a painful and memorable tableau when Eddie, drinking himself into oblivion, crawls on the floor with his bottle of vodka and a trash can. As he hugs the trash can tightly, the audience becomes aware of the wasted, discarded life.

Another dramatic device comes with the arrival of Donna, who carries with her an album of romantic ballads by Willie Nelson. Donna’s description of the album seems to merge the mythic West with the corrupt city: “It’s like this cowboy on the plains . . . and the mountains are there but it’s still the deep dark city streets.” The song “Someone to Watch Over Me” fades in and out between some of the scenes, creating the awareness that these characters, lost in dark city streets, do indeed need someone to watch over them.

As the play moves toward its conclusion, Eddie discovers a letter that Phil had mailed to him before his death. The unraveling of the contents of Phil’s letter, with the aid of the dictionary, creates a powerful stage device, as Eddie, always searching for meanings, comes to grips with Phil’s last act by saying, “It makes sense.”


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Sources for Further Study

Kolin, Philip C. David Rabe: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988.

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

Leiter, Robert. Review in Hudson Review 38 (Summer, 1985): 297-299.

McDonough, Carla J. Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama. Jefferson, Mo.: McFarland, 1996.

Radavich, David. “Collapsing Male Myths: Rabe’s Tragic-comic Hurlyburly.” American Drama (Fall, 1993): 1-16.

Savran, David. “David Rabe.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Weales, Gerald. “Theatre Watch.” Georgia Review 39 (Fall, 1985): 620-621.

Zinman, Toby Silverman. David Rabe: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1991.


Critical Essays