Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Despite its shocking subject matter—homosexuality, racism, and murder in a military installation—Streamers is clearly about larger human concerns. The subjects of racism and homosexuality allow playwright David Rabe to examine realistically human imperfection and sources of inner and overt conflict. In one sense, the barracks horror is a microcosm for the larger battlefield, specifically the Vietnam War, which hovers over this American scene like a curse.

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Violence, moral laxity, and intolerance are simply the soldiers’ responses to a threatening situation and confusion about their fate, what roles they are expected to play, and why they are in this situation. The two boozy sergeants can be seen as the traditional military’s corruption of values: They are alcoholic, self-indulgent, amoral breakers of rules, and they are, or at least were in the past, killers. Cokes’s tired acceptance of war, killing, others’ homosexuality, and his own dazed irresponsibility can be seen as a moral decay. His role, however, ultimately seems a resolution, however temporary, of the opposing forces he has encountered: Americans versus Vietnamese; homosexuals versus heterosexuals; whites versus African Americans; career soldiers versus draftees; military versus civilian; camaraderie versus antagonism. The world around him has become unclear, more reminiscence and fantasy than immediate event. Though he cannot understand, he can forgive and let live.

That this image of war-making ardor and professionalism can emerge worn but accepting, is—at least in the dramatic emotional effect of the ending—reassuring. Perhaps he is merely evading a comprehension of human conditions which should inspire despair, but of all the characters in the play, he is the most direct and honest in his response. It is, notably, his response that concludes the play.

Perhaps too much has been made of the role of Carlyle as evil exploiter of the weaknesses of the other men. He does taunt the other soldiers. Surly and morose and potentially vicious though he may be, however, Carlyle is not malevolent. He is frightened about being sent to Vietnam, insecure in his role as black man in a white man’s army, and wary of others’ response to him, and he feels persecuted because he is still assigned to a unit of transients with menial daily tasks. He feels himself to be an outsider among this threesome, about whose exact relationship he is not sure. His role is certainly that of a catalyst, but not that of a villain.

In dramatic terms, Streamers is about human fear, weakness, and misunderstanding. Thematically, it is about evasions of moral responsibility, the limits of tolerance, sexual role-playing, and—in a limited sense—the war in Vietnam. Symbolically, it presents the military as a microcosm of all society; its viewpoint, though realistically seen in the confines of a single room of a military installation, is clearly more encompassing in suggestion. It has also been pointed out that Billy’s interfering and inability to understand the behavior of Richie and Carlyle or the violence within himself could be a metaphor for Americans in Vietnam; the unopened parachute has been noted as a possible metaphor for the fate awaiting all of Rabe’s characters. Above all, however, Streamers is an entirely involving drama that seems complete in its complex dramatic statement.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718

Streamers is a work that examines a group of young men of diverse backgrounds who are trying to adjust to life in the U. S. Army; they are acutely aware of the danger that awaits them in Vietnam. The situation is intense and leads to brutal and senseless violence: the seemingly pointless murder of two men.

Alienation and Loneliness
A major focus of Streamers is the impact that the army—and war—has on men, its disruptive influence on their lives. Some, like Billy and Roger, are able to make the adjustment, but others, like Martin, and especially Carlyle, cannot.

In Carlyle’s case the results are devastating. He is a black man with an angry social consciousness; he feels like an outcast in a world dominated by white authority. When first introduced, he is on a mission to locate another soldier with ‘‘soul,’’ that is, another black. He is lonely and jittery, ready to explode, partly to vent his anger at his situation and partly because he knows no other way to cope with his anxiety. Like Martin, Carlyle seems unfit for the Army. Unlike Roger, he has no secure and mature sense of self that will permit him to adjust to the homogenizing demands of military life without feeling like he is surrendering his identity.

Anger and Hatred
Anger is most evident in the complex makeup of Carlyle. It is a non-specific rage that lies close to the surface of his character, ready to erupt at any moment no matter how slight the provocation. His is an impersonal anger, however. He does not target characters as intended victims, making his actions in the course of play seem both arbitrary and almost gratuitous.

Carlyle can not funnel his anger at the impersonal, all powerful bureaucracy of the army. It has taken him from his street world of ‘‘jive’’ and ‘‘soul,’’ where he could cope, and put him in an environment where regimentation and authority threaten, metaphorically speaking, to emasculate him, forcing him to surrender that identity. Threatened with such a loss, and under the pressure of the distant war in Vietnam, Carlyle explodes into violence.

Culture Clash
The diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the characters are an essential source of the tension among the soldiers in Streamers. The military requires a period of adjustment to its culture, a closed society that neither recognizes nor rewards diversity. Instead, it attempts to impose order, discipline, and a sense of duty that for many of the recruits involves a regimen either too rigorous or too demanding. One of them, Billy, seems to make the adjustment easily, largely because his civilian life had given him no firm self identity. An adjustment is also made by Roger, even by Richie, despite his the social stigma that comes with his homosexuality. This adaptation is not made by Martin, who is driven to attempt suicide, nor, in a more extreme case, by Carlyle.

The Army does promote a comradery, such as that exhibited by the two veterans, Sergeants Rooney and Cokes. Such a comradery seems to be developing between Billy and Roger, whose different cultural backgrounds do not bar their kinship. In sharp contrast to Carlyle, Roger and Billy carry no heavy racial chips on their shoulders, and though both are critical of actual army life, they share a common understanding of its ideals and of good order and discipline.

