Rabe, Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson: Mid-American Male Dramatists in the 1970s and '80S

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ROUGHLY A HALF-CENTURY after Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, and Zona Gale revolutionized American theatre with feminist perspectives derived from their midwestern upbringing, a cadre of male playwrights emerged from the heartland in the 1970s, addressing the troubled terrain of American masculinity following the gender revolutions of the 1960s. Lanford Wilson, David Rabe, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet rose to sudden, striking prominence in their depictions of what I have called "decadent, wounded patriarchy" (Radavich, "Man," 79). With the noticeable exception of Wilson, these playwrights have charted the "shifting tectonics of male friendship in a world of fractured relations with women, corrupting work demands, and confused fraternal loyalties." Moreover, plays like Babe's Hurlyburly "enact what Raphael has called a 'freestyle' initiation," in which young men endure ritualized suffering, but without the leadership of older males, clear gender instruction, or reliable outcomes (Radavich, "Collapsing," 148). The confused masculinity of this period in American history has been articulated on stage by four award-wining playwrights through the lens of the Midwest.

Lanford Wilson (b. 1937) is the oldest of this group chronologically, but David Babe (b. 1940) was the first to emerge on the national scene with the first of his Vietnam plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, produced in May 1971 in New York to great acclaim. Sticks and Bones, first produced at Villanova in 1969, followed Pavlo Hummel in New York in November 1971 and moved to Broadway in March of the following year. Rabe's theatrical double-whammy was followed in 1976 by Streamers, third part of what became his Vietnam trilogy, subsequently made into a successful film. As Christoph Houswitschka points out, "the Vietnam War has had the most poignant impact on American society since the Civil War," creating great resonance for Rabe's trio of plays (117). The playwright essentially provides "teichoscopy," a dramatic view of battle scenes from the protected perspective of distance (Mohr, 135).

Rabe was born and grew up Catholic in Dubuque, Iowa, an historic town along the Mississippi River. Unlike Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, who enact cultural interactions of the region, Rabe evokes the Midwest covertly, either as an All-American, geographically deracinated location or through elements related to the playwright's regionally tinged biography. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel features the classic Midwestern dichotomies, normality versus abnormality and practical realism versus illusion, but these are not ideas to which he devotes specifically regional attention. Yet the title character, based at least in part on the author, revels in breaking away from his background: "Ain't I bad, man? Gonna eat up Cleveland. Gonna piss on Chicago" (8). The midwestern underpinning surfaces again in the Author's Note at the end: "If the character of Pavlo Hummel does not have a certain eagerness and wide-eyed spontaneity, along with a true, real, and complete inability to grasp the implications of what he does, the play will not work as it can" (110).

In Sticks and Bones more iconic Midwestern elements can be seen in the domestic setting of Ozzie and Harriet's idealized home from 1950s television. The playwright inserts some of his own Vietnam experience into the TV character named David, who in Rabe's play arrives home from war blind and emotionally scarred. Unlike the upbeat feel-goodism of Ozzie and Harriet, the family in this play do not understand David's war-time trauma; his situation to them "is all very strange--very spooky" (137). Ozzie erupts in irrational tirades, and David rejects the blessing of Father Donald, assaulting him with his cane. At the end, in a ferocious parody of Midwestern domesticity, Harriet brings "silver pans and towels with roosters on them" to catch David's blood in a family-assisted suicide (222). In this play Midwestern elements are used with savage intensity to mock the pretense of quaint American family nostalgia and denial of reality. …