Authors: David Rabe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter


David Rabe (rayb) is one of America’s most uncompromising dramatic commentators on the Vietnam War. The three major Rabe plays, sometimes referred to as “the Vietnam trilogy” (Sticks and Bones, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and Streamers), are intense, compelling analyses of a society forever altered by a controversial war, of a generation that lost its innocence in battle.{$I[AN]9810000829}{$I[A]Rabe, David}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Rabe, David}{$I[tim]1940;Rabe, David}

David William Rabe was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on March 10, 1940, to William Rabe, a high school teacher who later became a meat packer, and his wife, Ruth McCormick Rabe, a department store employee. Educated at two Catholic schools in Dubuque–Loras Academy and Loras College, where he earned his B.A. degree in English in 1962–Rabe went on to graduate school at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, where he began work on a degree in theater. Two years in the U.S. Army, which included eleven months in Vietnam, interrupted Rabe’s graduate work; he resumed his studies upon his return from Vietnam, completing his master’s degree in 1968. The next year he married Elizabeth Pan. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1979 Rabe married actress Jill Clayburgh.

Rabe’s tour of duty in Vietnam proved to be a major turning point in the future playwright’s life. Assigned to a hospital group, Rabe never actually experienced combat, although he witnessed the fighting at close range and observed the American troops both in and out of combat. It was the extreme youth and inexperience of these soldiers that made an impression on Rabe, who later described them as like kids “standing around some bar like teenagers at a soda fountain, talking coolly about how many of their guys got killed in the last battle.” Rabe’s first two plays were the result of his frustrating return to society after Vietnam. Both were written while he was in graduate school but not produced until they came to the attention of the influential Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which opened on May 21, 1971, ran for 363 performances at the Newman Theatre in 1971 and 1972 and earned for Rabe an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award. Sticks and Bones was even more critically successful than The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, winning for Rabe the 1972 Tony Award, the Outer Circle Award, and a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle. A Variety poll named Rabe the most promising playwright of 1972. The play was not, however, a popular success, and its Broadway run was supported in part by the New York Shakespeare Festival. Still drawing his themes from his experiences in Vietnam, Rabe based his next play on Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy. The Orphan, an attempt to draw parallels between the Trojan War and twentieth century post-Vietnam violence, was unsuccessful, confusing both popular audiences and the critics. A departure from the Vietnam theme, In the Boom Boom Room was neither a critical nor a popular success, although it was nominated for a Tony Award.

With Streamers, Rabe returned to the Vietnam War–and to critical acclaim. Opening at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, the play moved to Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre and won for Rabe the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best American play of 1976. Eight years would pass before Rabe’s next successful play, the controversial Hurlyburly, a dramatic exploration of the moral deterioration of modern America, was produced.

Although the most acclaimed of Rabe’s plays dramatize the effect of war on the lives of average people, Rabe emphatically denies that he is an antiwar playwright. “I don’t like to hear them called antiwar plays,” he says in response to attempts to label his work. “All I’m trying to do is define the event for myself and for other people.” His attempts to “define the event” are violent and sensational, marked by the lyrical seaminess and trenchant aggressiveness of their language and darkly powerful in their exploration of senseless violence in war and at home.

Perhaps the best known of David Rabe’s plays is The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the story of the making of a soldier. Pavlo Hummel is a teenage misfit who discovers in the army and in Vietnam a niche, a place where he can function almost competently, though in a macabre sort of way. As a medic, he picks up the wounded and the dead from the battlefield. A nobody at home, Pavlo soon discovers that in the military the violence latent in his character is acceptable. Through his experiences he achieves a kind of brutal masculinity and maturity, but even that success proves inadequate to prevent his ignominious and senseless death. An argument with another soldier over a prostitute ends when the other man kills Pavlo with a grenade. Clearly the army is a dehumanizing institution, but in Rabe’s theatrical world, civilian society is equally destructive to the soldier. Reaction to the news of Pavlo’s death is minimal: Mickey, Pavlo’s half brother, claims, “Vietnam don’t even exist.” Such was the civilian complacency and lack of involvement that Rabe found so disturbing upon his return from Vietnam.

David Rabe’s gift to the American theater is a body of plays that are at once violent and lyrical, realistic and nightmarish, confrontational and symbolic. His is a powerful voice that is distinctive for its intense concern with post-Vietnam American society. As playwright Howard Richardson has remarked, “Sticks and Bones had more impact on those in a position to mold public opinion than any statement from President Nixon, and David Rabe can take as much credit for ending the war in Vietnam as any one individual.” Yet Rabe’s concerns go beyond the effects of a war to the all-too-human need to comprehend the meanings and causes of violence, to understand the chaos that is human life.

BibliographyBigsby, C. W. E. Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. The introduction to part 5, “The Theatre of Commitment,” includes a long discussion of Rabe’s work. Bigsby is respectful of the power and importance of Rabe’s work through Streamers. He says that Rabe’s Vietnam plays are less “about war than about loneliness and self-betrayal; less an account of political perfidy than of the failure of private morality.”Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists, 1960-1990. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Cohn once called this chapter “Narrower Straits” but renamed it “Roaming Around” to point at an orientation away from Broadway conventions in the plays of Rabe, Ronald Ribman, John Guare, and David Hwang. Notes the revision of the early version of In the Boom Boom Room in 1986 but is silent regarding the hiatus from Hurlyburly to 1990.Cole, Susan Letzler. Playwrights in Rehearsal: The Seduction of Company. New York: Routledge, 2001. Cole participated in rehearsals of plays by eight contemporary playwrights, to discover the writer’s role in bringing a script to the stage. Her chapter on Rabe follows his creative process in developing A Question of Mercy.Demastes, William W., and Michael Vanden Heuvel. “The Hurlyburly Lies of the Causalist Mind: Chaos and the Realism of Rabe and Shepard.” In Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996. Examines realism and its relationship to chaos in plays by Rabe and by Sam Shepard.Herman, William. Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. Places Hurlyburly in the Shakespearean context of despair as an aftereffect of war. Discusses some individual works at length but calls others “a small body of less assured and less coherent drama,” including Rabe’s favorite, Goose and Tomtom. Good bibliography of primary and secondary sources.Kolin, Philip C. David Rabe: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. The first source for factual information and continuing study of the playwright, including a chronology of productions. The secondary bibliography is valuable for pursuing criticism on individual plays and reviews of first productions.McDonough, Carla J. Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997. McDonough examines typical male characters by eight contemporary male playwrights, including Rabe. She finds that in Rabe’s work, masculinity itself is a problematic issue for his troubled characters.Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. Rabe is interviewed here in 1986 after the success and anguish of Hurlyburly. The brief biographical notes include discussions of his writing habits, his relations with directors, and his problems with Mike Nichols’s direction of Hurlyburly.Zinman, Toby Silverman, ed. David Rabe: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1991. Collection of nineteen articles, including an interview with Rabe. Separate chapters provide Rabe’s comments on Vietnam, Streamers, Sticks and Bones, and Goose and Tomtom.Zinman, Toby Silverman. “What’s Wrong with This Picture? David Rabe’s Comic-Strip Plays.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King. New York: Routledge, 2001. This essay, which compares the bold characterization in Rabe’s plays to that in comic strips, appeared in the earlier volume David Rabe: A Casebook. Its inclusion here makes it easier for readers to see Rabe’s work in the context of work by other writers from the latter third of the twentieth century.
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