Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370
In its original productions, Sticks and Bones received mixed reviews from critics. While some found the play to be an original and powerful portrayal of Vietnam-related themes, other critics had problems with the way Rabe juggled the many symbols, themes, and writing styles, arguing that he did not keep all these elements under control.
A critic who liked the play, Douglas Watt of the Daily News writes, "It is a play written out of rage over what Rabe...considers our widespread complacency about the events in Indochina. But it has not been written in rage. It is, instead, a beautifully controlled and even poetic work of the imagination that becomes almost unbearably moving as it unfolds." While Martin Gottfried of Women's Wear Daily generally praises the play, he has reservations that are shared in principle by many critics. He argues, "The writing is strong enough not to need such crutches as blindness...It is prone to stretches of poetry that ring artificial and pretentious. These flaws can be easily corrected. Rabe is a playwright of profound power."
One topic of debate among critics is Rabe's complex symbolism, and his use of it. While many like it, others do not believe symbols are used effectively. A symbol that some critics enjoyed and others did not understand is the use of the names from the Ozzie and Harriet sitcom. Critics like Richard Watts of the New York Post do not comprehend why Rabe made this choice. On symbols, Clive Barnes of New York Times writes, "[a]t times he is kicking the hell out of soap operas, at other times he is throwing around inflated—but always effective—symbols as if they were medicine balls, and elsewhere he seems to be evoking ghosts from classic drama." Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic takes a more negative view, looking at the symbols as ineffective ironies. He writes,"A suing of ironies runs through the play, each of them trite, the blind man is the one who can really see, the 'healthy' people are really sick, the priest is really un-Christian." As Jerry Tallmer of the New York Post argues,"Sticks and Bones, for all its force, has every watermark of a first work."