Sticks and Bones

by David Rabe

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Historical Context

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The Vietnam War
The United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict in the 1950s, in part, because of Cold War policies. The Cold War was a post-World War II development in international relations. It involved a standoff between the United States and the USSR, as well as their respective allies, over nuclear armaments and the spread of communism. France, an ally of the United States, had occupied much of Indochina, of which Vietnam was a part, before World War II and again after the war ended. In the 1950s, a communist independence movement in Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh came into conflict with the French-supported nationalist forces. In response, the United States gave financial aid to France's fight against Minh and his forces. The United States wanted to ensure that Vietnam did not fall into the hands of the communists.

The battle in Vietnam had reached a stalemate in the mid-1950s. The French colony of Indochina was divided into three distinct countries. One of these, Vietnam, was split into two parts, one communist in the north, and one under French control in the south. Elections were scheduled to take place to decide what political direction the rejoined Vietnam would take. Instead, a war broke out, and the United States got more and more involved in it. The Communists fought for control of all three countries, and America became involved in each conflict.

American troops, as military advisors, were first sent to Vietnam in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Though the American government wanted to get out of the situation as soon as possible, the number of troops and advisors, as well as the amount of funding, managed to increase throughout the decade as the situation in South Vietnam became more unstable. In 1965, American troops became involved in active combat. By the end of the year, over 180,000 American troops were there, by 1968, over a half million American troops were in the country. As more American soldiers were sent to Vietnam, their average age became younger and younger, until eighteen- to twenty-year-old soldiers were common. Though negotiations to end the Vietnam War had been ongoing since 1968, in 1969 President Richard M. Nixon escalated the war.

In the United States, anti-war sentiment had been growing throughout the decade, especially since 1965. There were also such sentiments within the government, even before this time period. In the late 1960s, resistance to the draft became more common. By 1969, only thirty-two percent of Americans supported war. The anti-war movement was very vocal by the end of the decade. In 1969, a quarter of a million demonstrators marched on Washington, D.C., to protest the war. One reason many had strong opinions about the war was that it was the first truly televised war. Graphic images of the war were broadcast into American living rooms each evening, allowing the public to see for themselves the brutality of the conflict.

Literary Style

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SettingSticks and Bones is a black comedy/drama set in the time contemporary to when it was written, the late 1960s in the United States. Though no city is specified, stage directions and reviews indicate the play is probably set in suburbia. All of the action is confined to the family home of Ozzie, Harriet, and their two sons, David and Rick. The home is modern in design and decoration. As the stage directions indicate, it looks like something out of an advertisement. Much of the action takes place in the living room and kitchen, rooms that families relax in together as well as go into and out of often. Some of the action takes place in David's...

(This entire section contains 271 words.)

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room, his retreat from the problems that he faces in dealing with his family. The use of these rooms underscores the dramatic tensions in the play as well as its themes.

The play is full of different kinds of symbolism. In a way, each character is a symbol. The Asian Girl is most obviously a symbol because she can only be seen by certain characters at certain times. When she is killed by Ozzie, her death is a symbolic killing of what the family has grown to hate about David. David is a symbol of what Vietnam did to young Americans who served there. His physical blindness is also a symbol, which is contrasted to his family's moral blindness. Another physical symbol includes the increase in the number of plants in the home during the play. This evolving symbol suggests a growing jungle-like atmosphere, reminiscent of David's recent experience in Vietnam.

Compare and Contrast

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1969: The United States is deeply involved in the Vietnam War, though many Americans do not believe their country should be involved.

Today: Because of the outcome of the Vietnam War (the communists won), the United States has avoided becoming involved in long-term, large-scale wars.

1969: As would happen for some years, many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War return home to a country that does not understand them and often rejects them.

Today: The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., ensures that Americans will not forget the sacrifice of American soldiers in Vietnam.

1969: While a few authors/veterans like Rabe are writing about their experiences in and impressions of the Vietnam War, their number is relatively small.

Today: Numerous movies, books, and plays about the Vietnam War are in circulation. The experience has been explored from many angles, and new projects appear regularly.

1969: The American family is undergoing a radical transformation as the average age of marriage increases, divorce becomes more common, and the feminist movement spreads, changing many women's lives.

Today: Many radical changes from the late 1960s are commonplace social trends today, though the average age of marriage continues to increase, the divorce rate remains high, and many women work outside the home.

Media Adaptations

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On August 17, 1973, CBS aired a controversial and radically different version of Sticks and Bones. The production was directed by Robert Downey, Sr.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barnes, Clive. Review of Sticks and Bones, in New York Times, March 2, 1972, p 33.

Gottfried, Martin. "Sticks and Bones: A Staking and Original Play," in Women's Wear Daily, November 8, 1971.

Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Sticks and Bones, in The New Republic, December 4, 1971.

Rabe, David. Sticks and Bones, in The Vietnam Plays, Volume One, Grove Press, 1993.

Tallmer, Jerry. "Casualty, America," in New York Post, March 2, 1972.

Watt, Douglas, "Sticks and Bones Brings the Vietnam War Home," in Daily News, November 8, 1971.

Watts, Richard. "Soldier's Homecoming," in New York Post, November 8, 1971.

Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam A History, Viking Press, 1983.
This history of the Vietnam War provides a balanced explanation of events, considering all sides.

Kohn, Philip C., David Rabe: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography, Garland, 1988, pp. 29-43.
A section outlines various productions of and critical response to Sticks and Bones, including international.

Santoh, Albert, ed., Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It, Random House, 1981.
This nonfiction book provides a first hand account of the war, including personal experiences of soldiers.

Zinman, Tony, David Rabe: A Casebook, Garland, 1991.
This book includes an interview and nineteen articles that cover many of Rabe's plays, including Sticks and Bones.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide