Sticks and Bones
Sticks and Bones
DAVID RABE 1969
Sticks and Bones is one of several plays playwright David Rabe wrote about the Vietnam War and its effect on those who fought in it. In this play, a black comedy/drama, Rabe focuses on David, a physically blind veteran who has returned home to his morally blind family. He is alienated from them because he has changed and they cannot understand or accept him and what he has experienced. The tensions surrounding David reveal problems with each member of the family. Rabe emphasizes the denial common to many Americans who were stateside during the war by parodying an archetypical American family. Some of the characters’ names come from a popular television sitcom family of the 1950s and 1960s, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.Rabe uses many varied writing styles, ideas, and symbols in the play. Critics were divided over the play, Rabe’s writing, and its effectiveness.
A Vietnam veteran himself, Rabe wrote Sticks and Bones while he was a graduate student at Villanova University in the late 1960s. The play made its debut there in 1969. After the off-Broadway success of another Vietnam play of Rabe’s, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel in early 1971, Sticks and Bones also opened off Broadway at the Florence Sutro Anspacher Theatre in November of 1971. Sticks and Bones later transferred to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre in 1972 and ran for a total of 366 performances. The play won numerous accolades, including the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award from the Dramatists Guild in 1971, the 1972 Antoinette Perry Award (Tony Award) for best play, and the Outer Critics Circle Award.
David Rabe was born on March 10, 1940, in Dubuque, Iowa, the son of William Rabe, a high school teacher turned meat packer, and his wife Ruth (nee McCormick), a department store employee. Rabe received his education at Loras Academy and Loras College, earning his B.A. in 1962. Several years after graduation and several jobs later, Rabe entered Villanova University for graduate training in the theater in the mid-1960s. Rabe only attended for a year or so before dropping out. After he left school, he was drafted by the United States Army for service in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.
For two years, from 1965 to 1967, Rabe served in the Army. The last eleven months of his tour was spent in Vietnam doing construction with a hospital support group. Though he did not experience combat first hand, he witnessed the effects of war on young soldiers. The experience changed his life and later inspired several plays, including Sticks and Bones (1969). After his discharge, Rabe briefly returned to Iowa before completing his master’s degree at Villanova, graduating in 1968. During his time there, he wrote Sticks and Bones, which made its theatrical debut at Villanova in 1969. Rabe became an assistant professor there in 1970.
Rabe came to widespread public attention when another of his Vietnam plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1969), received many critical kudos during its first run off Broadway in early 1971. In late 1971, while The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was still running, Sticks and Bones also opened in New York. Rabe left his assistant professorship at Villanova in 1972, though he remained a consultant to the school. Rabe had mixed success with his subsequent plays in the 1970s. The Orphan (1973), based on Greek myths of the Trojan War, had two short runs. His Boom Boom Room (1973), which focused on a female protagonist, did slightly better at the box office, although critics were underwhelmed. Another play about the Vietnam War, Streamers (1976), received more accolades, including several awards, than the rest of his work.
The 1970s proved to be Rabe’s most professionally productive decade in the theater. Though he continued to write plays in the 1980s and 1990s, only two plays were really successful: 1984’s Hurlyburly and A Question of Mercy in the mid-1990s. Rabe also wrote in other mediums, including novels, shorts stories, and screenplays. Rabe’s screenplays brought him some acclaim. In 1983, Rabe wrote the screenplay for the film version of Streamers, directed by Robert Altman. He also wrote the screenplay for another Vietnam film, Casualties of War (1989), as well as other movies. Rabe continues to work in all these mediums in the twenty-first century.
Sticks and Bones opens with a slide show of family pictures. The offstage voices of an adult couple explain who are in the slides to the voices of children.
The scene moves to a home headed by parents Ozzie and Harriet. By phone, Ozzie learns that the government is sending their elder son David home from serving in the war in Vietnam. The family is excited by the prospect. Ozzie and Harriet share memories, some negative, about David. Ozzie also discusses his experiences in World War II, justifying his non-combative role to his younger son Rick; though Ozzie was not a soldier, he played an important role building war vehicles.
A Sergeant Major delivers the now-blind David to his family. The family is uneasy about David’s disability and appearance. David is also uncomfortable and wants to leave. The sergeant will not let David come with him. He has other soldiers to deliver to their families. After the sergeant exits, David remains upset. As his parents look for something to calm him down, the Asian Girl appears in the doorway. Harriet cannot see her and slams the door shut on her.
Later that night, the Asian Girl enters when Ozzie opens the door to check on a noise. He also cannot see her. Harriet knocks on David’s bedroom door, insisting that he had called her. Harriet talks at David without listening to him. When she leaves, the Asian Girl enters. David can sense her presence.
During the afternoon, Ozzie tries to watch television, but the sound does not work. His attempts to fix it are interrupted by Harriet. She is worried about David, who has been uncommunicative. David comes downstairs and mentions an old friend of Ozzie’s, Hank Grenweller. After sharing memories of him, David contradicts what Ozzie remembers about Hank. Harriet enters and changes the subject. She and Ozzie ask David about his talking in his sleep. David tells them that he was not asleep but speaking to a presence he felt in the room. Ozzie becomes angry when David talks about the Asian Girl. His parents call her names. To make an ill Harriet feel better, Ozzie suggests that David ask her to make him food. When Harriet suggests they go to church, David goes to his room, not eating anything.
Despite Ozzie’s disapproval, Harriet decides to ask Father Donald to talk to David about the Asian Girl. Rick comes home and his parents immediately brighten up. They return to superficial conversation. As Rick becomes impatient waiting for Harriet to serve him food, Ozzie becomes upset over David’s relationship with the Asian Girl as well as over his own lost youth. Ozzie tells the audience about how he used to be a good runner in his day. David returns and reminds Ozzie that those days are over.
At night, the family gathers to watch home movies shot by David. Before the film begins, Rick sings a song and plays the guitar that he has carried throughout the play. David wants to sing as well, but his parents insist that only Rick can sing. David calls Rick selfish and tries to grab the guitar. They get in a tug-of-war that David wins. Harriet and Ozzie are upset over David’s actions.
