War is hell, as the Boston Phoenix theater critic Carolyn Clay would have it, but she doesn’t seem to realize that the inferno is a moving target. And it is the diminishing capacity of contemporary American theater to imagine violence and its effects that interests me most about the Huntington Theater Company’s current revival of David Rabe’s Vietnam drama, Streamers.
The nervous nellies among us feared that the rise of mediums like television and the movies would impoverish the use of language: thus theater, one of the last bastions of literary art, serves as a beleaguered but vital alternative to the pernicious spread of the all-mighty Image. But Streamers suggests that it could be the other way around. It could be that the rise of visual mediums reflects not a diminishment but the evolution of new forms of the imagination.
In her review, Clay claims that the evening at the HTC “is as brutally honest as it is brutal. Less anti-war on principle than in its depiction of the demoralizing effects of fear and The aggression on the human spirit, it deserves to be seen. And the powerful Scott Ellis–helmed staging will not let you look away.” I glanced away with regularity (at the performance I attended a number of people walked out during intermission. A pair of older ladies sitting behind me told me they were bored.) It could be that the play’s racy dialogue and sexual tensions were just too “brutally honest” for us. Or it could be that, after TV’s Oz and The Sopranos, Rabe’s talky depiction of blood sacrifice among soldiers about to be shipped off to Vietnam contains all the visceral pizazz of a wet sock.
In a 1992 afterword to a collection of his Vietnam plays, Rabe writes that his scripts, including Streamers, are a riposte to the “sugary, sentimental veneer with which we dazzle and delude ourselves … an endless barrage of images whose main criteria are that they must distract us and they must be false.” But the evocation of the irrationality of violence on TV and film, at its best, has evolved over the decades, moving closer to the cut-and-slash of traumatic experience while providing more morally complex storylines. Decades ago Rabe’s play provided a trendy alternative to the timidity of mainstream culture – thus the shock generated by its 1976 New York premiere.
Today, slowed down by its self-conscious literariness, the play comes off as false and distracting, at least when compared to the mercurial interaction of words and image on TV and film. The visual mediums mesh immediacy and meditative distance – they don’t smother violence in reassuring symbolism. Treating the audience as if it needs a handrail of arty metaphors to get up a flight of rickety steps, Rabe drains the risk and danger out of his story. The script’s “honesty” comes off as an exercise in arm’s length calculation. For example, the play, set in an Army barracks in 1965, opens with a young solider who has slit his wrists in panic; he is hustled out, never to be heard from again – he is simply a literary device, two-tons of foreshadowing.
A confrontational moment in “Streamers”
The play focuses on the three regular occupants in the barracks: Roger, a black man who accepts authority, and two whites, one of whom, Ritchie, is ambiguously gay, the other, Billy, who is ambiguously straight. Into their fragile domestic arrangement marches Carlyle, a black man who, panicked by the prospect of heading off to war, plays the men off of one another, culminating in acts of violence that illustrate the law of unintended consequences posed by the play’s neon-lit major metaphor: streamers, an ironic image of parachutes that won’t open.
In his afterword, Rabe says that in his Vietnam plays “violence is never conceptually or formally contained and limited to its appropriate, designated targets. In other words it is not rational. It is not mechanical.” But “Streamers” slowly and methodically cranks along, culminating in schematic outbursts of savagery whose meaning is explicated in helpful monologues. The HTC production is effectively dispatched by director Scott Ellis, though the neatness of the performances, the efficient coolness of the atmosphere, only accentuates the drama’s tidiness.
Rabe himself seems to sense the problem. When asked by the Boston Globe recently about the play’s relevance he offers an honest response:
The only clue I have is that the [younger] actors [in rehearsals] don’t seem to have the same sense that we’re raising this dark, mysterious ship from somewhere. They don’t seem to have the same sense of alarm about dealing with the material that the original actors had. Whether that will be true of the audience, I have no idea.
Because their visual techniques reflect the furies of American reality, the most accomplished of today’s movies and TV manage to register a sense of alarm. The Boston Globe’s theater critic Louise Kennedy thinks the problem is that Rabe’s play is dated, but the script’s earnest fussiness is symptomatic of a far larger dilemma. Audiences have become accustomed to seeing violence and its reverberations dramatized on screens large and small. Contemporary plays have yet to dramatize (or analyze) the effects of violence in ways that match the anarchistic verve of the visual mediums at their most compelling. That growing gap is not promising for the future of serious theater.
The expectations of younger audiences pose a considerable, though not insurmountable, challenge to the language-based strengths of the theater. But playwrights will have to stretch their imaginations to fit more reality, and less literary artifice, on stage.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of Streamers runs through December 9 at the Boston University Theatre.