Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1512
Much of the action and thematic concerns of Sticks and Bones are related to the idea of isolation. To be isolated means to be set apart from others or alone. Throughout the play, David, the blind Vietnam veteran, grows increasingly isolated from his family after he returns home from the war. But David is not the only character to feel isolated. Ozzie also suffers from isolation to a greater degree than Harriet, Rick, the Asian Girl, and Father Donald, though they are all isolated from something or someone in their lives. Indeed, the very home the play takes place in is isolated. The home is a sanctuary from reality for Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, isolating them from the events of the ever-changing world that David has come from. intrusive visitors from the outside world are not welcome. This essay looks primarily at the parallel individual isolations of David and Ozzie, and to some degree, Rick.
David is the most obvious example of isolation personified in the play. From the moment he enters the home, he is alone, though his whole family is there. During the war, David was blinded. This visual disability sets him apart from his family who are, at least on the surface, perfectly normal. When the Sergeant Major delivers David to the home, the family is caught by surprise at this development. Ozzie and Harriet had no idea that David was blinded, and, at first, they have a problem even accepting that he is their son. David, as well, is aware that there is a problem. He tells the Sergeant Major who delivered him, "there's something wrong: it all feels wrong." and "I AM LONELY HERE!" These feelings only grow over the course of the play.
David will not or cannot—it is never made clear which—leave the home: he is trapped in an isolated and isolating place. Because Ozzie and Harriet, and for that matter Rick, only try to communicate with David on their terms and in their way of understanding the world (through the filter of the home), David feels all the more isolated. Harriet, and to some degree Ozzie, are aware of David's feelings. But their remedy is not to change their approach but to continue to treat him in the same way. For example, Harriet wants to ply him with food. Rick responds to this kind of communication well, but David has a different kind of hunger that eating fudge will not satisfy.
For his part, David makes some attempts to communicate his pain and to break through the isolation but to no avail. Early in act I, for example, he tells his father about meeting with one of Ozzie's old friends, Hank Grenweller, while in boot camp. David contradicts Ozzie's memory of a physical problem with one of Hank's hands and tells him that Hank is dying. Ozzie denies what David is saying about the problem and doubts that David even saw Hank because, as far as Ozzie knows, Hank resides in Georgia, while David was stationed in California. Ozzie can only accept his version of reality—the one formed in the home—increasing David's feelings of isolation. These kinds of incidents pile up over the course of the play and occur not just with Ozzie but also with Harriet, Rick, and Father Donald.
The only place where David can escape to be both physically and mentally isolated from his family and their way of life is the sanctuary of his room. When Harriet and Father Donald invade it, they suffer the consequences: fear and physical pain. Yet he is not alone in his room. It is there that David senses the presence of the Asian Girl, the ghost-like representation of a woman he was involved with while in Vietnam. She is the only thing in the play that decreases his isolation. But Ozzie and Harriet's total rejection of David's experience with her only increases his isolation.
Like David, Ozzie is extremely isolated from his family, though he has buried his feelings of isolation much deeper. David's physical isolation— his blindness—contributes to keeping his emotional isolation on the surface. Ozzie is his home's figurehead, the stereotypical father. As has already been mentioned, the home over which Ozzie ostensibly rules is isolated from outside realities, like David's experiences in Vietnam. Ozzie's isolation takes on a different form than David's. He is not constantly openly hostile to Harriet or Rick, though he becomes that way with David and has moments of hostility toward the other two.
One way Ozzie reveals his separateness is through several monologues he delivers when he thinks he is alone. During his first monologue in Act I, he says, "They think they know me, and they know nothing." He goes on to tell the audience about his true feelings, primarily via stories of past glories. Ozzie also dies to connect with Rick on occasion, and this failure to get through to his younger, "normal" son leaves Ozzie feeling more isolated. One example of this happens near the end of act I. Ozzie asks Rick to teach him how to pick up and play the guitar. In awkward fashion, Ozzie toes to explain his emptiness and isolation to Rick, but Rick does not understand his father's ramblings at all. In Act II, after one of Ozzie's stories, Rick tells his father, "I've got to get going...you're just talking nonsense anyway."
Like David, as Ozzie grows more and more isolated, he becomes violent and irrational. For example, at the end of Act I, he becomes angry, insults his wife, and he repeatedly slaps David. Ozzie later admits to David in a long, monologue-like speech, "I am...lonely. I mean, oh, no not exactly lonely, not really. That's a little strong actually." By late in Act II, Ozzie seems to have lost any connection he had to his family. Alone in the living room, Ozzie arranges three empty chairs and addresses them with the names of other members of his family. He tells this captive, though non-existent, audience how he will now define himself, by the value of his material possessions. This inventory gives Ozzie a sense of purpose, but it also shows how empty he really is.
At the end of the play, the problems faced by both of these isolated men have reached a climax. Yet they nearly break through and connect in the last pages of Sticks and Bones. David wants to bring all the disabled veterans from the trucks to the house, stack them along the walls, and have his father embrace the Asian Girl. David tells him, "They will call it madness. We will call it seeing." Ozzie can almost handle it but believes he will "disappear." When Ozzie cannot deal with David's suggestions any longer, he asks for Rick's help in the matter. It is Rick who takes over and restores proper order in the home. He knocks David out with his guitar. Ozzie then kills the physical manifestation of the Asian Girl and hides the body. By doing this, Ozzie has physically killed something that he has finally realized has been haunting him and contributing to his isolation.
When Rick convinces David to kill himself, and helps him do it with the aid of Harriet and Ozzie, Rick reveals how isolated David and Ozzie's words and actions have made him feel throughout the play. Rick has completely accepted the emotional isolation from the outside world that his parents and their home have prepared for him. He enjoys constantly being served fudge, soda, and chips by his mother and having superficial conversations about baseball or the movies with both of his parents, without ever being close to them or understanding them. During the course of the play, Rick leaves whenever his father tries to open up to him or his brother is acting in ways that make him uncomfortable.
Because his mother does not express any of her feelings of isolation to him, Rick counts on her the most to ensure he is fed the superficial treats he prefers without any more substantial contact.