After everything calms down, David turns on the projector. The movie is nothing but a flicker. David describes disturbing incidents from his time in Vietnam, mostly concerning the Vietnamese. Harriet pulls the plug. David is upset and uses his cane to knock things over. David strums the guitar and comes to a realization about his situation. He goes to bed, with the Asian Girl following him. Harriet tries to keep her subsequent conversation with Ozzie on superficial topics, but she loses her temper and exits the home. Ozzie is angry and confused. He calls the police and uses a fake voice to inform them that there are odd happenings at his home. Ozzie expresses his frustrations with his own life, past and present.
At a later time, Ozzie is asleep on the couch. A disturbed David whispers in his ear that he can see
the Asian Girl sometimes. When Rick is present, David tells Rick that he hates him and wants to see him die. Upon Harriet’s return, Ozzie wakes up and tells her about a horrible dream, in which David whispered in his ear. David denies doing this. The conversation turns superficial, until Ozzie loses control of himself again. He yells at David, informing him he never wants to hear about the Asian Girl again. After Ozzie slaps David, David can see the Asian Girl and holds her so she will stay.
The act opens with another brief slide show, primarily featuring Father Donald, discussed by the offstage voices.
In Ozzie and Harriet’s living room, Father Donald assures them that he can help David. While Father Donald is in the bathroom, Harriet informs Ozzie that the police came by earlier. Ozzie accuses his sons of calling the police. Father Donald makes his way to David’s room and tries to be supportive. David uses his cane to hit the pastor and asks him to leave. Father Donald does not, but continues to talk at David. When he tries to bless him, David strikes him repeatedly with the cane until the pastor runs back to the bathroom in fear. When he leaves, Father Donald does not tell the couple what happened.
Later at night, Ozzie enters David’s room. He tries to express his frustrations to his son. David talks more about the Asian Girl, much to Ozzie’s discomfort. David leaves the room. Ozzie tells Harriet about the conversation. He worries about having someone who murdered people living in their home. Harriet realizes it was Ozzie who called the police. When Ozzie finally admits it, Harriet is sickened by his actions.
In the afternoon, Harriet is cleaning, when Ozzie comes home upset. He was deliberately hit by an egg thrown out of a car. Ozzie wants to tell David, but he is not in his room. Instead, Ozzie tells some story from his past athletic glories to an uninterested Rick. When David appears, Ozzie accuses him of throwing the egg. David soon retreats to his room after Ozzie becomes more upset. Harriet tries to comfort Ozzie, reminding him that they will be a family again soon.
Late at night, Harriet enters David’s room. She tries to discuss their expectations for him, but he can only talk about the things he saw in Vietnam. Harriet denies those incidents occurred. As Harriet expresses racist opinions about the Vietnamese people, David uses his cane to harass his mother. She runs out of the room, and he follows. Harriet accuses him of only wanting to hurt them. She tells him she does not know who he is. When Harriet leaves, David talks to the Asian Girl.
Ozzie comes home and designates the living room furniture as members of his family. He tells them how much they are worth. Ozzie sees the Asian Girl after his speech. Harriet enters and tells him how upset she is about David. They pray together. When Rick enters, he is distraught at the scene. He accuses David of driving their parents crazy. David wants the truck carrying veterans to come back and take him away. There is a knocking at the door, but no one answers it. The sound on the television now works.
Rick tells his brother how much they all hate him and bangs his guitar on David’s head hard enough that he passes out. The Asian Girl finally speaks. Ozzie chokes her to death and hides the body. The conversation between Rick, Ozzie, and Harriet returns to the superficial. When David regains consciousness, Rick tells him that he should kill himself. Rick offers a razor, and Harriet and Ozzie encourage him. It is implied that the deed is done, with the help of Rick.
The Asian Girl is a physical manifestation of a woman David was involved with in Vietnam. She may or may not be dead in real life. When she first enters the house, only David can sense her presence. At the end of act I, he can see her and touches her so she will stay with him. David needs her more than he needs any member of his family. Ozzie, Harriet, and to some degree Rick hate her and what she represents to David. In act II, Ozzie and the others can see her. Near the end of the play, Ozzie strangles her and then hides her body. The family feels relief after she, and what she represents, is gone.
David is the center of the play. He is Ozzie and Harriet’s older son and Rick’s older brother. David has returned to his family’s home after serving in Vietnam. He is now blind and traumatized by the things he saw and participated in during the war. He also misses a Vietnamese girl he was involved with and left behind, Zung. David first senses, then sees, a physical manifestation of this woman during the play. David has a hard time adjusting to his life with his parents and brother. They do not want to hear about his experiences in Vietnam—especially about Zung—rather, they want everything to go back to normal. David’s physical disability and mental anguish disturb Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick’s superficial existence, causing each member to act out in his or her own way. He challenges them too much, and he hates them. In the end, David’s presence cannot be tolerated. Rick suggests that David kill himself. With the family’s help, it is implied that David’s suicide takes place.
Father Donald is the entire family’s spiritual mentor, though his most faithful follower is Harriet. It is she who calls him to talk to David about his involvement with the Asian Girl. When Father Donald attempts to comfort him, David uses his cane as a weapon that he physically attacks the priest with and drives him out of the home. After the experience, Father Donald does not return Harriet’s calls.
Harriet is the mother of David and Rick, and wife of Ozzie. She is a stereotypical suburban mother. Her primary functions are cooking for and serving her family, cleaning the house, and supporting her men. Harriet looks to Father Donald for moral and spiritual guidance. Her world is turned upside down when David returns from Vietnam and has been changed by the experience. Harriet cannot understand why David finds her home so intolerable. She tries to reach out to him, but every time she does, it is not to understand him but to make him understand what she and the family want from him. Harriet is especially appalled by David’s involvement with the Asian Girl. Using racial epithets, Harriet repeatedly expresses that she finds it unacceptable that David touched someone she describes as “yellow” and a “whore.” Ozzie’s increasingly disturbing behavior also bothers her, but Harriet finds it much easier to communicate with him. She is ultimately most comfortable making sure Rick has his fudge and other snacks. In the end, Harriet supports Rick’s effort to get David to kill himself. She brings pans and towels to put under David’s wrists so he will not make a mess on her carpet.
