Overview of Streamers

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David Rabe’s Streamers is a play without a hero, even, perhaps, without a protagonist in any classic sense of that term. Of a play it is usually a helpful question to ask ‘‘whose play is it?’’ But in the case of Streamers, there is certainly no ready answer. Normally, the protagonist is also the plot driver, the character who has the most at stake and propels the action towards a climax and resolution. More than a character, it is the situation in Rabe’s play that seems to move things on, a situation that is entirely outside the abilities of the characters either to direct or control but only to respond to as personal needs and desires direct.

Somewhat like the characters in Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, the characters in Streamers are placed in a confining space and proceed to torment each other because their needs and personal histories are out of sync and at critical moments antagonistic. Beyond the walls defining their space there is a powerful force in control of their lives, a force that is impersonal and demanding, a force that to some degree strips each of them of their former identities. All of the young recruits are its victims, even the predatory Carlyle, whose personal history and sense of identity make him more an outsider than the rest. For him, the Army can not become a home, as it seems to be becoming for Billy and Roger and had long ago become for Sergeants Rooney and Cokes. Even Richie is trying to make it his home, although he is clearly trying to do it partly on his own terms. He parades his homosexuality and openly flirts with Billy with a troubling and ill-fated insouciance that the U. S. military then as now would not tolerate once it is discovered. Richie, consciously or not, is a candidate for a ‘‘Section 8,’’ an article of the military code that mandated the discharge of homosexuals, the mentally ill, and others deemed unfit for service.

The major characters most at odds with what the Army demands and expects are Carlyle and Richie. Billy and Roger, on the other hand, are having far less trouble adjusting to military life. Although they are critical of the Army and fearful of their fate, of being sent into Vietnam, they know what it means to be ‘‘standin’ tall’’—to be neat, orderly, and proud of their soldiering. It becomes almost an obsession for both of them, as is evident near the end of the play, when, much to Richie’s horror, Roger begins swabbing up the murdered Billy’s blood.

Although Roger remains sensitive to his ethnic heritage, in Billy he has found a companion who has made him see that friendship can transcend racial barriers. He tells the belligerent Carlyle when he first meets him that some whites ‘‘got little bit of soul,’’ that there are a ‘‘couple real good boys around this way.’’ The white authority that gnaws at Carlyle’s innards does not bother Roger. He points out to Carlyle that the first sergeant is black, calmly hinting that things, albeit slowly, are changing for the better.

Carlyle, however, has no patience. He profoundly resents the Army’s intrusion into his psychological and emotional space, and he is almost frantic in his need to escape its claustrophobic pressures. He is desperate to find another black to identify with, another man with soul, one who shares his views and his desire to be free, someone with whom he can talk the talk with empathetic understanding . He is both extremely unstable and dangerous, a man without...

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an adequate emotional safety valve. Outwardly, he may be predatory and savage, but inwardly he is a very frightened and bewildered young man whose sense of identity is quickly eroding. He is, as Henry Hewes says, ‘‘a confused, unhappy ghetto animal caught in a bad scene.’’

Sometimes Carlyle’s inner fear breaks through his savage exterior, taking the form of a child-like contrition and even confusion over what is real and what is merely a game, a kind of naivety that sharply contrasts with his abusive speech and behavior. However, more than hatred of his real or imagined persecutors, it is that very inner fear that explains his brutal and violent responses to Billy and Sergeant Rooney and even to Richie, towards whom he is alternately playfully if roughly affectionate and savagely cruel.

In commenting on what happens in the play, more than one critic has complained that the murder of Billy seems inadequately motivated. For the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann, Carlyle’s stabbing of him is a ‘‘sheerly insane violent act, unfounded in character, only prefigured by the playwright outside these characters,’’ i.e., in the blood of the cut wrist of Martin, who disappears from the play before the end of the first act. Kauffmann argued that the ‘‘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.’’ Perhaps, however, there is, at least in Carlyle’s distraught mind. Rabe chooses not to probe that mind terribly deeply. He does not, for example, allow Carlyle to reflect on his life at any great length, whereas, in their reminiscences, the other characters disclose significant facts about themselves, thereby giving helpful clues to their psychological makeup.

For example, from Billy’s account of his teenage years, it may be deduced that he hides uncertainties about his own sexual propensities, which in turn explains his anger towards Richie, who is trying to break through Billy’s ‘‘straight’’ facade. It may not be that Billy is in fact bisexual, but it may be that he fears he is. His trip to the black bordello in the company of Roger and Carlyle is a rite of passage that confirms his heterosexuality and allows him to parade it before Richie.