Death
The murders of both Billy and Rooney seem gratuitous, almost, in fact, pointless. Their deaths are the result of Carlyle’s inability to adjust to his situation, one that threatens his fragile identity. In the aftermath of their murders, Carlyle reveals a stupefying immaturity in his apparent belief that army life is some sort of game from which he can somehow walk away when it threatens or no longer amuses him. He simply does not seem to comprehend that there is a penalty attached to killing people. It is that which gives his killings their devastating impact. They awaken no remorse in him, no guilt, no sense of having morally transgressed.

Duty and Responsibility
Military order and discipline have always demanded a sense of duty and responsibility from soldiers, even those enrolled in the ranks through conscription rather than voluntary service. Part of basic training involves inculcating that sense into draftees and recruits, but such indoctrination is not always successful. The army attempts to winnow out those who can not make an adequate adjustment, recruits like Martin, who is discharged after his attempted suicide. A young man incapable of acquiring a mature sense of duty and responsibility may be missed, however, especially a loner like Carlyle, and, as Rabe depicts in his play, the results can be devastating.

Although Carlyle can not be absolved for the murders in Streamers, some blame falls on the system and the society that sanctions a military and warlike culture. Carlyle is virtually amoral. He has run free all his life, restricted only by the realities of the streets, not by some inner moral compass. The life the military attempts to impose on him is much too restrictive, too suffocating, particularly because he is unable to see the point of it, only its threat. He is unable to develop a sense of duty and responsibility because life has provided him with no meaningful models of such personal qualities.

Friendship
Roger and Billy are the two characters best able to adjust to army life and accept its rigorous demands of good order and discipline. In fact, they approach an ideal in that both are able to think critically but also accept a sense of duty that requires a submerging of their individualism under the surface of military homogeneity. They are not, in short, mindless and robotic recruits, not mere canon fodder. They are also good friends, quietly developing a sense of esprit de corps that is, perhaps, the military’s greatest personal reward. They have a common cause, giving them a bond that Carlyle looks for but can not find on the terms expected by military authority.

Identity
Streamers is a play about a crisis of identity in the lives of its major characters. Each, willingly or not, is attempting to adjust to life in the army. Adapting to it requires a sacrifice of some part of self that new soldiers like Martin and Carlyle are unable to make. Roger and Billy have succeeded, however, even Richie, though in his case the situation involves a sort of ‘‘outing.’’ He flaunts his homosexuality, not because he wants to escape from the Army but seemingly to prove that his sexual orientation is no impediment to being a good soldier. His need is to maintain an honest identity in the face of traditional attitudes that morally condemned him and other homosexuals and deliberately excluded them from military service.

Race and Racism
As Rabe demonstrates, the army by the time of the Vietnam War had largely become color blind. In fact, it was much more of a melting pot than society at large, in which, despite such civil rights advances as the desegregation of public schools and the market place, people could and did chose to remain socially segregated. The new demands placed on Carlyle are simply too much. He harbors deep resentments towards whites, which, though certainly in large measure justified, gnaw at him as he is forced to comply with what he perceives as white authority. His ‘‘safe’’ world had been the inner-city ghetto streets, despite the crime and violence associated with them. At least there he had an identity, one that the army is forcing him to sacrifice, something, Streamers argues, he can not successfully do.

Sex
Part of the intensity of Streamers arises from sexual needs. Richie’s homosexual desires are directed towards Billy, who grows increasingly angry over Richie’s overt flirtations, perhaps because Billy really is not all that secure about his sexual identity. In his disclosure to Roger, he reveals that at one point in his life he had considered becoming a priest, which argues that he was willing to adopt celibacy. In any case, Richie’s flirtations include annoying hints that Billy is masking his true sexual preferences, which may be a major reason why Billy accompanies Roger and Carlyle to a bordello, attempting to prove his masculinity and heterosexuality.

Meanwhile, Carlyle, unlike Billy, is willing to use Richie’s homosexuality as a way of releasing some of his pent up energy, and perhaps, too, as a way of dominating Richie, a representative of the white race against which he bears angry grudges. For all his brutal directness, Carlyle’s motives for his sexual assault on Richie are complex, as is revealed in his emotional lurching between playful affection and violent behavior.

Violence and Cruelty
Violence is endemic in Streamers. It principally takes the form of Carlyle’s violent reactions, his brutal knifings of Billy and Sergeant Rooney. His actions verge on the inexplicable, which makes them doubly distressing. Carlyle seems to act almost like a cornered animal, enraged and extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Neither Billy nor Rooney does anything to warrant Carlyle’s violent responses. On the other hand, Carlyle does not seem to be deliberately cruel. He has no vicious or evil blood lust. His reactions are spontaneous and devoid of anything other than momentary malice, engendered by Billy and Rooney’s invasion of his emotional territory.

War and Peace
War lies in the background of Streamers, functioning as a kind of catalyst that ups the emotional ante of the play. That the young soldiers may be facing a one-way trip to a distant, Asian ‘‘Disneyland’’ preys on their minds. It is a fact that contributes to the emotional instability of all of them, especially Carlyle, who has a sense of being used by white men to fight in a war in which he has nothing at stake.

The Vietnam War plays no direct part in the action, however. In fact, there are hints of the ‘‘guns and butter’’ sense of it as a distant, aberrant activity occurring in what is really a time of peace at home, where few sacrifices were being made to pursue the War with vigor and moral certitude. The pointlessness of the struggle is as destructive of the men’s morale as is its threat to their lives.

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