Ozzie is the head of the household, Harriet’s husband, and David and Rick’s father. Like Harriet, Ozzie is also greatly disturbed by David’s physical and mental state on his return home. It reminds him of his experiences in World War II in vehicle production as well as of his own lost youth. Ozzie cannot understand what David went through or what he is feeling. He also shares Harriet’s racial prejudices against the Vietnamese woman that David was involved with. Though Ozzie shares Harriet and Rick’s desire to live in an orderly, superficial family, his anger and frustration often come through, sometimes in disturbing ways. These emotions are heightened by David’s continuing presence. Like David, Ozzie engages in some odd actions. For example, Ozzie calls the police about his own home and son, pretending to be someone else. He claims everyone in the house is strange. Later, Ozzie strangles the physical manifestation of the Asian Girl when he finally is able to see her. At the end of the play, he supports Rick’s effort to get David to kill himself.
Rick is the younger brother of David and the son of Ozzie and Harriet. Like his parents, Rick is disturbed by David’s presence and attitude upon his return, though it is more out of annoyance, if not jealousy, than any kind of real concern. Rick is self-centered and selfish. He is about seventeen years
- On August 17, 1973, CBS aired a controversial and radically different version of Sticks and Bones.The production was directed by Robert Downey Sr.
old and good-looking. He plays the guitar, which he carries everywhere, and sings. Rick is also an avid photographer, taking pictures of everyone, usually at bad moments. Nearly every time he enters the room, he wants his mother to serve him food (fudge, ice cream, soda, milk, etc.). Family issues are of secondary importance to Rick, something he handles with superficial conversation. Rick’s selfishness reaches a climax at the end of the play when he first knocks David unconscious by bashing him on the head with his guitar, then convinces David to commit suicide. Rick offers David his own razor to commit the deed and helps him along.
See Asian Girl
The inability of David, Harriet, Ozzie, and Rick to communicate with each other is one of the play’s central themes. The most obvious communication problem is between David and the rest of the family. When David returns from Vietnam, the family tries to communicate with him the same way they did before he left. This does not work because David has been profoundly changed and had experiences that they find distasteful (i.e., involvement with the Asian Girl). At the same time, David does not want to communicate with them on their terms and can only express his angry feelings toward them in destructive ways. This standoff ends when Rick, Ozzie, and Harriet convince David to commit suicide and help him complete the act. There are
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Find and view episodes of the television show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (available on video). Compare and contrast the television sitcom characters to the characters in Sticks and Bones.How do Rabe’s characters stereotype the show and contribute to the element of parody in the play?
- Research the effects of the Vietnam War on the common soldier, focusing on how veterans were received when they returned to the United States. How does David’s attitude and experience compare to other soldiers’ stories?
- How could the family in Sticks and Bones have avoided their desperate situation by the end of the play? Explore ideas like communication.
- Research the history of the Vietnam War, focusing on how the war was portrayed and perceived on the home front. How did a typical American family view the war? How did their opinion change over time?
communication issues in the play between the other members of the family. Superficial conversations are what makes everyone but David most comfortable. Ozzie and Harriet do not communicate well with each other. Ozzie tries to talk with his family about his lost youth, frustrations, and problems, but no one really listens. Rick is primarily concerned with himself. He does not listen to his parents’ real concerns, only his own needs. But when David’s continued presence starts interfering too deeply with the cozy life the family has constructed, it is Rick who makes the first move toward making him go. Instead of solving the problem through improved communications, the problem (David) is eliminated.
One concept that also plays a significant role in Sticks and Bones is alienation. David is both estranged and alienated from his family. From the moment he enters his family’s home, David wants to leave. The suburban life they lead is now alien to him because of his experiences in Vietnam. He cannot relate to his home or the people who live in it. At one point, he tells both his brother and father how much he hates them. This hostile barrier grows because of the family’s communication problems and their racist attitude towards the only person David holds dear, the Asian Girl. David’s alienation increases and the hostile barrier becomes larger throughout the course of the play. One way David shows his alienation is by spending much of his time in his room. When there is an uncomfortable scene in the living room, David goes there. He becomes violent with both his mother and Father Donald when they invade it. David’s alienation throws his family’s ordered life into disarray, contributing to their decision to get rid of him. David is not the only character who suffers from alienation. Ozzie is also alienated from the family on some level. Like David, he tells both Rick and Harriet at different points how much he hates them.
Racism and Disgrace
One secondary theme in the play is related to racism. Harriet and Ozzie are disgusted by the fact that David was involved with Asian women, particularly the Asian Girl, while in Vietnam. They believe that this relationship was disgraceful and brings dishonor to the family. They cannot accept it on any level. Both Ozzie and Harriet often refer to the Asian Girl and her race as “yellow.” They, as well as Father Donald, call the Asian Girl a “yellow whore” and believe she had to be diseased. The couple work themselves up over the possibility that they could have had “chinky” grandchildren. At one point, Harriet tells Ozzie that the Bible says something negative about Asians. But when Ozzie goes off on the subject, Harriet reminds him that they are all God’s children, the only moment someone other than David defends the Asian Girl.
Sticks and Bones is a black comedy/drama set in the time contemporary to when it was written, the late 1960s in the United States. Though no city is specified, stage directions and reviews indicate the play is probably set in suburbia. All of the action is confined to the family home of Ozzie, Harriet, and their two sons, David and Rick. The home is modern in design and decoration. As the stage directions indicate, it looks like something out of an advertisement. Much of the action takes place in the living room and kitchen, rooms that families relax in together as well as go into and out of often. Some of the action takes place in David’s room, his retreat from the problems that he faces in dealing with his family. The use of these rooms underscores the dramatic tensions in the play as well as its themes.
