The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Streamers is set in an army barracks somewhere in the United States. The three young soldiers who occupy it have finished training and are awaiting orders, which they fear will send them to the war in Vietnam. Richie jokes about his homosexuality and makes teasing advances toward Billy. Billy and Roger try to behave like “good soldiers”: They relieve stress by cleaning their area to make it “stand tall” and by dropping to the floor to do push-ups. Occasionally they lapse into half-believed horror stories about Vietnam.

The play opens with Richie trying to comfort Martin, a young soldier who has slit one of his wrists in an unconvincing suicide attempt. They are interrupted by Carlyle, a black soldier who has heard that another black man is quartered there. Wary and suspicious, Carlyle soon leaves, and Billy enters and tries to examine Martin’s bloody-towel-wrapped wrist but is prevented by Richie. Later Martin is discharged from the army.

Later, Carlyle’s friendly approach to Roger has an uncomfortable undertone: “C’mon. C’mon. I think you a Tom you don’t drink outa my bottle.” He bursts into a frantic admission of his fear of being sent to Vietnam, his hatred of army life, his feelings of being an outsider. Carlyle is still assigned to the processing company, which has no special mission and requires a disproportionate amount of menial work, such as daily kitchen duty. Roger refuses Carlyle’s invitation to go out drinking.

Later in act 1, annoyed by Richie’s flirtatious insinuations, Billy angrily tells him to stop or be ostracized. They have mentioned an alcoholic old sergeant named Rooney, a career soldier since World War II, who has just received orders to go to Vietnam. Now Rooney makes a boisterous, intoxicated entrance, introducing an old pal, Sergeant Cokes, a decorated Vietnam veteran whom he is delighted to have found newly assigned to the base. Cokes is fearful because he has been told that he has leukemia.

Cokes tells a story of trapping a Korean enemy in a “spider hole.” Cokes threw a grenade into the hole, sat on its lid, and heard him screaming and struggling to get out until the grenade exploded. “He was probably singin’ it,” Rooney says. Explaining that “this is what a man sings, he’s goin’ down through the air, his chute don’t open,” the two former airborne soldiers sing about a parachute, or “beautiful streamer,” which does not open, plunging the parachutist to a death he is able to anticipate.

After the sergeants leave and turn out the lights, Billy explains from his bed that he had a buddy, Frankie, with whom he teased “queers” into buying them drinks, until one night Frankie went home with one of the men. Later, Frankie dropped his girlfriend and became a “faggot.” Carlyle enters drunk and disturbed and passes out on their floor. Richie covers him and pats his arm, to the expressed annoyance of Billy. The lights dim as taps is played.

Act 2 begins in the late afternoon as Roger talks the restless Billy into going to the gym to work out. Richie lies down to read, and Carlyle enters seeking Roger. Richie closes the door and offers Carlyle a cigarette. Carlyle, unsure of what signals he...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A theatrical tour de force, Streamers eventually erupts into almost unbearable stage violence, but just when it threatens to become melodrama, it is saved by an unexpectedly touching view of humanity on the part of a formerly ridiculous minor character. Theatrically, the two minor roles of Sergeant Rooney and especially of Sergeant Cokes eventually steal the play. Their transformation from buffoonlike stereotypes into vulnerable, empathetic characters in the last scene is so unexpected that the roles loom larger in final effect than they are in proportion.

The play keeps shifting the audience’s center of attention. For most of the first act, Billy seems the central hero—decent, likable, educated but unassuming, virile, seemingly an ideal average boy. Richie’s mockery, even when directed at himself, and his game-playing refusal to admit or deny his homosexuality seem to relegate him to a tangential point of view. Roger does not have enough to do to seem central. Carlyle’s role seems to be solely that of the antagonist. In act 2, however, their interactions flesh out the characters, creating an ensemble piece in which one can see flaws and values in all roles. The ending, in which the two clownlike intruders provide ultimate horror and a kind of resolution, respectively, pulls Streamers together into a piece that emerges as an evocative slice of life.

The setting is deliberately claustrophobic; one feels as trapped in this one room as the soldiers are in their situation. As the characters behave naturally there, a sense of authenticity is established. The script’s requirement that the young men continually dress and undress and lie about on their own and one another’s bunks reinforces the homoerotic overtones of the play. When the three comrades—Billy, Richie, and Roger—sit on one another’s beds, put a foot on another’s footlocker, or move another’s possessions, that action reinforces their intimacy. When Rooney or Cokes, or, most important, Carlyle, does any such thing, it seems an intrusion. That invasion of property thus precedes the invasion of personal rights, and it is a characterizing device as well as a foreshadowing one. The set is used naturalistically to reflect what such an environment looks like. The dimming of lights at the end of each scene is justified realistically by oncoming night, but it also functions traditionally to bring down the emotional level and indicate an ending.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Although Streamers was not staged until 1976, it was started several years earlier, in 1969, when the Vietnam War was still in...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

An anti-hero is a character who contradicts the traditional concepts of heroism; this character type is...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1960s: Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba reminds Americans that communism is ‘‘only 90 miles away.’’ President Kennedy...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Investigate the Vietnam War situation that existed during the time the play takes place, about 1965, relating your findings to the...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A Scene from Robert Altman's Interpretation of Rabe's Play Published by Gale Cengage

Rabe adapted Streamers for film in 1983. Directed by Robert Altman, the work features Matthew Modine as Billy, Michael Wright as...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Rabe edited a collection of plays entitled Coming to Terms: American Plays and the Vietnam War (1985). In addition to...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Clurman, Harold. ‘‘Theatre’’ in the Nation, May 8, 1976, p. 574.

Hewes, Henry....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Asahina, Robert. “The Basic Training of American Playwrights: Theater and the Vietnam War.” Theater 9 (Spring, 1978): 30-37.

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Hertzbach, Janet S. “The Plays of David Rabe: A World of Streamers.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock. Munich: M. Hueber, 1981.

Homan, Richard L. “American Playwrights in the 1970s: Rabe and Shepard.” Critical Quarterly 24 (Spring,...

(The entire section is 138 words.)