By the end, Rick's only real purpose becomes to ensure this way of life—where he is the golden boy who plays guitar, sings, and takes snapshots—continues, and his unwanted feelings of isolation, caused by his brother's return from Vietnam, end. When the opportunity presents itself, Rick takes matters into his own hands. From Rick's point of view, David's continued existence and the demands on the family made by David's isolation could not go on any longer, so he tells his brother that he must kill himself and that he should have done so at an earlier time. Ozzie goes along with Rick's plan because then Ozzie can stop exploring his own isolation and get back to being the man of the house. How long this isolation from reality can last is uncertain, but as Ozzie says after the deed is done, "We're all happier."
Source: A. Petruso, Critical Essay on Sticks and Bones, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4145
My most vivid memory of the play that became Sticks and Bones was my first reading of it. I was in my first year of teaching theatre at Villanova and David was on a Rockefeller grant finishing up his studies there after his time in Vietnam. There was talk around the department that David was at work on two interesting projects having to do with his Vietnam expenences, but I had not yet read any of his work. David asked me to read one of his new plays in an early draft. I settled down to it at my desk there with some anticipation, but also with that sense of duty that often accompanies the reading of a new script.
Within moments of the first Ozzie and Harriet sequence (Fr. Donald did not originally appear at the opening), I was intrigued by the power and mystery of the language; when Ricky came in with his "Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!" stuff, I roared, but I was nonplussed by the inconsistency of tone. I remember a thrilling sensation at the political intensity of the Sergeant's speech on delivering the soldiers all over the country. Gradually, I got a sense of the weird combination of humor and horror arising from the juxtaposition of the world of Ozzie and Harriet and the Vietnamese War. David's speech at the "party" on the death of the two hanging peasants made me experience such a real and present fear that by the end of the first act, I had to stop reading and take a walk to pull myself together. I had gone well beyond my initial hesitancy to a certainty that this was a strong, new, and necessary voice. When I finished, I remember thinking that this play would become known and that it would be the most significant serious play on the American scene since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was a very intense experience. I have not had it with a new play since.
Villanova at that time was an interesting place to be. Richard A. Duprey had founded a small graduate M. A. program in 1959, dedicated to the development of the original script and to the examination and presentation of the new theatre of Europe, which was then dominated by Brecht. We had a tiny black box theatre seating about eighty and did six to eight plays year. Much of the work was by the seat of the pants, but student, faculty, and other playwrights got opportunities to work on their plays in a committed performance context, relatively free from box office concerns. David came to the program around 1962; I came as a student in 1964. We overlapped about a year, but I did not know him well then. He was the department's premier angry young actor and had a quiet, but somewhat brooding presence; at a party he would be in a corner in intense discussion with one or two other serious minded types. He was writing at this time, but I did not know his work.
David entered the service in 1964, and returned to Villanova in 1967 on a Rockefeller foundation grant that supported his writing of plays for two years. It took some time to schedule the production of Bones; I let David know I thought the play extraordinary and would be more than happy to do it. However, there were concerns about its tone, language, and subject matter that had to be negotiated politically. The Theatre Department had a reputation for being avant, especially in its enthusiasm for Brecht, but Villanova was and still is a conservative Catholic institution, and the fierce language and political aggression of the play were problematic. Bob Hedley, another faculty member in the department, handled this aspect of things and eventually we were given the go ahead for the next season, 1968-69. Whatever worries existed, there was no interference or censorship in the process of production. People were, indeed, shocked, but the overwhelming moral purpose of the play overrode any petty criticism in most minds.
The process of production was exciting. We all knew we were doing something extraordinary, and as university theatre people, we felt we were participating in the great social protest that was exploding all over the country. David had a full draft, but was actively working on it all the time, trimming sequences, transposing, adding a wry irony here, inventing a strong detail there. We all experienced the process of an artistic and moral sensibility defining itself more clearly, making more and more trenchant the balance between satire and moral tragedy in the play. Those dizzying changes of tone make up much of the uniqueness and difficulty of the piece. Almost all of the production process was concerned with getting the right balance between black humor and political drama, between the real and the surreal in the play. Casting, setting, staging, and music all attempted to address these questions.
The student cast we were able to assemble was excellent. The pivotal role of Ozzie brought up the tonal problem most acutely. For the play and the character to work properly, Ozzie must have a vast latent strength which he has let go dormant; if he is really a weakling, there can be no formidable conflict with David and no real awful victory. We had a student actor of about 23, Brian Morgan, who had been an undergrad at Villanova and had been playing the heavy for a long time. We had no question that Brian could be powerful in the dramatic dimension of the play; he was large and mature looking and carried a smoldering anger that was very arresting. He was at the time the kind of actor who was so serious about his acting that the suggestion of humor could be an insult. After a number of readings and much talk about the importance of comic irony to David's vision, he began to see the point and to highlight Ozzie's comic impotence. Brian succeeded excellently in this balance and became in fact the strong center of this production. Ricky was played by Bill Hickey, a young seminarian of cherubic, blonde good looks; he had the manner of an earnest Eagle Scout. We were a bit worried whether Bill would see the comedy since he was so earnest himself. The fear proved unfounded, and the sweetness of his methodical wrist-slitting at the end was chilling. We had no Hispanic actors, so what had been Sgt. Hernandez became simply Sergeant and was played by an excellent actor, Walter Delegall.
The set designer was a graduate student in the department, Jim Andrews. We followed the stage directions, "an American home, the present, very modern and yet homey, a quality to it of brightness. All must be extremely natural." We used the idea that the abstract and fantasy elements would be introduced solely by light and sound, and that the house would be as real as we could make it. The published stage directions mute the idea of naturalness, "There is naturalness, yet a sense of space." Just this season, the Theatre Department moved from our 60 seat black box into Vasey Hall, a converted lecture hall seating about 250; we now had the capabilities of a modest proscenium house to create illusion. The set had three major playing areas: the living room (center and stage right), a dinette area with counter to the kitchen (stage left), and David's bedroom aloft at the top of stairs from the living room. It was all cream colored walls and bright, nice, department store furniture, which we managed to borrow from Strawbridge and Clothier's. Because of the bedroom and the screens for the slides on each side, the scale was a little out-sized, giving the "American home" a larger than life, almost archetypal presence.