The play is full of different kinds of symbolism. In a way, each character is a symbol. The Asian Girl is most obviously a symbol because she can only be seen by certain characters at certain times. When she is killed by Ozzie, her death is a symbolic killing of what the family has grown to hate about David. David is a symbol of what Vietnam did to young Americans who served there. His physical blindness is also a symbol, which is contrasted to his family’s moral blindness. Another physical symbol includes the increase in the number of plants in the home during the play. This evolving symbol suggests a growing jungle-like atmosphere, reminiscent of David’s recent experience in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War
The United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict in the 1950s, in part, because of Cold War policies. The Cold War was a post-World War II development in international relations. It involved a standoff between the United States and the USSR, as well as their respective allies, over nuclear armaments and the spread of communism. France, an ally of the United States, had occupied much of Indochina, of which Vietnam was a part, before World War II and again after the war ended. In the 1950s, a communist independence movement in Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh came into conflict with the French-supported nationalist forces. In response, the United States gave financial aid to France’s fight against Minh and his forces. The United States wanted to ensure that Vietnam did not fall into the hands of the communists.
The battle in Vietnam had reached a stalemate in the mid-1950s. The French colony of Indochina was divided into three distinct countries. One of these, Vietnam, was split into two parts, one communist in the north and one under French control in the south. Elections were scheduled to take place to decide what political direction the rejoined Vietnam would take. Instead, a war broke out, and the United States got more and more involved in it. The Communists fought for control of all three countries, and America became involved in each conflict.
American troops, as military advisors, were first sent to Vietnam in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Though the American government wanted to get out of the situation as soon as possible, the number of troops and advisors as well as the amount of funding managed to increase throughout the decade as the situation in South Vietnam became more unstable. In 1965, American troops became involved in active combat. By the end of the year, over 180,000 American troops were there; by 1968, over a half million American troops were in the country. As more American soldiers were sent to Vietnam, their average age became younger and younger, until eighteen- to twenty-year-old soldiers were common. Though negotiations to end the Vietnam War had been ongoing since 1968, in 1969 President Richard M. Nixon escalated the war.
In the United States, anti-war sentiment had been growing throughout the decade, especially since 1965. There were also such sentiments within the government, even before this time period. In the late 1960s, resistance to the draft became more common. By 1969, only thirty-two percent of Americans supported war. The antiwar movement was very vocal by the end of the decade. In 1969 a quarter of a million demonstrators marched on Washington, D.C., to protest the war. One reason many had strong opinions about the war was that it was the first truly televised war. Graphic images of the war were broadcast into American living rooms each evening, allowing the public to see for themselves the brutality of the conflict.
In its original productions, Sticks and Bones received mixed reviews from critics. While some found the play to be an original and powerful portrayal of Vietnam-related themes, other critics had problems with the way Rabe juggled the many symbols, themes, and writing styles, arguing that he did not keep all these elements under control.
A critic who liked the play, Douglas Watt of the Daily News writes, “It is a play written out of rage
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1969: The United States is deeply involved in the Vietnam War, though many Americans do not believe their country should be involved.
Today: Because of the outcome of the Vietnam War (the communists won), the United States has avoided becoming involved in long-term, large-scale wars.
- 1969: As would happen for some years, many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War return home to a country that does not understand them and often rejects them.
Today: The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., ensures that Americans will not forget the sacrifice of American soldiers in Vietnam.
- 1969: While a few authors/veterans like Rabe are writing about their experiences in and impressions of the Vietnam War, their number is relatively small.
Today: Numerous movies, books, and plays about the Vietnam War are in circulation. The experience has been explored from many angles, and new projects appear regularly.
- 1969: The American family is undergoing a radical transformation as the average age of marriage increases, divorce becomes more common, and the feminist movement spreads, changing many women’s lives.
Today: Many radical changes from the late 1960s are commonplace social trends today, though the average age of marriage continues to increase, the divorce rate remains high, and many women work outside the home.
over what Rabe . . . considers our widespread complacency about the events in Indochina. But it has not been written in rage. It is, instead, a beautifully controlled and even poetic work of the imagination that becomes almost unbearably moving as it unfolds.” While Martin Gottfried of Women’s Wear Daily generally praises the play, he has reservations that are shared in principle by many critics. He argues, “The writing is strong enough not to need such crutches as blindness.... It is prone to stretches of poetry that ring artificial and pretentious. These flaws can be easily corrected. Rabe is a playwright of profound power.”
One topic of debate among critics is Rabe’s complex symbolism, and his use of it. While many like it, others do not believe symbols are used effectively. A symbol that some critics enjoyed and others did not understand is the use of the names from the Ozzie and Harriet sitcom. Critics like Richard Watts of the New York Post do not comprehend why Rabe made this choice. On symbols, Clive Barnes of New York Times writes, “[a]t times he is kicking the hell out of soap operas, at other times he is throwing around inflated—but always effective—symbols as if they were medicine balls, and elsewhere he seems to be evoking ghosts from classic drama.” Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic takes a more negative view, looking at the symbols as ineffective ironies. He writes, “A string of ironies runs through the play, each of them trite: the blind man is the one who can really see, the ‘healthy’ people are really sick, the priest is really un-Christian.” As Jerry Tallmer of the New York Post argues,“Sticks and Bones, for all its force, has every watermark of a first work.”
Petruso is a freelance author and screenwriter, in Austin, Texas. In this essay, she looks at how the concept of isolation pervades Sticks and Bones.
Much of the action and thematic concerns of Sticks and Bones are related to the idea of isolation. To be isolated means to be set apart from others or alone. Throughout the play, David, the blind Vietnam veteran, grows increasingly isolated from his family after he returns home from the war. But David is not the only character to feel isolated. Ozzie also suffers from isolation to a greater degree than Harriet, Rick, the Asian Girl, and Father Donald, though they are all isolated from something or someone in their lives. Indeed, the very home the play takes place in is isolated. The home is a sanctuary from reality for Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, isolating them from the events of the ever-changing world that David has come from. Intrusive visitors from the outside world are not welcome. This essay looks primarily at the parallel individual isolations of David and Ozzie, and to some degree, Rick.
