Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

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 picturing facets of his own experience in Vietnam, showing the events in unpleasant detail but unwilling to make final judgments about what so repulsed and horrified him. The tone of the first two plays, however, is clearly angry. Streamers seems more focused in its overview and much more humane.

Rabe’s other plays, In the Boom Boom Room (pr. 1974, pb. 1975) and Hurlyburly (pr. 1984, pb. 1985), attack American moral decay in settings other than war. The self-despising go-go dancer in the Boom Boom Room is seen as a victim of family, friends, lovers, patrons, and employers. Hurlyburly’s drug-and sex-addicted Hollywood denizens are almost equally full of self-loathing, but they are Rabe’s most articulate characters. The dialogue consists of self-delusive and meaningless jargon and therefore in its very style is an indictment of a morally and intellectually bankrupt society. Hurlyburly is a bleak, if glossy, evocation of an overprivileged society empty and neurotically despairing beneath its glamorous exterior. In comparison, Streamers plays as Rabe’s most accepting and generous view of his world, among a series of vividly engrossing, often darkly comic, and always unpleasant dramas. In the 1990’s Rabe brought forth several more plays, including Those the River Keeps (pr. 1991, pb. 1994), The Vietnam Plays (pb. 1993), A Question of Mercy (pr. 1997, pb. 1998), and, in 2000, The Dog Problem.

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Critical Overview