For the memory/ghost sequences, the whitish walls picked up the green jungle gobos well, transforming the space into David's memory. Another strong effect was the first appearance of the Sergeant. When he appeared, the door flew open to a strong wind sound, and he was seen outlined against blowing jungle greens; the house, so securely located in the American suburbs, was for that moment (and at his second appearance in Act Two) located in a jungle. Nevertheless, I think that a completely realistic set limits the visual resonance of the play, which must be able to flow easily between internal and external realities; on the other hand, too abstract a design can undermine the irony of the seemingly benign solidity of the nice suburban home. It is a difficult balance to achieve.
The play was called at the time simply Bones, and I have always liked that starkness. For a while after our production, it was called Aspirin Makes Your Stomach Bleed, emphasizing the satirical aspect of the play. Possibly, this was in response to the heaviness of our production which, while it had its black humor, bordered on the portentous. The New York title has a nice double quality of irony and violence. Bones were a significant image for David; the play which later became The Orphan was originally a one-act called The Bones of Birds.
One of the most difficult issues in the rehearsal period was the "Do we actually call them Ozzie and Harriet?" problem. We were not at all sure that it was legal to use the famous quartette of names and we went back and forth a number of times about what to do. About ten days before opening, we decided that it would be better artistically and legally not to use the names. We came up with clever alternatives, my favorite being "Hazzie and Oriette." Finally, we settled upon Andy and Ginger as real but cutely ideal names. The only problem was that by this time it was so late that it presented problems to the actors who were used to Ozzie and Harriet. This resulted in one or two slip ups in which the character Ginger was suddenly addressed as Harriet. I never did find out what the real Ozzie and Harriet thought of it all when the play became famous. Another name question was the obvious coincidence of David, the character, and David, the playwright. I have always thought that the coincidence had something to do with David's choice of the TV family, but at the time he was concerned that people would read that into the play. In the publicity for the project, the poster, and the program, he had himself listed as D. William Rabe so that people would not read the play as biography.
There were a number of drafts between ours and the published script, and I cannot claim any special knowledge of David's developmental process. While the overall outline and much of the scene order is the same, there are some large differences and thousands of small cuts and emendations. During our production process, David would meet with me and the cast, regularly giving cuts and rewrites, making the script leaner and sharper.
This is a section of a speech from a sequence between Ozzie and Harriet at the opening, which is not in the final script. The original draft was as follows:
HARRIET And why don't you play the guitar? Ricky does, Ricky plays beautifully, but you don't play at all. It's your fingers. I've known about it always, that lacking in them. That chill locked into them. I remember when in the night...you would reach out...to touch me...like ice or stones. I remember. And you were afraid, too. Trembling like a mouse.
Our performance script begins the same, but was revised as follows:
HARRIET I've known about it always. That chill locked into them. I remember when you would reach out...to touch me, your fingers like ice. And you were afraid. Trembling like a mouse.
The rhythm is tauter, the tone more direct; David was constantly editing his own poetry.
There were hilarious additions also. Near the end of Act One when things are really backing up on Ozzie and he is searching for his "explanation," Harriet asks what is wrong and Rick suggests that he thinks Dad's hungry. Originally, Ozzie went on to question David here. David added a line where Ozzie wheeled on Ricky and yelled, "PIECE OF SHIT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" The effect of the sudden true feeling cutting through Ricky's fatuousness added a absurdly vicious humor to Ozzie's emotional dilemma.
The major changes between our production and the New York script tilted the play more in the direction of irony. Our production, both in the playing and in the writing, was very conscious of its own moral seriousness, and the bitter irony, while often powerful, seemed less integral to the basic vision than it does in the finished play. The opening scene is substantially different. Instead of the brief Fr. Donald basketball sequence, the play began with an extended Ozzie and Harriet scene after the phone call in which Ozzie is sitting staring out the window confused, and Harriet tries to get clear what the phone call said; she says Ozzie looks, "Like a mournful little puppy dog; a mournful little animal." She criticizes him for quite a bit about his weakness (the speech quoted above is from this sequence), until he threatens her with throwing her down on the floor and follows that with an intense speech remembering his premonition of David's death when he left for the army and her fierce response. She follows with the suggestion that they go to the movies sometime. This is the first suggestion of the comic disjunction so typical of the play. The mood is heavy with premonition and recrimination for about four pages before Ricky's first entrance. The finished script moves with TV rapidity at the top so that we barely register the seriousness of the phone call and the regrets in the relationship are left till later.
Another large difference in the scripts is the use of the symbolic character, Hank Grenweller. In the New York version, he is significant mostly in the first act. He is associated with the athleticism of running, and the question of whether his deformity is congenital is discussed; there are three or four other incidents mentioned in which he has been influential on family history. While he figures symbolically in the finished play as an American athletic dream of malehood congenitally deformed, his role was considerably reduced from the original.
In the Villanova version, Hank carried a lot more weight and was a more mysteriously symbolic character. Ozzie and Harriet have a long argument about whether Hank was or was not present when David was rescued from the icebox. Ozzie maintains that he was dead before David was born. He is associated with the lyrical aspects of their youth, but later in the act, when Ozzie says that Hank would not find Harriet attractive now, she says, "There's never been any such person in this world as Hank Grenweller and you know it."
In Act Two, he became more crucial. In the New York script, David's speech about his paradoxically contradictory feelings for Zung comes at the end of Act One. In a more extended version of this speech in Act Two of the Villanova version, David narrates a violent encounter that Hank, David, and Eeeeeung (her name at Villanova) have in Vietnam. She is being forced to leave a room, David wants her to stay, Hank physically abuses David and is the speaker of lines similar to those that David speaks in the final version:
DAVID I was reaching out with my hands in the air. I couldn't see her. I don't know where she was; and he took hold of my fingers and broke them, each of them. She's shit, he said. You're crawling after shit. She's all of everything impossible for you made possible.
David blacks out and when he can see again, Hank is raping her in the dust.
Near the end of the Villanova version Hank figures prominently again. Ricky tells his appalling story of throwing the cement bags at elderly Vietnamese men. In our version it was Ricky who had thrown them, not a friend. As he guides David's hand to make the second cut of the wrist, David says:
DAVID I WANT TO KILL HANK GRENWELLER! I WANT TO KILL HIM. I want to get the power from him, over him...the power to make HIM need only what I can give him and then I will not give it, though he came to me on his knees.