David is the most obvious example of isolation personified in the play. From the moment he enters the home, he is alone, though his whole family is there. During the war, David was blinded. This visual disability sets him apart from his family who are, at least on the surface, perfectly normal. When the Sergeant Major delivers David to the home, the family is caught by surprise at this development. Ozzie and Harriet had no idea that David was blinded, and, at first, they have a problem even accepting that he is their son. David, as well, is aware that there is a problem. He tells the Sergeant Major who delivered him,“there’s something wrong; it all feels wrong,” and “I AM LONELY HERE!” These feelings only grow over the course of the play.
David will not or cannot—it is never made clear which—leave the home; he is trapped in an isolated and isolating place. Because Ozzie and Harriet, and for that matter Rick, only try to communicate with David on their terms and in their way of understanding the world (through the filter of the home), David feels all the more isolated. Harriet, and to some degree Ozzie, are aware of David’s feelings. But their remedy is not to change their approach but to continue to treat him in the same way. For example, Harriet wants to ply him with food. Rick responds to this kind of communication well, but David has a different kind of hunger that eating fudge will not satisfy.
For his part, David makes some attempts to communicate his pain and to break through the isolation but to no avail. Early in act I, for example, he tells his father about meeting with one of Ozzie’s old friends, Hank Grenweller, while in boot camp. David contradicts Ozzie’s memory of a physical problem with one of Hank’s hands and tells him that
Hank is dying. Ozzie denies what David is saying about the problem and doubts that David even saw Hank because, as far as Ozzie knows, Hank resides in Georgia, while David was stationed in California. Ozzie can only accept his version of reality—the one formed in the home—increasing David’s feelings of isolation. These kinds of incidents pile up over the course of the play and occur not just with Ozzie but also with Harriet, Rick, and Father Donald.
The only place where David can escape to be both physically and mentally isolated from his family and their way of life is the sanctuary of his room. When Harriet and Father Donald invade it, they suffer the consequences: fear and physical pain. Yet he is not alone in his room. It is there that David senses the presence of the Asian Girl, the ghost-like representation of a woman he was involved with while in Vietnam. She is the only thing in the play that decreases his isolation. But Ozzie and Harriet’s total rejection of David’s experience with her only increases his isolation.
Like David, Ozzie is extremely isolated from his family, though he has buried his feelings of isloation much deeper. David’s physical isolation—his blindness—contributes to keeping his emotional
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1969) is another play by Rabe that explores the Vietnam experience. It focuses on a soldier’s experience in the army.
- The American Dream (1961) is a play by Edward Albee. It focuses on the emptiness of family life in America.
- Born on the Fourth of July (1976) is a memoir by disabled Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, focusing on his experiences during and after the war.
- Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) is a play by Eugene O’Neill that features a family dynamic similar to the one depicted in Sticks and Bones.
isolation on the surface. Ozzie is his home’s figurehead, the stereotypical father. As has already been mentioned, the home over which Ozzie ostensibly rules is isolated from outside realities, like David’s experiences in Vietnam. Ozzie’s isolation takes on a different form than David’s. He is not constantly openly hostile to Harriet or Rick, though he becomes that way with David and has moments of hostility toward the other two.
One way Ozzie reveals his separateness is through several monologues he delivers when he thinks he is alone. During his first monologue in act I, he says, “They think they know me and they know nothing.” He goes on to tell the audience about his true feelings primarily via stories of past glories. Ozzie also tries to connect with Rick on occasion, and this failure to get through to his younger, “normal” son leaves Ozzie feeling more isolated. One example of this happens near the end of act I. Ozzie asks Rick to teach him how to pick up and play the guitar. In awkward fashion, Ozzie tries to explain his emptiness and isolation to Rick, but Rick does not understand his father’s ramblings at all. In Act II, after one of Ozzie’s stories, Rick tells his father, “I’ve got to get going. ... you’re just talking nonsense anyway.”
Like David, as Ozzie grows more and more isolated, he becomes violent and irrational. For example, at the end of act I, he becomes angry, insults his wife, and he repeatedly slaps David. Ozzie later admits to David in a long, monologuelike speech, “I am . . . lonely. I mean, oh, no not exactly lonely, not really. That’s a little strong actually.” By late in act II, Ozzie seems to have lost any connection he had to his family. Alone in the living room, Ozzie arranges three empty chairs and addresses them with the names of other members of his family. He tells this captive, though nonexistent, audience how he will now define himself, by the value of his material possessions. This inventory gives Ozzie a sense of purpose, but it also shows how empty he really is.
At the end of the play, the problems faced by both of these isolated men have reached a climax. Yet they nearly break through and connect in the last pages of Sticks and Bones.David wants to bring all the disabled veterans from the trucks to the house, stack them along the walls, and have his father embrace the Asian Girl. David tells him, “They will call it madness. We will call it seeing.” Ozzie can almost handle it but believes he will “disappear.” When Ozzie cannot deal with David’s suggestions any longer, he asks for Rick’s help in the matter. It is Rick who takes over and restores proper order in the home. He knocks David out with his guitar. Ozzie then kills the physical manifestation of the Asian Girl and hides the body. By doing this, Ozzie has physically killed something that he has finally realized has been haunting him and contributing to his isolation.
When Rick convinces David to kill himself, and helps him do it with the aid of Harriet and Ozzie, Rick reveals how isolated David and Ozzie’s words and actions have made him feel throughout the play. Rick has completely accepted the emotional isolation from the outside world that his parents and their home have prepared for him. He enjoys constantly being served fudge, soda, and chips by his mother and having superficial conversations about baseball or the movies with both of his parents, without ever being close to them or understanding them. During the course of the play, Rick leaves whenever his father tries to open up to him or his brother is acting in ways that make him uncomfortable. Because his mother does not express any of her feelings of isolation to him, Rick counts on her the most to ensure he is fed the superficial treats he prefers without any more substabtial contact.
