Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

Streamers is the third and last play of what has been termed Rabe’s ‘‘Vietnam trilogy.’’ By the time it was first staged at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 30, 1976, the playwright’s reputation as a harsh and uncompromising critic of the War was already well established. At the time the play opened, the War had already been over for three years; in a sense, the work seemed like a painful post mortem. However, Streamers is not really about the War per se; it is about men trying to adjust to life in the Army at a time when that adjustment is exacerbated by the certainty that the country is going to put their lives on the line in Southeast Asia. The War is like an unseen presence, a threat that increases the stakes for each of the principal characters and makes the situation extremely unstable.

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In light of the fact that much of America was trying to bind up the War’s wounds and relegate the ‘‘conflict’’ to the past as an unnecessary, shameful, misguided, and divisive policy blunder, the play’s success seems almost extraordinary. The New York production of the work ran for over 400 performances and was greeted with several enthusiastic reviews. It also garnered for Rabe important awards, including a Best American Play citation from the New York Drama Critics in 1976. Most critics recognized that the play had much less to do with the War than with the interrelationships of young, citizen soldiers, and that, in fact, it imposed serious questions about the efficacy of military discipline and order in a democracy that by the time of the Vietnam engagement had extended individual freedom to lengths previously unknown in American history. As Newsweek’s Jack Kroll noted in his review of the New Haven staging of the play, the cadre room in which all the action occurs is ‘‘a microcosm for some of the most explosive tensions in today’s society racial, sexual, social.’’

That idea, that the barracks room is a smallworld, partial replica of American society under duress is repeatedly sounded in the commentaries on Streamers, even in reviews and interpretations by hostile critics like Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, who found the work badly flawed and its world not so cunningly made. Kauffmann, one of Rabe’s detractors, argued that ‘‘two stories of homosexual tension, of black disquiet are arbitrarily pushed together, as if there were some real relation between psychosexual drama and racial bitterness,’’ and further complained that they ‘‘are hurriedly married at the end by a sheerly insane violent act, unfounded in character.’’

Yet most of the play’s early critics recognized that it is precisely the dangerous and arbitrary commingling of psychologically unsteady and barely mature men that military service occasions, providing a heated crucible for dramatic tension and violent energy. As Kauffmann himself pointed out, that the action occurs during war time is what is important, not the specific conflict involved. The situation develops into what Harold Clurman referred to in the Nation as a ‘‘‘universal’ inference,’’ a world depicting humanity as ‘‘poor forked animals caught in a trap of which they can never understand the exact identity or the way out.’’

For some critics, Rabe was sort of an enfant terrible (defined as a person who stirs up controversy in an unconventional manner) in the American theater, crude but unrelentingly honest, a writer unwilling to compromise his art for the more delicate ears and stomachs in his audience. His language is raw, often obscene, and highly charged with emotion, and his action is sometimes savage. Some critics found the savagery and frank sexuality excessive, and even very favorable reviewers like the Saturday Review’s Henry Hewes warned that ‘‘many in the audience may find the unpleasant combination of overt homosexual activity and gory violence too strong to take.’’

Few could fault Rabe for his honesty, however, a quality for which most critics praised him. And despite the rawness of the play’s language and its crude violence, many critics agreed with Hewes that Streamers was ‘‘the most beautiful play’’ that Rabe had by that time written.

Hewes’s assessment may seem odd given the content of Streamers, but it is a judgment not about the themes and overt violence of the play but rather the artful qualities of the work. It sums up the longstanding judgment of most critics, that Streamers is the best of the three plays in the Vietnam trilogy and possibly the best play that to date Rabe has written. It is certainly the work for which he remains best known.

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