This is the dialogue that in the New York version, David says about the family: "I wanted...to kill you...all of you," etc. Instead of using Hank as a symbol here, David speaks directly of his desire to kill the family. Similarly, in the Villanova version, Ozzie tells David, "We can't kill him, Dave. We can kill one another, but not Hank, that isn't what happens. He kills us is what happens." In the New York version, Ozzie says simply,"We kill you is what happens." The symbol has been eliminated and the truth of fundamental intention is more directly spoken.
David, the cast, and I had many discussions of the meaning of Hank Grenweller centering on the American male sexual and aggressive myths that generate erotic energy as well as vicious violence, cruelty, and destruction. At the stage of development of the script during production at Villanova, David must have felt the need for an informing symbolic character to convey his larger meaning. It is revealing that both these important uses of the Grenweller character have been internalized in David and the family in the later script.
There are numerous smaller changes. Our first act ended with Ozzie crying out the cartoon word mentioned earlier in the act as typical of a drowning character, "GLUUBBBBBBBB!"—an effect I miss in the newer version. In our Act Two there was character called, "Man" who was a detective responding to Ozzie's phone call to the police. The who's-where sitcom business that surrounds Fr. Donald's exit in the New York version was more elaborately developed with the detective and Donald and Ozzie yelling at each other from different parts of the house, the elimination of the character mutes some of the zany, eerie qualities early in Act Two. Later, when David is driving Ozzie mad with the vision of Eeeeung, the Sergeant reappears at the door with a body bag; Ricky takes out a rifle and shoots David which dispels the appearance of the Sergeant. The double death of David was redundant and was rightly eliminated.
The most interesting variation between the productions was in the handling of the ending. The bloodletting took place at a breakfast table in a down left dinette area with a counter opening to an offstage kitchen. While the dialogue was basically the same, there was in our version more discussion of orange juice and breakfast as a return to normalcy. During Ozzie, Harriet and Ricky's ghoulish reassurances, each got up and started to clean up the mess of the pans and blood, the men sat down to breakfast as Harriet went to the kitchen for orange juice. After the gruesome drama of the last half hour, the restoration of a sitcom happiness, including David, at the end was chilling. Normalcy had reasserted itself totally. Of course, the New York curtain with everyone focused on David's drained body and removed sunglasses has its own power, with a more tragic, rather than ironic afterglow.
Aside from conferences on the text, David did not come to many rehearsals till towards the end. This was by mutual agreement since we both felt that the cast and I needed time to find our own way through the script. I think all of us were a little overawed by the power of the text and benefitted by being let alone. We were in constant contact and he saw the run throughs. The first dress rehearsal was a very moving experience. We had not had much rehearsal with the Asian woman who was a student at Bryn Mawr. She was very beautiful and effective in the role, costumed in the ao dm specified in the script. David had not seen her before. After the dress rehearsal, he was clearly disturbed. We had never discussed any autobiographical significance of the Eeeeung character and never have. After this rehearsal, he talked about wanting to change the ending so that the character, David, reasserts his power and continues to fight; he said that the blood was not drained from David, that he could still resist Ozzie and Hank. We talked late into the night and I asked him to consider that the original impulse for the play had centered about the fact of reassimilation and that any further resurgence was an impulse for another play. The next day he changed his mind. We were all aware how passionately close to him this material was and it made us all wish to do it justice.
We had a preview which went quite well, but for the fact that I had invented a grisly piece of business in which Rick pumped David's hands slowly as the blood drained, this was going too far and got us some undesired titters. We cut it for the opening. There was a tremendous excitement and nervousness, much more than at most openings because of our sense of the importance of the event. David showed up with a bottle of gin, and during the show he and I paced the lobby together and finished up most of it. As a result, we felt the play went very well and in any event were prepared to face anyone's reaction. This method of getting through openings has stood me in good stead ever srnce.
At our opening, as in New York, much of the effect was of stunned upsetment at the confrontation with truths too awful to face, and this, while the war was still raging and dissension at its height. Some people walked out, some left at intermission, and others stayed to talk and argue. One time a woman got up to leave during the bloodletting; I saw her coming up the aisle and opened the door only to have her faint in my arms. The weird power of those last moments is undeniable.
While the local counterculture paper at the time left at intermission, and the campus paper could not fathom the mixed tone, we did get the benefit of some good critical support. Up to that time Villanova was not reviewed in the Philadelphia newspapers. I wrote to Ernie Schier, the critic for the now defunct Bulletin, telling him how I was sure that the play had a significant future and that this would be no typical college production. He came and wrote a very favorable review which began, "Because university theatre has only rarely succeeded in making contributions to the mainstream, I traveled to Villanova over the past weekend with small expectations. I am glad I went because I believe "Bones" is the best American play to come out of the war in Vietnam and because I think its author, 28-year-old, D. William Rabe, is a poet-playwright with a future." The review praised Villanova for its courage, and did much to increase the interest and prestige of the production. We had a sold out last weekend.
David was very pleased with the production, especially Brian Morgan's Ozzie, and liked the sense that its reception was both controversial and exciting. It is a difficult and strange play, and in some ways so raw that its exposure was hard on him. Nevertheless, it was his largest scale production to date and, I like to think, did much to build his confidence in himself as a playwright with a significant voice.
It was a almost two years until David received his first New York production of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. By that time David was teaching at the University. I was to do a production of Pavlo with the undergraduates, except that Joe Papp's theatre was looking at it. As it turned out, I never got to do Pavlo, but I was very excited by the success of the Public Theatre's production. David was at the University for only one more year, but during that time we had the premieres of Orestes and the EMC Squared, later known as The Orphan and a wonderful production of In the Boom Boom Room. I have always been proud that our Theatre Department had the foresight to encourage and produce David's early work, and that in this case, University theatre made a significant contribution to American theatre
Source: James J. Christy,"Remembering Bones,'' in David Rabe: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland Publishing, 1991, pp. 119-30.
Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5099
For David Rabe, the Vietnam war has been a source of artistic inspiration and creativity. His political and social consciousness, fused with his command of dramaturgy, produces taut expositions of the encounter between the American psyche and a war which assaulted some of the most traditional American values. His "Vietnam Trilogy" is clearly based on knowledge gained at first hand: he spent two years in Vietnam with a hospital support unit and later tried to return there as a war correspondent. This personal experience of the war is central to Rabe's career. A Fullbright Fellowship then enabled him to complete the first two plays of the Trilogy: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones.