By the end, Rick’s only real purpose becomes to ensure this way of life—where he is the golden boy who plays guitar, sings, and takes snapshots—continues, and his unwanted feelings of isolation, caused by his brother’s return from Vietnam, end. When the opportunity presents itself, Rick takes matters into his own hands. From Rick’s point of view, David’s continued existence and the demands on the family made by David’s isolation could not go on any longer, so he tells his brother that he must kill himself and that he should have done so at an earlier time. Ozzie goes along with Rick’s plan because then Ozzie can stop exploring his own isolation and get back to being the man of the house. How long this isolation from reality can last is uncertain, but as Ozzie says after the deed is done, “We’re all happier.”
Source: A. Petruso, Critical Essay on Sticks and Bones, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
James J. Christy
In the following essay, Christy recalls his introduction to Sticks and Bones as a first-year theater professor at Villanova, where Rabe was developing the play.
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Source: James J. Christy, “Remembering Bones,” in David Rabe: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland Publishing, 1991, pp. 119-30.
In the following essay, Cooper explores Rabe’s technique for presenting social criticism in Sticks and Bones.
For David Rabe, the Vietnam war has been a source of artistic inspiration and creativity. His political and social consciousness, fused with his command of dramaturgy, produces taut expositions of the encounter between the American psyche and a war which assaulted some of the most traditional American values. His “Vietnam Trilogy” is clearly based on knowledge gained at first hand: he spent two years in Vietnam with a hospital support unit and later tried to return there as a war correspondent. This personal experience of the war is central to Rabe’s career. A Fullbright Fellowship then enabled him to complete the first two plays of the Trilogy: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones.
Rabe worked on both plays simultaneously: he wrote several drafts of Pavlo while developing the early versions of Sticks and Bones.When Pavlo was finally produced, it brought Rabe the favourable attention of critics, and this success spurred him to revise and complete Sticks and Bones.It appeared in 1971, produced by Joseph Papp for the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre. The second play in turn won its fair share of critical approval. The influential John Simon praised Rabe’s “ability to satirize fiercely without losing a residue of sympathy and even compassion.” Simon accurately pinpointed one source of the play’s power: its energetic combination of savage anger and pity. Joseph Papp dubbed Rabe “our greatest playwright today.”
Sticks and Bones proved strong meat for audiences, however, and remained unpopular for its run of 225 performances. Papp retained his faith in the play, despite considerable financial losses sustained by the Public Theatre. He commented: “It’s hard for audiences to deal with. They resist it. It disturbs them. But good plays are not easy.” He resolved to rework it into a television film, collaborating with Rabe and film director Robert Downey on a censored and radically altered film script. After much bickering amongst themselves and clashes with network requirements, the trio finally completed the film in 1972, but it was never released. It was a travesty of the original play, yet Rabe helped to create it and saw it through almost every stage of production. His motivation is unclear: perhaps he sought in television the widest possible exposure for his anti-war ideas. But it remains ironic that a play which attacks the values of the media so relentlessly should itself have become an aborted television movie.
Rabe completed the Trilogy in 1976 with Streamers.Although the three plays are generally respected by critics, Rabe has received comparatively little scholarly attention, perhaps because of the nature of his subject-matter. The Vietnam war is at the heart of Sticks and Bones, and is simultaneously the source of its potency and of many of its weaknesses. Writing with a kind of controlled fury, Rabe draws on the perennial, primitive, emotional power inherent in his material: war, and the feelings of dissent and revulsion which it engenders. If such rage gives the play the timeless quality of protest, Sticks and Bones is also a product of its time, perhaps even locked into its moment in the early 70s by the passage of the Vietnam war into history. Today the play has lost the power it once drew both from the exhaustive media coverage which the war received throughout its duration, and from the climate of growing public indignation.
Although Rabe tries to widen the reference of his play by never naming the war from which David has returned, he can no longer count on the peculiarly receptive audiences made sensitive by exposure to constant footage of combat and of political debate. Such lack of an immediately relevant historical context muffles the impact of the play for a contemporary audience, creating a vague sense of misplaced intensity, the over-energetic exploration of slightly passé issues. It is easy but misguided to patronize the play for these reasons, overlooking the rigorous intellectual control Rabe maintains over his material, and the serious attempt to bring the discipline of the playwright’s art to bear on an explosive moral and political event. In fact, both Sticks and Bones and Pavlo helped effectively to reclaim Vietnam from the journalists and give it back to the artists. Robert Asahina comments:
Vietnam was the first televised war . . . the journalistic mode of communication quickly came to be regarded as possessing a nearly exclusive access to the reality of Vietnam ... the task of making some sense of [it] had been shifted from the artist to the reporter.
Rabe replaces the implicit moral neutrality and potential sensationalism of media coverage with his own deeply moral and highly-wrought vision. The play itself contains an ironic and satirical comment on the ability of journalism to tell the truth. David’s “home movie,” with its supposed atrocity footage, is only a blank screen with green flickerings. Rabe implies that the camera’s impersonal lens has no true revelatory power. It is a tribute to Rabe that in this sequence, and indeed throughout the action, he never has recourse to sensationalism, preferring to control and defuse his volatile material through language. Sticks and Bones is verbally austere rather than visually lurid. David as film-maker, and hence potential journalist, can produce nothing like thorough media coverage, for he cannot look on his war experiences with the reporter’s dispassionate eye. So David’s intense verbal description of a couple hanging by their wrists from a tree replaces any vivid technicolour picture; whereas the journalist’s camera would have risked an invitation to a cheap thrill, David’s narrative representation of the atrocity
“THE PLAY COMBINES VISUAL INTENSITY WITH FORCEFUL MANIPULATION OF LANGUAGE. IN ITS DRAMATIC EXECUTION AND CHOICE OF SUBIECT-MATTER, STICKS AND BONES PRESENTS DRAMA IN SUGGESTIVE CONJUNCTION WITH HISTORICAL DOCUMENTARY.”
is fraught with an awareness of pain and guilt. Even his monotonous delivery suggests the moral shock-waves he has been forced to absorb:
They hang in the greenish haze afflicted by insects; a woman and a man, middle aged. They do not shout or cry. He is too small. Look—he seems all bone, shame in his eyes; his wife even here come with him, skinny also as a broom and her hair is straight and black, hanging to mask her eyes.
