Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638
Richie Douglas, an enlisted man who shares Army quarters with Roger Moore, Billy Wilson, and Martin. Richie is effeminate and open about his homosexuality and his attraction to Billy, though the other men refuse to take him seriously. Deserted by his father at the age of six, Richie is almost paternally protective of the troubled Martin, trying to cover up the suicide attempt and to deal with the problem himself. Richie is immediately suspicious of Carlyle and warns the others that he is dangerous.
Carlyle, a newcomer just out of basic training. An angry black man from the streets, Carlyle is dressed in filthy fatigues and is nervous, fidgety, and suspicious. Drunken and reckless, he takes Roger Moore and Billy to a brothel, then later makes sexual overtures to Richie, who is strangely uncomfortable with these advances. Carlyle starts a fight with Billy, cutting him on the hand and then fatally stabbing him in the stomach. When he is discovered by Sergeant Rooney, Carlyle murders Rooney as well.
Billy Wilson, an enlisted man. White, trim, blond, and in his mid-twenties, Billy is the only one greatly bothered by Richie’s jokes about homosexuality. He is also very serious about the Army and the war, though he has a morbid fear of the snakes in Vietnam. A complex, sensitive thinker, Billy has always felt out of place, especially while growing up in Wisconsin, where, at the age of sixteen, he wanted to be a priest so that he could help others. Because Billy refuses to leave Richie and Carlyle alone, Carlyle attacks Billy and kills him.
Roger Moore, an enlisted man and the moral leader of the group. A tall, well-built black man, Roger displays much loyalty to the group and to the Army. He confesses that he cries when he hears the national anthem. Roger is, nevertheless, acutely aware of the oppression of black people by his country. He is also unsure about the justification for the Army’s presence in Vietnam. Having been treated for headaches in the past by a psychiatrist, Roger is consciously trying to be more open and communicative with others. He is a close friend to Billy.
Cokes, a sergeant and old Army buddy of Sergeant Rooney. Cokes is in his fifties and overweight, with short, whitish hair. A bit neater than Rooney, he keeps his jacket tucked in, even when he is drunk. He wears canvas jungle boots, as he has just returned from Vietnam. He wants to return there, but the Army has denied his request because he has been diagnosed with leukemia, an illness that Cokes denies. After the murders of Billy and Rooney, however, Cokes explains to Richie that the fatal disease has made him more tolerant, and he is surprisingly sensitive when he learns of Richie’s homosexuality. With Rooney, Cokes teaches the young men the parody of the song “Beautiful Dreamer,” called “Beautiful Streamers,” legendarily sung by a soldier whose parachute would not open. Cokes sings another version in a mock Korean as the play closes. At one moment, Cokes is drunk and boisterous, bragging about wartime exploits in Korea; the next, he is sad and haunted by the memory of a Korean he killed, an incident that he compares to a Charlie Chaplin film.
Rooney, a sergeant in his fifties, with short, whitish hair and a big belly. Rooney, usually drunk and disheveled, is fond of reliving memories of his airborne missions with Cokes in the Korean War. Rooney discovers Billy’s body and is then murdered by Carlyle.
Martin, an enlisted man. Thin, dark, and young, Martin is more openly disturbed than the others by the Army and the prospect of going to Vietnam. After attempting suicide by cutting his wrists, Martin is shipped home.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1387
Fresh out of basic training, Carlyle is streetwise black who is both bitter and angry about his situation. Like the other new soldiers, he is awaiting orders that will probably send him to Vietnam. Meanwhile, his aggravation is fed by his demeaning K.P. duties and his isolation. He has carried a lot of racial luggage into the army, and he feels cut off from fellow blacks, those with ‘‘soul.’’ He hopes to remedy that by teaming up with Roger.
Carlyle is the most volatile character in the play. He is also a rather complex young man. His moods run from what seems to be gratuitous violence to contrition and remorse and from innocent charm to assaultive brutality. Also, for all his ‘‘jive’’ and street smarts, he is almost childish. He is, for example, extraordinarily naive, believing at the end that he can cashier himself out of the army and go home, as if his murder of two men has been some sort of game for which he need pay no penalty.
The other named M.P., he captures Carlyle after he finds him covered with blood and running away from the barracks. He cuffs him and brings him into the cadre room. Like Hinson, he has no developed character.
Cokes, like Rooney, is a veteran paratrooper in his fifties and a heavy drinker. He has been diagnosed as having leukemia and is trying to come to terms with that knowledge. When he and Rooney first appear in the cadre room, they are raucous and clumsy. They are sentimental and affectionate drunks who stumble around the room, swapping stories and acting out a Screaming Eagle parachute jump while deprecating the younger soldiers.
Cokes tells two significant stories, one about a paratrooper in training who dives to his death when he fails to catch a parachute he releases before reaching the ground and another about an enemy soldier he killed during the Korean War. He trapped the soldier in his spider hole by sitting on its lid, then blew him up with a grenade.