Rabe worked on both plays simultaneously; he wrote several drafts of Pavlo while developing the early versions of Sticks and Bones, When Pavlo was finally produced, it brought Rabe the favourable attention of critics, and this success spurred him to revise and complete Sticks and Bones. It appeared in 1971, produced by Joseph Papp for the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre. The second play in turn won its fair share of critical approval. The influential John Simon praised Rabe's "ability to satirize fiercely without losing a residue of sympathy and even compassion." Simon accurately pinpointed one source of the play's power: its energetic combination of savage anger and pity. Joseph Papp dubbed Rabe "our greatest playwright today."
Sticks and Bones proved strong meat for audiences, however, and remained unpopular for its run of 225 performances. Papp retained his faith in the play, despite considerable financial losses sustained by the Public Theatre. He commented, "It's hard for audiences to deal with. They resist it. It disturbs them. But good plays are not easy." He resolved to rework it into a television film, collaborating with Rabe and film director Robert Downey on a censored and radically altered film script. After much bickering amongst themselves and clashes with network requirements, the trio finally completed the film in 1972, but it was never released. It was a travesty of the original play, yet Rabe helped to create it and saw it through almost every stage of production. His motivation is unclear, perhaps he sought in television the widest possible exposure for his anti-war ideas. But it remains ironic that a play which attacks the values of the media so relentlessly should itself have become an aborted television movie.
Rabe completed the Trilogy in 1976 with Streamers. Although the three plays are generally respected by critics, Rabe has received comparatively little scholarly attention, perhaps because of the nature of his subject-matter. The Vietnam war is at the heart of Sticks and Bones, and is simultaneously the source of its potency and of many of its weaknesses. Writing with a kind of controlled fury, Rabe draws on the perennial, primitive, emotional power inherent in his material: war, and the feelings of dissent and revulsion which it engenders. If such rage gives the play the timeless quality of protest, Sticks and Bones is also a product of its time, perhaps even locked into its moment in the early 70s by the passage of the Vietnam war into history. Today the play has lost the power it once drew, both from the exhaustive media coverage which the war received throughout its duration, and from the climate of growing public indignation.
Although Rabe tries to widen the reference of his play by never naming the war from which David has returned, he can no longer count on the peculiarly receptive audiences made sensitive by exposure to constant footage of combat and of political debate. Such lack of an immediately relevant historical context muffles the impact of the play for a contemporary audience, creating a vague sense of misplaced intensity, the over-energetic exploration of slightly passi issues. It is easy but misguided to patronize the play for these reasons, overlooking the rigorous intellectual control Rabe maintains over his material, and the serious attempt to bring the discipline of the playwright's art to bear on an explosive moral and political event. In fact, both Sticks and Bones and Pavlo helped effectively to reclaim Vietnam from the journalists and give it back to the artists. Robert Asahma comments:
Vietnam was the first televised war the journalistic mode of communication quickly came to be regarded as possessing a nearly exclusive access to the reality of Vietnam...the task of making some sense of [it] had been shifted from the artist to the reporter.
Rabe replaces the implicit moral neutrality and potential sensationalism of media coverage with his own deeply moral and highly-wrought vision. The play itself contains an ironic and satirical comment on the ability of journalism to tell the truth. David's "home movie,'' with its supposed atrocity footage, is only a blank screen with green flickerings. Rabe implies that the camera's impersonal lens has no true revelatory power. It is a tribute to Rabe that in this sequence, and indeed throughout the action, he never has recourse to sensationalism, preferring to control and defuse his volatile material through language. Sticks and Bones is verbally austere rather than visually lurid. David as filmmaker, and hence potential journalist, can produce nothing like thorough media coverage, for he cannot look on his war experiences with the reporter's dispassionate eye. So David's intense verbal description of a couple hanging by their wrists from a tree replaces any vivid technicolour picture; whereas the journalist's camera would have risked an invitation to a cheap thrill, David's narrative representation of the atrocity is fraught with an awareness of pain and guilt. Even his monotonous delivery suggests the moral shock-waves he has been forced to absorb:
They hang in the greenish haze afflicted by insects; a woman and a man, middle aged. They do not shout or cry. He is too small. Look—he seems all bone, shame in his eyes; his wife even here come with him, skinny also as a broom and her hair is straight and black, hanging to mask her eyes.
This scene depicts emblematically Rabe's own act of choice, he prefers the role of the artist-narrator-playwright who interprets from his own sense of moral outrage, to that of the journalist, who presents without representing and offers his audience no moral guide to what they see.
Profound mistrust of the media pervades Sticks and Bones: Rabe attacks the "instant culture" generated by television, comic books, popular magazines and the supermarket. The prop list reads like a retail store's inventory catalogue: camera, T.V., telephone, film projector, flashcubes, cigarettes, copies of Popular Mechanics and Psychology Today. These objects help to shape the dramatic action as surely as they condition and direct the lives that action describes. Their symbolic function is to signify a consumer society, built on various forms of quick and easy gratification. The play is a critique of this society: Ozzie's family is a microcosm of the American capitalist culture which has bred the media, the journalists, ultimately the war itself. Sticks and Bones pivots on that point at which middle America, with its facile codes of supply and demand, meets the wreckage created by its sanctioning of the war in Vietnam.
This clash and its consequences are embodied most powerfully in the play's language. Rabe's conception of dramatic action depends on the centrality of words: "The stage is extraordinarily limited in what you can do visually...[It] is a verbal medium. Once I learned that, I could write plays. Before that, when I thought it was visual, I couldn't." The specific linguistic style which dominates the play is the cliche. Rabe works out both content and characterization through a series of verbal cliches, which he constantly varies, explodes and counterpoults. Thus he names his family after characters from a television situation comedy: Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick Nelson. This is characterization by shorthand, for the names are automatically redolent of cliche. They suggest the hackneyed values of the "typical American family," the banalities of television itself, and the sentimental attitude to family life apparent in situation comedy. By this simple act of naming, Rabe sets up his double target: television and its products. When Ozzie and Harriet appear, they are already typecast in the audience's mind as products of a society fed by and dependent upon television and related forms of instant communication. The television set is "glowing [and] murmuring" before Father Donald speaks his first words in Act One, and just four lines later, the telephone rings. David's arrival is announced via a medium which separates people physically even if it links them verbally and aurally.