This scene depicts emblematically Rabe’s own act of choice: he prefers the role of the artist-narrator-playwright who interprets from his own sense of moral outrage, to that of the journalist, who presents without representing and offers his audience no moral guide to what they see.
Profound mistrust of the media pervades Sticks and Bones: Rabe attacks the “instant culture” generated by television, comic books, popular magazines and the supermarket. The prop list reads like a retail store’s inventory catalogue: camera, T.V., telephone, film projector, flashcubes, cigarettes, copies of Popular Mechanics and Psychology Today.These objects help to shape the dramatic action as surely as they condition and direct the lives that action describes. Their symbolic function is to signify a consumer society, built on various forms of quick and easy gratification. The play is a critique of this society: Ozzie’s family is a microcosm of the American capitalist culture which has bred the media, the journalists, ultimately the war itself. Sticks and Bones pivots on that point at which middle America, with its facile codes of supply and demand, meets the wreckage created by its sanctioning of the war in Vietnam.
This clash and its consequences are embodied most powerfully in the play’s language. Rabe’s conception of dramatic action depends on the cen-trality of words: “The stage is extraordinarily limited in what you can do visually . . . [It] is a verbal medium. Once I learned that, I could write plays. Before that, when I thought it was visual, I couldn’t.” The specific linguistic style which dominates the play is the cliche. Rabe works out both content and characterization through a series of verbal cliches, which he constantly varies, explodes and counterpoints. Thus he names his family after characters from a television situation comedy: Ozzie, Harriet and Rick Nelson. This is characterization by shorthand, for the names are automatically redolent of cliche. They suggest the hackneyed values of the “typical American family,” the banalities of television itself, and the sentimental attitude to family life apparent in situation comedy. By this simple act of naming Rabe sets up his double target: television and its products. When Ozzie and Harriet appear they are already typecast in the audience’s mind as products of a society fed by and dependent upon television and related forms of instant communication. The television set is “glowing [and] murmuring” before Father Donald speaks his first words in Act One, and just four lines later the telephone rings. David’s arrival is announced via a medium which separates people physically even if it links them verbally and aurally.
Significantly, David is brought first into the “T.V. room.” The main family room of the home which he cannot see is described for him in terms of its dominating and defining feature. David’s question: “What room is this?” and Ozzie’s broken reply: “Middle room, Dave. T.V. room. T.V.’s in—” suggest the role of the television as a substitute for human communication and as an escape from reality. Later, when David begins to establish himself as a strong alien presence in the house, Ozzie tries frantically to mend the broken set. Its breakdown is symbolic, signalling David’s implicit moral stance in opposition to its values. In Act Two, when the “conquerer” David has taken possession of the house and Ozzie’s desperation is unbearable, he “scurries to the T.V.” and turns the channels wildly: “I’ll get it fixed. I’ll fix it. Who needs to hear it? We’ll watch it”. But David’s weapons are words. His blindness embodies his independence of visual stimuli; in the context of the play this implies his emancipation from the power of television and his reliance upon language as primary means of expression. David’s assault on his family and his gradual usurpation of the father-role from Ozzie drain the television set of its symbolic potency, weakening its ability to impose stereotypical values on the household. The indirect “murder” of David by parents and brother is an attempt to reinstate those values.
Rabe shows that the language of television advertisement is the medium of value. Both Ozzie and Harriet appropriate the jargon of advertising. Intent on cleaning Ozzie’s stained lapel, Harriet rhapsodizes: “Meyer Spot Remover, do you know it? It gives just a sprinkling . . . like snow, which brushed away, leaves the fabric clean and fresh like spring”. Ozzie’s description of cigarettes and smoking sounds like sales-talk, a weird combination of science and fantasy: “The filter’s granulated. It’s an off-product of corn husks. I light up—I feel like I’m on a ship at sea. Isn’t that one hell of a good tasting cigarette? Isn’t that one beautiful goddamn cigarette?”. Such language is inseparable from the characters’ conception of themselves as grain-fed American parents. As the self-immolating mother figure, Harriet embodies a pernicious cliche of maternity. Her consumer values are shown in her obsession with food. She plies David strenuously with offers of food:
Oh, no, no, you’ve got to eat. To get back your strength. You must. Pancakes? How do pancakes sound? Or wheat cakes? Or there’s eggs? And juice? Orange or prune: or waffles. I bet it’s eggs you want. Over, David? Over easy? Scrambled?
If Ozzie evades reality through television, Harriet’s escape from trauma is food. On a superficial level, the act of feeding is the commercial mother’s shallow expression of love. More profoundly, Rabe suggests that it is a substitute for the love that is really unfelt. David signals his recognition of food as false index of affection by stubbing out his cigarette in a grapefruit.
Such detail carries much of the comedy in the play, a bitter, dark humour based on the grotesque and disproportionate, which Rabe uses to undercut “the elaborately self-deceiving rituals of domestic existence.” Thus Rick projects an image of David smearing the guitar strings with cake; David’s slashing cane forces Father Donald into the ludicrous position of blessing without raising his hand; David envisages the house furnished and carpeted with corpses; Ozzie is assailed, in an absurd mock-assassination, by an airborne boiled egg. In Sticks and Bones food kills. Harriet’s attempts to feed David are wittily appropriate given the play’s ending: she is trying to fatten her prey for the kill. The note of black comedy culminates in David’s enforced suicide, where Rabe parodies family togetherness and concern in a scene of ritual murder which is both gruesome and cozy. Harriet’s fussiness becomes the bustling of a punctilious executioner: she brings “silver pans and towels with roosters on them”. Rick’s enthusiasm is savagely cute: “You can shower; put on clean clothes. I’ve got deodorant you can borrow. After Roses, Dave.” Such bizarre and grotesque effects, set against the naturalistic elements of the play’s style, deepen its satiric and parodic force.