Cokes returns to the barracks at the end of the play, looking for Rooney, with whom he had been playing hide-and-seek after an extraordinary day of mishaps from which the pair had escaped unscathed. Though still drunk, he becomes quieter and more reflective when Roger tells him that Richie is a homosexual. He remains unaware that Rooney has been killed as, at the play’s finale, he turns ‘‘Beautiful Streamer’’ into an oddly haunting monody made up of mock-Korean, nonsense words.
Richie, barracks mate with Billy Wilson and Roger Moore, is a self-confessed homosexual, though at first he has a difficult time convincing Billy and Roger that his flaunted effeminacy is anything more than an act. Richie seems to have adjusted to army life as well as the other two and certainly a lot better than either Martin or Carlyle. He even tries to protect Martin and help him coverup his failed suicide attempt.
However, it is Richie who sets the violence of the play in motion. He openly flirts with Billy, who becomes annoyed and finally disgusted with him. When Billy does not respond positively to Richie’s flirtatious kidding and sexual innuendos, Richie changes tactics. He tries to make him jealous by flirting with the far less benign Carlyle, who is perfectly willing to let Billy perform oral sex on him and, in the last scene, even orders him to do it. When Billy vents his disgust by throwing a sneaker at Richie and Carlyle, Carlyle cuts him with a knife and eventually stabs both Billy and Sergeant Rooney to death.
Hinson and Clark, plus one other unnamed enlisted man, are M.P.s under the command of the lieutenant. Hinson is the first enlisted man to follow the officer into the cadre room. He also becomes a stretcher bearer when the bodies of both Billy and Sergeant Rooney are taken out.
The unnamed M.P. officer is in charge of the enlisted M.P.s who appear on the scene after Carlyle stabs and kills Billy and Sergeant Rooney. He is very officious but somewhat inept in his attempts to discover what has happened. He at first assumes that Roger is the killer, despite Richie’s efforts to straighten matters out. His no-nonsense, abrupt manner seems cold and mechanical, sharply contrasting with the bonding affection of the two drunks, Cokes and Rooney. He seems uninterested in the feelings of Roger and Richie, telling them only that they must appear in his office the next morning at 0800 sharp.
Martin, an enlistee, is a desperately unhappy soldier. When the play opens, it is revealed that he has made a botched effort at suicide by cutting one of his wrists. Richie tries to help him through his confusion and attempts to hide his actions from the others, but Martin is not interested in disguising what he has done and tells both Carlyle and Billy of his suicide attempt. He disappears almost immediately, and it is later learned that he had been sent home, unfit for military duty.
The other black soldier in the play, Roger has made a much better adjustment to the Army than Carlyle. He has befriended Billy, and together they share an idealized vision of the Army that does not entirely square with their experience, but they are doing their best to be good soldiers.
Roger is compulsive about keeping the cadre room spotless. He is also neat in person, an obvious contrast to Carlyle, who, when first seen, is covered with grease and sweat. Roger is also concerned with keeping physically fit, thus he expends his restless energy in harmless ways, unlike Carlyle, whose restlessness explodes into violence.
Roger is so compulsive about cleaning up that, after his friend Billy is killed, to Richie’s horror, he begins mopping up Billy’s blood, cleaning up the mess that he holds Richie responsible for—the deaths of both Billy and Rooney. He obviously bears some guilt himself, for he was very slow to accept the fact that Richie’s homosexuality was real, not just some act he was putting on.
Cokes’s drinking buddy and chief non-com in the barracks, Rooney is a World War II veteran who, presumably from alcoholism, has the shakes so badly that he can not light his own cigar. He is a demolitions expert and has received orders that would take him to Vietnam, a place that Roger describes as a ‘‘Disneyland’’ where Rooney, the ‘‘ole sarge,’’ will play Mickey Mouse, if he does not blow himself up.
Rooney becomes Carlyle’s second victim when he inopportunely appears in the cadre room looking for Cokes after Carlyle has stabbed Billy. He is almost in a drunken stupor, ineffectually waving a bottle around and threatening Carlyle, who kills him by repeatedly stabbing him in the stomach.
Billy, like Roger and Richie, is an enlisted man trying his best to adjust to Army life, the reality of which does not measure up to what he and his friend Roger believe should be the ideal. He is the object of Richie’s unsolicited homosexual overtures, which greatly annoys him. He repeatedly tries to warn Richie off, often insulting him, but Richie simply deflects the insults and persists.
Billy has the makings of a career Army man. Like the others, he has fears about Vietnam, but, like Roger, he is determined to be a good soldier. The Army has given him a place and an identity that he did not find in his hometown, where he had largely felt isolated and alone. He had wanted to be a priest, with a mission of helping others, and the Army has provided a viable alternative. Although he seems inclined to a chaste life, he goes with Carlyle and Roger to a whorehouse less from desire than to convince Richie once and for all that he is ‘‘straight.’’
Billy eventually becomes victimized by his disgust with Richie when he vents his feelings by throwing his sneaker at Richie and Carlyle when the two are about to engage in sex. The explosive and violent Carlyle responds to Billy’s interference by knifing Billy and eventually killing him.
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