Significantly, David is brought first into the "T.V. room." The main family room of the home which he cannot see is described for him in terms of its dominating and defining feature. David's question, "What room is this?" and Ozzie's broken reply: "Middleroom, Dave. T.V. room. T.V's in—" suggest the role of the television as a substitute for human communication and as an escape from reality. Later, when David begins to establish himself as a strong alien presence in the house, Ozzie tries frantically to mend the broken set. Its breakdown is symbolic, signalling David's implicit moral stance in opposition to its values. In Act Two, when the "conquerer" David has taken possession of the house and Ozzie's desperation is unbearable, he "scurries to the T.V." and turns the channels wildly: "I'll get it fixed. I'll fix it. Who needs to hear it? We'll watch it." But David's weapons are words. His blindness embodies his independence of visual stimuli; in the context of the play this implies his emancipation from the power of television and his reliance upon language as primary means of expression. David's assault on his family and his gradual usurpation of the father-role from Ozzie drain the television set of its symbolic potency, weakening its ability to impose stereotypical values on the household. The indirect "murder" of David by parents and brother is an attempt to reinstate those values.
Rabe shows that the language of television advertisement is the medium of value. Both Ozzie and Harriet appropriate the jargon of advertising. Intent on cleaning Ozzie's stained lapel, Harriet rhapsodizes: "Meyer Spot Remover, do you know it? It gives just a sprinkling...like snow, which brushed away, leaves the fabric clean and fresh like spring." Ozzie's description of cigarettes and smoking sounds like sales-talk, a weird combination of science and fantasy: "The filter's granulated. It's an off-product of corn husks. I light up—I feel like I'm on a ship at sea. Isn't that one hell of a good tasting cigarette? Isn't that one beautiful goddamn cigarette?" Such language is inseparable from the characters' conception of themselves as grain-fed American parents. As the self-immolating mother figure, Harriet embodies a pernicious cliche of maternity. Her consumer values are shown in her obsession with food. She plies David strenuously with offers of food:
Oh, no, no, you've got to eat. To get back your strength. You must Pancakes. How do pancakes sound? Or wheat cakes? Or there's eggs. And juice. Orange or prune or waffles. I bet it's eggs you want. Over, David? Over easy? Scrambled?
If Ozzie evades reality through television, Harriet's escape from trauma is food. On a superficial level, the act of feeding is the commercial mother's shallow expression of love. More profoundly, Rabe suggests that it is a substitute for the love that is really unfelt. David signals his recognition of food as false index of affection by stubbing out his cigarette in a grapefruit.
Such detail carries much of the comedy in the play, a bitter, dark humour based on the grotesque and disproportionate, which Rabe uses to undercut "the elaborately self-deceiving rituals of domestic existence." Thus Rick projects an image of David smearing the guitar strings with cake; David's slashing cane forces Father Donald into the ludicrous position of blessing without raising his hand; David envisages the house furnished and carpeted with corpses; Ozzie is assailed, in an absurd mock-assassination, by an airborne boiled egg. In Sticks and Bones, food kills. Harriet's attempts to feed David are wittily appropriate given the play's ending: she is trying to fatten her prey for the kill. The note of black comedy culminates in David's enforced suicide, where Rabe parodies family togetherness and concern in a scene of ritual murder, which is both gruesome and cozy. Harriet's fussiness becomes the bustling of a punctilious executioner; she brings "silver pans and towels with roosters on them." Rick's enthusiasm is savagely cute: "You can shower; put on clean clothes I've got deodorant you can borrow. After Roses, Dave." Such bizarre and grotesque effects, set against the naturalistic elements of the play's style, deepen its satiric and parodic force.
By taking cliche as the basis of the characters of Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, Rabe probes the relationship between American values and the Vietnam war. Harriet's conception of her sons' futures is hackneyed and conventional. She answers David's sense of existential angst with the trite advice of a second-rate Ann Landers: "So the thing I want to do—I just think it would be so nice if we could get Dave a date with some nice girl." For David and Rick, she envisages the kind of suburban paradise promised in advertising campaigns:
That's all we've ever wanted, your father and me— good sweet things for you and Rick—ease and lovely children, a car, a wife, a good job. Time to relax and on holidays all the children and grandchildren come together, mingling...turkey. Twinkling lights.
This is life as euphemism, and the banality of Harriet's language expresses the poverty of her moral and imaginative vision.
With devastating truthfulness, Rabe exposes the hostility beneath the conventional domestic routine. In the crisis occasioned by David's return, Harriet's ability to use language as a cushion from reality breaks down temporarily and she screams with "primal rage:" "WHAT DO YOU WANT? TEACHING HIM SPORTS AND FIGHTING...WHAT...OZZIE...DO YOU WANT?" Rabe identifies the connection between the violence of war and the American ethos of competition and sanctioned belligerence. Harriet perceives this link for a moment but she retreats from her own insight, escaping to the comfortable values of the supermarket: "Anybody want to go for groceries? We need Kleenex, sugar, milk." And as she provides her family with instant physical gratification, Father Donald provides her with instant spiritual gratification. Harriet's consumerism easily encompasses both body and soul. The priest's involvement in "[o]rganized sports activities" associates him with the competitiveness which is encouraged on the playing field and hence in the larger context with the savagery of war. In Father Donald's encounter with David, Rabe suggests the impotence of religion: Donald's reliance on popular magazine psychology is exposed as an attempt to revivify decrepit spiritual forms through a facile modernity. He thus becomes a suggestive symbol of the etiolated power of the institution in American life. Even Harriet is ultimately without faith. She compares Father Donald to Jesus: "You never hear from him."
Despite their easy escape routes, neither Ozzie nor Harriet can find a refuge from their own suppressed hatred, expressed in the play as a violent and visceral racial antipathy. David's parents begin to reject him when they realize that he has had a liaison with a Vietnamese woman. Both try to formulate their son's sexual and emotional life into the comfortable terms of cliche. When David first mentions "a girl to weigh no more than dust," Ozzie and Harriet set up a desperate choral antiphony:
HARRIET A nurse, right...David?
