One of the best things about reading a lot more criticism is the introduction one gets to new authors and even genres that weren’t even on his/her radar before. Such was the case for me when John Lahr reviewed the work of playwright David Rabe in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Though I had heard the name, I was unfamiliar with his career and work so I went to the library and picked up a couple of his prominent works.
Rabe is best known as a ‘Vietnam playwright,’ the sort of tag is reductive to the point of absurdity. In Streamers, the third play is his Vietnam trilogy, it is easy to see that the play isn’t so much about Vietnam as it is about state of America as a whole in 1965. Like a lot of drama, the characters and situation serve as a microcosm to society.
Three soldiers bunk together in a small room on a military base, waiting for orders to be deployed to Vietnam. Over the past few weeks, several men from their unit have received their orders, so they know it is just a matter of time. The three soldiers are Billy, an idealist who represents the typical white American; Roger, a young black man who has become comfortable with his place in a society that is patently unfair to him; and Richie, a young man who is struggling with his homosexuality. Into their midst comes Carlyle, a bitter, vicious, trouble-making black man.
The others recognize they must get rid of Carlyle to survive; in other words, the must purge him to save their harmonious society. Yet they fail, and in his murderous rampage, Carlyle kills Billy, the all American kid.
The play is rooted in the supposed sublimated sexual drive that men use as an excuse for fighting and waging war. Each character is compelled to establish a sexual identity in order to stake their claim as a legitimate art of the all-male environment. But as each character is given the ability to defend himself and justify who they are, one gets a bit weary of the tired mechanics. However, when one considers that the play originated well over thirty years ago, it is a bit easier to forgive the characters for becoming so unsettled by one man flaunting his homosexuality.
The end result is a play that is not so much anti-war as it is an examination of the psychological and sexual motivations that lead men to wage war. Though reading a play never gives one the full effect of seeing it performed, it isn’t hard to imagine how powerful a production of Streamers could be with such a small set consisting of the spare, wooden barracks.
In fact, I may need to revise my penchant for criticizing drama based solely on reading the script. Though as a student we have necessarily studied plays this way, one does lose the visceral impact of witnessing a performance. Earlier this year I was blown away by seeing a staged version of Pinter’s Homecoming, so the next time a local theater stages a play of Rabe’s I’ll eagerly try to attend.