Carlyle, though, remains a very perplexing character, partly because the contents of his mental and emotional suitcase are not put on public view. He tells little about himself, other than the fact that his father would not even acknowledge his paternity. Even some of the most admiring critics of Streamers treat him as an unfathomable psychopath, one who has no rational motives for his violence. But Carlyle is in one sense most emblematic of what is wrong. There is something missing for all of the men awaiting a transfer overseas. None of them considers the war necessary for some just and rational purpose such as making the world safe for democracy. Rather, though dangerous and life threatening, it is a senseless absurdity, exhibiting all the irrationality of the cartoon world of Disney. The men do not talk about ridding the world of monsters like Hitler or Mussolini; they talk instead of the faceless Vietcong, an enemy that is savage and brutal, an enemy waiting to impale them on sharp stakes anointed with elephant excrement.

Faced with such a possible fate, it is hardly any wonder that Carlyle and even Rooney spend their waking hours tugging on bottles of whiskey or beer. Carlyle even practices creeping through the jungle, trying to learn how to evade a senseless and inglorious death. Cokes joins Rooney in a drunken rampage, not because he is to be sent into the jungles of Asia but because he has been diagnosed as having leukemia, a blood cancer that to him is as inexplicable, arbitrary, and irrational as anything that might be encountered in a Vietnam combat zone.

Carlyle’s mental Chinese boxes are very different from those of any other character in the play. For him, the Army itself is a stagging area for Vietnam, an area in which he has already encountered the enemy and is in a kind of mortal combat with him. His enemy is the white man who has a long history of wronging the black man and whose authority has forced him to learn ghetto survival strategies—his verbal taunting, his swaggering, and his reflexive knife-wielding response to invasions of his turf— whether it is Billy’s interference with his sexual encounter with Richie or Rooney’s inept attempt to prevent his escape from the cadre room. He feels caged and threatened, in a situation that is analogous to being in the jungle or rice paddies of Southeast Asia. His violence is certainly understandable, although, certainly in Billy’s case, it is tragically misdirected. Both Billy and Rooney pay the ultimate price for the social injustices of their fellow whites.

Although the Army provides a context for senseless violence, it also provides the opportunity for putting an end to some of it. That is the paradox of Streamers. At one level it is an anti-war play, or at least an anti-Vietnam War play. However, it does not condemn military life per se. After all, it is not really the Army that victimizes Carlyle; it is an American society that in the 1960s was deeply involved in another struggle, that over civil rights and wrongs. In fact, the Army provides a means for advancing racial integration in social and workplace conditions that, for example, the ghetto in Carlyle’s experiences outside had simply denied him. It was not until drafted into the Army that Carlyle faced having to give his white enemies a personal identity or begin to confront their potential as friends. He seems, for example, both amused and partly baffled by the fact that Billy wants to accompany him and Roger on their excursion into town.

What Rabe captures in Streamers is an encapsulated sense of the social changes underway in American society during the Vietnam War. In Carlyle’s case, the dream deferred does not dry up like a raisin in the sun, it explodes into racial violence, like it did in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California, in 1965. He is not insane, but he is enraged and incapable of controlling his anger and fear. To use the central metaphor of the play, Carlyle’s parachute is too tightly bound by racial injustice to open and land him safely on his feet. He is outfitted with a streamer.

Against the main action line, the drunken antics of Sergeants Rooney and Cokes serve as a kind of choric counterpoint, at first comic but in the end soulful and sad. Despite their seediness, they have an affectionate, brotherly bond, a comradery made possible because they share something the younger soldiers, the ‘‘shit sacks,’’ have yet to experience: a battlefield baptism by fire. They act childishly, like a pair of aging drunks attempting to recapture their lost youth in juvenile games, but like circus clowns or the great comedian, Charlie Chaplin, they are not just funny; they are also full of pathos.

At the end, Sergeant Cokes, left unaware that Rooney has been stabbed to death, but aware that he himself is sick and dying, begins reflecting both on his friendship with Rooney and the irrational nature of life, on how he and Rooney had been in four accidents and fights and escaped without harm. He also reveals that his sickness has given him a new perspective on life. When Roger tells him that Richie is a homosexual, and Richie confirms it, Cokes tells him that it is not so bad, then reflects on things he would change if he had a second chance. He confesses that he can not forget the Korean soldier, the ‘‘funny little guy’’ he blew up with a grenade, and how he would now let that soldier go unharmed.

Cokes’s nostalgic monologue seems to serve as a halting but eloquent commentary on what the play is finally all about the inexplicable and arbitrary nature of life. There is no way that he or anyone else is going to ‘‘figure it out.’’ Like Cokes, the most one can do is display some courage in the face of it.

Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Fiero is a Ph.D., now retired, who taught drama and playwriting at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and is now a freelance writer and consultant.

Rabe’s Streamers

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The last play in his Viet Nam trilogy, David Rabe’s Streamers (1976) explores an archetypical theme— the rite of passage into manhood—in the lives of four young soldiers (Billy, Roger, Richie, Carlyle) who are in a period of transition from stateside Army life to Viet Nam combat. The testing ground for these young men is a barracks frequently described as ‘‘a home,’’ ‘‘my house,’’ or a ‘‘happy family’’ where they are to learn the ‘‘obligations’’ of soldiering. An essential character in their drama of manhood is the father (or father figure); and multiple examples in Streamers underscore Rabe’s message about the failure of fatherhood for a Viet Nam generation. The sons in the barracks are abused, betrayed, and deserted by fathers who are alcoholic, diseased, self-destructive, and malicious. (Ironically, LBJ is likened to Hitler [page 31] in leading the American fatherland.) Appropriately, Streamers may rival any other American play in its blatant use of phallic symbols; but the symbolic phalli in Streamers— liquor bottles, knives, stakes, and the streamers (or unopened parachutes—the ‘‘Big icicle’’ [page 41]) which lend their metaphoric name to the title—are stage metaphors of an ignoble manhood.

The most glaring examples of destructive father figures are Rooney and Cokes, veteran sergeants who recommend themselves as heroes for the boys to emulate. Both men transmit a latent death wish by singing a song (to the lullaby tune of ‘‘Beautiful Dreamer’’) that ‘‘a man sings’’ (page 42) about parachutes that fail to open. Rooney, the platoon sergeant, lives down the hall and visits his boys nightly to make sure they are asleep; they fear and obey him as they would an ogre father— ‘‘We’re good boys,’’ says Billy Wilson (a willing son). As if baptizing Roger (page 62), Rooney sprinkles him with whiskey from his bottle. Ironically, a ‘‘chill’’ (page 62) emanates from Rooney’s room, for he has just received his papers for Viet Nam. There he will play ‘‘Mickey Mouse’’ in ‘‘Disneyland’’ (page 10), the macabre playground of death for many young men. The boys recognize Rooney as a bungler—‘‘the poor ole bastard who cannot light his own cigar for shakin’ is supposed to go over there blowin’ up bridges’’ (page 10). His cigar—a phallic symbol suggesting heat and power— becomes an instrument of self-destruction. In fact, Rooney is powerless to protect his boys from the pathological fury of Carlyle, a ‘‘new boy,’’ who repeatedly stabs Billy (and later Rooney) full of holes.

Sergeant Cokes, Rooney’s friend, is equally ineffective and doomed (he has leukemia). Always swilling or swinging a liquor bottle (his phallic emblem), he has trouble navigating despite the fact that he can wear special combat boots that let the water (life?) out. At play’s end, he and Rooney go through a foolish game of hide and seek with tragic results (car accidents, near deaths, and the loss of friends). The play ends ominously with Cokes singing the streamers lullaby in ‘‘a makeshift language imitating Korean’’ (page 109) to boys soon to confront death on oriental shores.

Rabe reinforces his message about Viet Nam fathers through domestic parallels of paternal crimes. Richie’s father leaves the family when the boy was six—‘‘sneaking out’’ and pushing his son in the grass (page 76). The father was thus possibly responsible for Richie’s homosexual fantasies and desire for punishment gladly inflicted by Carlyle. Himself a victim of father desertion, Carlyle sardonically recounts how his daddy abandoned the family but still worked ‘‘in the butcher shop two blocks up the street’’ (page 79). Both location and occupation—nearby father turned butcher— psychologically maim the son. In fact, daddy denies he has a son at all. Ironically, Billy likes his father, but Billy too has been scared by memories of other father figures who have seduced—and destroyed— youth. His friend Frankie ‘‘got his ass hooked’’ on homosexuality (page 49) by one of those ‘‘old guys’’ who ‘‘were hurting and happy as hell to have us’’ (page 48). Rabe offers an ironic parallel here: young men are ensnared by old homosexuals the same way they are trapped by Army fathers like Cokes and Rooney.

Streamers is a brutal and ritualistic portrait of young men coming of age—being groomed for manhood and death. America’s sons suffer at the hands of irresponsible Army fathers who are degenerate and degenerating. But, as Rabe shows, Army fathers are not essentially different from their civilian counterparts.

Source: Philip C. Kolin. ‘‘Rabe’s Streamers’’ in the Explicator, Vol. 45, no. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 63–64. Kolin is a noted authority on the Vietnam War.