OZZIE No, no, one of them foreign correspondents, English maybe or French.
HARRIET Oh, how lovely! A Wac or Red Cross girl?...
OZZIE Redhead or blonde, Dave?
When Harriet realizes the truth, she vomits. Psychological revulsion finds physical expression, she has no words to cope with David's experience of Zung, and her cliches are stripped of their protective power. Having effectively reduced family life to supply and demand, consumption and excretion, her reaction is appropriate. She responds to shock by regurgitating food.
The deep-seated racial hatred of both parents takes the form of superstitious terror, itself a cliche. Ozzie sweats: "Dirty, filthy diseases. They got' em. Those girls. Infections. From the blood of their parents into the very fluids of their bodies...There are some who have the plague. He touched them. It's disgusting." The presence of David as lover of "a yellow whore" forces them to confront their submerged hostility toward "the other;" metaphorically it brings "the plague" into their own home. The presence of Zung on stage as symbol of this threat underlines the point. The lurid racial cliches of Ozzie and Harriet suggest one cause of the Vietnam war, manifesting itself in the very heart of the American family.
By the same token, Ozzie's neurotic dwelling on congenital disease as a racial characteristic is ironic, for the play exposes his own home, and the society it represents, as the true source of illness and plague. The moral and emotional poverty of the Nelson family is a kind of spiritual disease: for David the disease is terminal, and culminates in his destruction. The symbolic representation of cultural and familial sickness in the play is the shadowy figure of Hank Grenweller. His rotting hand is an emblem of congenital weakness, despite Ozzie's assertion that "his parents were good fine people." Through Grenweller, Rabe signals the rottenness of a powerful, mythologized ideal of American manhood: athletic, healthy, and strong. Ozzie has idolized Hank and turned him in imagination into the perfect comrade: "He was a big man...His voice just boomed...a good fine friend, ole Hank." There is also a suggestion that Grenweller has been the architect of the Nelson marriage. Early on, Ozzie remarks to his wife "I remember when he showed me you." Later he recalls a joyous moment when he turned "to see [Hank] coming, Harriet young and lovely in his hand." and he called to his friend, "Bring her on... I'm ready." Grenweller's physical decay marks him as the contaminator of the very marriage he helps to create: the illness which Ozzie fears wells up from within his own most intimate relationships. The corruption in Grenweller's flesh suggests his falsity. He stands for a concept of masculinity which is radically out of touch with the reality of experience, and which is reflected in Rabe's handling of Ozzie, another archetypal American male.
Both the parents speak in euphemisms and advertising jargon, but the character of Ozzie is also realized through another kind of cliche. He speaks repeatedly in the language of stereotyped machismo.
Although Ozzie's language is designed to cloak and deflect his inner violence, it repeatedly bursts out. Almost hysterical, he imagines taking brutal revenge on the jokers who have pelted him with an egg: "The filthy sonsabitches, but I'm gonna find 'em...I'm gonna kill 'em. I'm gonna cut out their hearts!" Through such barely controlled invective, Rabe suggests the moral kinship between Ozzie, the apparently bland and boring "typical father," and the G.I.s capable of flinging razor-lined caps and fifty-pound bags of cement at civilians in Vietnam. The savagery of the war is bred on the American hearth.
Such violence surfaces in David himself, whom Ozzie has observed "put a knife through the skin of a cat" when he was a boy, but its ripest and fullest expression is found in Rick, whose moral degradation is both farcical and horrifying. Rick exists at the lowest level of human life, which is also, in Rabe's terms, the lowest level of linguistic usage. He is the quintessential consumer: a virtual eating machine. His language combines the triteness of Harriet's utterance with the debased slang formulae of Ozzie's-the song he sings at the "party" is banality perfected, and sex is having "the greatest piece a tail...a beautiful piece a ass" in the back seat of a car. Throughout the play, linguistic repetition captures the ritualized quality of domestic routine. But Rick's repetitive discourse has a specifically psychological function: it defines his imaginative, moral, and emotional retardation. The intermittently perceptive Ozzie sees this: "He is all lies and music, his brain small and scaly, the brain of a snake forever innocent of the fact that it crawls." Rick's usual way of greeting his parents is through a bitterly amusing and brainless chatter:
RICK Hi, Mom, Hi, Dad.
HARRIET Hi, Rick.
RICK Hi, Mom
OZZIE Hi, Rick.
RICK Hi, Dad.
Rick's mindlessness is apparent in his lack of grammatical control and his abandonment of syntactical structure. In a long speech to David at the end of the play, the sparse punctuation indicates a mind both disordered and underdeveloped: "It's just really comical because you think people are valuable or something and, given a chance like you were to mess with 'em, to take a young girl like that and turn her into a whore, you shouldn't, when of course you should or at least might...on whim you see."
Rick is another ambulatory cliche: the teenager of situation comedy whose spiritual home is the refrigerator. But again, the apparently bland and trivial masks the actively pernicious. Rick is a study in smug and casual cruelty. If David is capable of butchering animals and sewing razor-blades into his hat, Rick can savage his own family in the comfort of his own home for the sake of his own convenience. Wars begin in the living-room.
David is set against his family in a position of almost visionary enlightenment. His phantasmagoric, poetic style jars with the multiple cliches of his parents and brother. The symbolic force of David's language is weakened, however, by its self-consciousness. Meant to be lyrical, it is often embarrassingly limp. "The seasons will amaze you. Texas is enormous. Ohio is sometimes green. There will be time We will learn to speak." Yet the stilted formality, the deliberate formulation of images, and careful grammatical constructions suggest David's search for a new and appropriate vocabulary to express the reality of experience. "We will learn to speak" a language viable as human communication. The language and values inherited from parents and society have not equipped David to cope, either with war or with self-discovery. Language is a defunct medium, a means to evade reality and stave off introspection. In undermining his family's language, David erodes its complacency and attacks the very roots of its life.
