Streamers was generally regarded as the last and best of a trilogy of plays by David Rabe about the Vietnam War, though the author denied any such intention. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (pr. 1971, pb. 1973), which earned for Rabe an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Drama Guild Award in 1971, presents a surrealistic picture of a soldier’s life. Shifting between time periods, realism and fantasy, civilian and military life, this dark play shows an innocent, good-natured young soldier who becomes a crude, bitter, nasty veteran before dying pointlessly from a grenade thrown into a bar where he is drinking. The military is seen as an entity entirely separate from civilian experience and the Vietnam War as a meaningless horror.
Although the play’s form is unrealistic, its contents are seen in almost reportorial balance: None of the experiences is admirable, but no side is seen to be the more virtuous. Rabe’s next play, clearly related, was performed at New York’s Public Theatre while The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was still playing there, before it moved to a Broadway theater. Sticks and Bones (pr. 1969, pb. 1972), which won for Rabe honors from the Drama Guild and Variety Critics Poll, an Outer Circle Critics Award, and a Tony Award, is an ugly satire about a Vietnam veteran’s return to an unaccepting, horrified family. The caricatured members of the family have the same names as the Nelson family of the television show Ozzie and Harriet. Using this image of stereotypical, sentimentalized American life, Rabe presents an embittered, guilt-ridden, blinded Vietnam veteran, David, who comes home to find that his family is embarrassed and horrified by his presence. Haunted by memories of an Asian girl he loved (who appears onstage but is apparently unseen by the family) and his terrible actions in Vietnam, David is uncommunicative, unlikable, and a general annoyance to a homefront anxious to ignore what he has seen and what he symbolizes. Eventually, the family solves their problem by arranging for David’s “suicide.” This shocking play strikes out evenhandedly at military and civilian life. Rabe further explored the Vietnam war in his 1989 screenplay Casualties of War.
Streamers makes the playwright’s anger that of his characters. The deadly accuracy of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and the vicious satire of Sticks and Bones are enriched with the compassion of Streamers. The war may be setting, symbol, and catalyst, but the play is about humanity, seen now as an integration of civilian background and military experience. None of what happens in Streamers is the result of military or civilian influences alone. In all three plays Rabe seems to be...
(The entire section is 662 words.)