Hank Cing and Hank Sunk

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Streamers is the great play that has been trying—in several guises and with several degrees of success— to burst out of David Rabe in the five or so years he has been on the scene. It is at the Mitzi Newhouse now, in a stunning production directed by Mike Nichols; neither author nor director has come close to this level of accomplishment in the past, and I urge you to share with me the keen pleasure of having your faith restored in the power of American drama to make important and worthwhile sense.

Rabe’s play may (or may not; it isn’t important) form a trilogy with his two other works about the Vietnam war (Sticks and Bones and Pavlo Hummel). On its own, it is a harrowing study, set among some kids in a Virginia army camp in 1965, of lives torn apart by the shadow of war or imminent death. The kids are vulnerable and decent, but their uprooting from predictable, protective life-styles has both intensified and warped their ability to connect to one another. When they have made a tentative beginning at reaching each other, an intruder further upsets this uneasy balance, and the climax is one of shattering, wasteful, but thoroughly motivated violence. Two elderly, drunken career soldiers weave a path through their life like a discordant cantus firmus, a sort of updated Quirt and Flagg underscoring that today there is No Price Glory.

The play is superbly performed, notably by Paul Rudd as an earnest, uncomprehending, Midwestern square, Peter Evans as a troubled but reasonably self-contained homosexual, and Dorian Harewood as a lower-class soldier desperately trying to cope with his place in life. The pace and tone are masterfully modulated by Mr. Nichols, and the entirety makes you realize that sometimes sitting on the edge of your seat is more than an idle theatrical catch-phrase.

Source: Alan Rich. ‘‘Hank Cing and Hank Sunk’’ in New York, Vol. 9, no. 19, May 10, 1976, p. 78.

Review of Streamers

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David Rabe’s almost literally stunning ‘‘Streamers’’— a New York Shakespeare Festival production at the Newhouse which originally opened at Long Wharf, in New Haven—is the final play of his trilogy about Vietnam; the two others are ‘‘The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ and ‘‘Sticks and Bones.’’ All the action of ‘‘Streamers’’ takes place in one room in an Army barracks in Virginia in 1965, when the worst of the war still lies ahead. The room itself seems an oasis of civilization. The three young enlisted men who live in it get along well. They are Billy, a sympathetic, rather innocent fellow from Wisconsin; Roger, a black soldier who seems far more realistic and mature than the others and is a close friend of Billy’s; and Richie, a wellto- do homosexual from Manhattan. Billy teases Richie some about his effeminacy, and Richie teases back; Roger does not quite believe it or take it very seriously. None of his business anyway. But the inevitable brutality and pain and violence of the Army and the war (along with loyalty and under- standing and surprising tenderness) cannot be kept at bay. Their old sergeant in Korea, Cokes is back from Vietnam and is dying of leukemia. Both are drunk and appallingly reminiscent. Cokes, laughing heartily, tells an anecdote about a soldier whose parachute didn’t open, and he sings a song to go with it—‘‘Beautiful Streamer,’’ to the tune of ‘‘Beautiful Dreamer.’’ A more important intruder is a black soldier named Carlyle, a far rougher type than Roger, and half out of his mind with anger and frustration after three months on K.P. He never lets up on Richie, and it is he who precipitates the terrible, bloody climax of the play. This climax almost seems gratuitous, yet it is integral to the story; nothing in the play is done purely for effect. At the end, two of the young soldiers are sobbing on their cots, and the dying old sergeant again sings ‘‘Beautiful Streamer,’’ but as softly as Stephen Foster might have wanted it, and in Vietnamese.

Mr. Rabe is a strong dramatist, and as capable of comedy—much of the soldiers’ talk is funny—as he is of tragedy. The plot is filled with mood and incident, and every line rings true. To a certain extent, ‘‘Streamers’’ lacks the originality— the totally persuasive illusion of firsthand observation and inevitability—that helped make ‘‘Pavlo Hummel’’ the masterpiece it is. (Why another black with a knife? Why another homosexual as whipping boy?) Even so, it is very good. The performance, under Mike Nichols’ direction, could not be better. The actors, some of them familiar to me, some not, all seem new, so inseparable are they from their roles. The principals, in order of appearance, are Peter Evans (Richie), Dorian Harewood (Carlyle), Paul Rudd (Billy), Terry Alexander (Roger), and Kenneth McMillan and Dolph Sweet as the two old sergeants. The spare, clear setting is by Tony Walton.

Source: Edith Oliver. Review of Streamers in the New Yorker, Vol. LII, no. 11, May 3, 1976, pp. 76–77.


Critical Overview