He embodies the threat of exposure to reality, and is the living expression of his parents' own repressed guilt, hatred, and hostility. As the invader who becomes a victim, David has both a symbolic and naturalistic function in the play. Through him, Rabe extends the metaphor of battle to the home-front--his power struggle with his father is war in the domestic arena. He almost succeeds in transferring to Ozzie his own mode of perception, based on the recognition of violence and the confronting of self. Ozzie often slips into David's lyrical style of speech. His rhapsodic, nostalgic reliving of the past and its wasted potential contains a further important element in the imaginative structure of the play:
I lived in a time beyond anything they can ever know—a time beyond and separate, and I was nobody's goddamn father and nobody's goddamn husband. I was myself! And I could run. In the fields and factories they speak my name when they sit down to their lunches. If there's a prize to be run for, it's me they send for. It's to be the-one-sent-for that I run.
Ozzie's sense of personal loss is emphasised by his tendency to slip into the present tense at these moments of recollection. This strange, parabolic mode, like the black comedy and David's poetic vision, interacts with the exaggerated stock situation to give the play a weird, kaleidoscopic force.
Ozzie struggles to give birth to the articulate, vital self suppressed within him. His need for creativity and self-assertion is shown in his desire to play the guitar and to build a wall. He tries to communicate his sense of alienation to his son: "Do you understand? There's no evidence in the world of me, no sign or trace...My life has closed behind me like water. But I must not care about it. I must not. Though I have inside me a kind of grandeur I can't realize. But I can't make you see that." The ambivalent psychological interplay between father and son saves the play from becoming over-simplified or merely didactic. It also distributes the sympathy of the audience more evenly. David himself is too ambiguous to be either a hero or martyr. We are aware of his self-righteous frigidity, and the suffering he inflicts on his parents is genuine. There is a grain of truth in Ozzie's words: "You're phony, David—phony—trying to make up for the thousands you butchered, when if you were capable of love at all you would love us, your mother and me—".
David, like Oedipus, Samson, and Gloucester, has achieved moral insight in physical blindness, but also retains illusions. He refuses to confront fully his desertion of Zung. She is a symbol both of his projected desires and his failure of nerve, her absence is paradoxically represented by her physical presence on stage. David has not resolved the cultural, racial, and moral conflict which informs the play and lies at the core of his psychic life. Without resolution and stricken with guilt, he can only reiterate the contradictory statements which express this conflict: '"She's the thing most possibly of value in my life"..."She is garbage and filth and I must get her back if I wish to live." Paralysed by the forces of social conditioning on the one hand and the discoveries of mind and spirit on the other, David can only act destructively, and his insights lead him to a nihilism which opens the way to despair and death: "that's what I am—a young...blind man in a room...my house in the dark, raising nothing in a gesture of no meaning toward two voices who are not speaking...of a certain...incredible...connection." David's existential nightmare is his discovery of identity as nothingness, a hole:"when you finally see yourself, there's nothing really there to see...". Ozzie approaches this perception and frantically distributes inventories of his possessions to prove that he exists. But he prefers to live by the "fraud which keeps us sane." His insights enable him to see Zung, but his dependence on life-lies forces him to kill her. The shift at this point to a purely symbolic level of action signals the spiritual death of Ozzie and foreshadows the "murder" of David. The end of the play confirms David's moral irresolution. Ozzie and Harriet sanction and promote the suicide, which represents the triumph of blindness, deception and moral irresponsibility. Even then they deceive themselves about their own actions, Ozzie comforts himself: "No, no, he's not gonna die, Rick. He's only gonna nearly die. Only nearly." Rabe implies that the fault lies with David as well as his family, with the individual as well as society.
Given the emphasis on language in the play, the significance of the title and the "play within a play'' device becomes clear. The title suggests the children's rhyme: "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never harm me." Rabe gives the verse ironic effect, for it disclaims the power of psychological violence which the play affirms. In fact, Rabe explores the tendency of psychological violence to issue not only in verbal abuse, but also in physical brutality, first within the family and then in the international arena of war. Through a suggestive rearrangement of its words, the title of the play invites us to question the truth of the rhyme, and it affords a clue to the major stylistic strategy of the play itself.
This strategy is also signalled by the set, which physically presents domestic cliche in the Nelson home: "very modern...this room, these stairs, belong in the gloss of an advertisement." Zung introduces another level of reality into this setting; her appearance represents the multiple conflicts of the theme as it questions the adequacy of naturalistic theatre. The split-level set depicts and reinforces the play's two major dramatic modes: realism and symbolism. The downstairs set is fully realistic; the upstairs floor—which focuses on David's bedroom as a kind of retreat—is more expressionistic, a place where people can move through walls. Zung moves between both floors: she seems to be both a metaphor and a literal reality.
The "play within a play" provides a framing comment on the dramatic action of the whole. The slides function as alienation devices which distance the audience. The brief set-pieces which open the two Acts represent the triumph of the visual image over the spoken word; the journalistic, cinematic mode is dominant while the verbal interchange of the unseen watchers is reticent and banal. Ironically, Rabe reveals the outcome of the play—the victory of Ozzie and Harriet—at the start and reiterates it half-way through. But these two vignettes take the ending a step further--the stage is empty, the voices disembodied, and only the images of the slides visible, suggesting that David's defeat at the hands of his family leads finally to the extinction of viable human personality. The watching family of second-generation Nelsons is just a collection of voices. We are left then, with the sense of historical determinism implied in the content of the slides, and recall that the child David was once accidentally locked in an ice-box. His alienation from and isolation within consumer society seems almost like predestination.
Despite its rather limiting topicality, Sticks and Bones is a powerful play, attracting the audience through its symbolic resonances and the nakedness of the emotions it explores. Rabe's commitment gives his work dignity; the nature of his material has explosive impact. When the play first appeared, Rabe's concentration on language signalled a healthy swing away from the emphasis on visual effects and spectacle which influenced theatre in the 60s. Sticks and Bones is a far cry from Megan Terry's Viet Rock. But Rabe's symbolism and his use of expressionistic and absurdist techniques show that he did not simply retreat into old-fashioned or moribund theatrical modes. The play combines visual intensity with forceful manipulation of language. In its dramatic execution and choice of subject-matter, Sticks and Bones presents drama in suggestive conjunction with historical documentary.
Source: Pamela Cooper, "David Rabe's Sticks and Bones: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," IN Modern Drama, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December 1986, pp. 613-24.
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