By taking cliché as the basis of the characters of Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, Rabe probes the relationship between American values and the Vietnam war. Harriet’s conception of her sons’ futures is hackneyed and conventional. She answers David’s sense of existential angst with the trite advice of a second-rate Ann Landers: “So the thing I want to do—I just think it would be so nice if we could get Dave a date with some nice girl”. For David and Rick, she envisages the kind of suburban paradise promised in advertising campaigns:
That’s all we’ve ever wanted, your father and me—good sweet things for you and Rick—ease and lovely children, a car, a wife, a good job. Time to relax . . . and on holidays all the children and grandchildren come together, mingling . . . turkey. Twinkling lights!
This is life as euphemism, and the banality of Harriet’s language expresses the poverty of her moral and imaginative vision.
With devastating truthfulness, Rabe exposes the hostility beneath the conventional domestic routine. In the crisis occasioned by David’s return, Harriet’s ability to use language as a cushion from reality breaks down temporarily and she screams with “primal rage”: “WHAT DO YOU WANT? TEACHING HIM SPORTS AND FIGHTING . . . WHAT . . . OZZIE ... DO YOU WANT?”. Rabe identifies the connection between the violence of war and the American ethos of competition and sanctioned belligerence. Harriet perceives this link for a moment but she retreats from her own insight, escaping to the comfortable values of the supermarket: “Anybody want to go for groceries? We need Kleenex, sugar, milk”. And as she provides her family with instant physical gratification, Father Donald provides her with instant spiritual gratification. Harriet’s consumerism easily encompasses both body and soul. The priest’s involvement in “[organized sports activities” associates him with the competitiveness which is encouraged on the playing field and hence in the larger context with the savagery of war. In Father Donald’s encounter with David, Rabe suggests the impotence of religion: Donald’s reliance on popular magazine psychology is exposed as an attempt to revivify decrepit spiritual forms through a facile modernity. He thus becomes a suggestive symbol of the etiolated power of the institution in American life. Even Harriet is ultimately without faith. She compares Father Donald to Jesus: “You never hear from him”.
Despite their easy escape routes, neither Ozzie nor Harriet can find a refuge from their own suppressed hatred, expressed in the play as a violent and visceral racial antipathy. David’s parents begin to reject him when they realize that he has had a liaison with a Vietnamese woman. Both try to formulate their son’s sexual and emotional life into the comfortable terms of cliche. When David first mentions “a girl to weigh no more than dust”, Ozzie and Harriet set up a desperate choral antiphony:
HARRIET A nurse, right. . . David?
OZZIE No, no, one of them foreign correspondents, English maybe or French.
HARRIET Oh, how lovely! A Wac or Red Cross girl? . . .
OZZIE Redhead or blonde, Dave?
When Harriet realizes the truth, she vomits. Psychological revulsion finds physical expression: she has no words to cope with David’s experience of Zung, and her cliches are stripped of their protective power. Having effectively reduced family life to supply and demand, consumption and excretion, her reaction is appropriate. She responds to shock by regurgitating food.
The deep-seated racial hatred of both parents takes the form of superstitious terror, itself a cliche. Ozzie sweats: “Dirty, filthy diseases. They got ‘em. Those girls. Infections. From the blood of their parents into the very fluids of their bodies . . . There are some who have the plague. He touched them. It’s disgusting”. The presence of David as lover of “a yellow whore” forces them to confront their submerged hostility toward “the other”; metaphorically it brings “the plague” into their own home. The presence of Zung on stage as symbol of this threat underlines the point. The lurid racial cliches of Ozzie and Harriet suggest one cause of the Vietnam war, manifesting itself in the very heart of the American family.
By the same token, Ozzie’s neurotic dwelling on congenital disease as a racial characteristic is ironic, for the play exposes his own home, and the society it represents, as the true source of illness and plague. The moral and emotional poverty of the Nelson family is a kind of spiritual disease: for David the disease is terminal, and culminates in his destruction. The symbolic representation of cultural and familial sickness in the play is the shadowy figure of Hank Grenweller. His rotting hand is an emblem of congenital weakness, despite Ozzie’s assertion that “his parents were good fine people”. Through Grenweller, Rabe signals the rottenness of a powerful, mythologized ideal of American manhood: athletic, healthy and strong. Ozzie has idolized Hank and turned him in imagination into the perfect comrade: “He was a big man . . . His voice just boomed ... a good fine friend, ole Hank”. There is also a suggestion that Grenweller has been the architect of the Nelson marriage. Early on, Ozzie remarks to his wife: “I remember when he showed me you”. Later he recalls a joyous moment when he turned “to see [Hank] coming, Harriet young and lovely in his hand” and he called to his friend: “’Bring her on ... I’m ready”’. Grenweller’s physical decay marks him as the contaminator of the very marriage he helps to create: the illness which Ozzie fears wells up from within his own most intimate relationships. The corruption in Grenweller’s flesh suggests his falsity. He stands for a concept of masculinity which is radically out of touch with the reality of experience, and which is reflected in Rabe’s handling of Ozzie, another archetypal American male.
Both the parents speak in euphemisms and advertising jargon, but the character of Ozzie is also realized through another kind of cliche. He speaks repeatedly in the language of stereotyped machismo....
Although Ozzie’s language is designed to cloak and deflect his inner violence, it repeatedly bursts out. Almost hysterical, he imagines taking brutal revenge on the jokers who have pelted him with an egg: “The filthy sonsabitches, but I’m gonna find ‘em . . . I’m gonna kill ‘em. I’m gonna cut out their hearts!”. Through such barely controlled invective, Rabe suggests the moral kinship between Ozzie, the apparently bland and boring “typical father”, and the G.I.s capable of flinging razor-lined caps and fifty-pound bags of cement at civilians in Vietnam. The savagery of the war is bred on the American hearth.
Such violence surfaces in David himself, whom Ozzie has observed “put a knife through the skin of a cat” when he was a boy, but its ripest and fullest expression is found in Rick, whose moral degradation is both farcical and horrifying. Rick exists at the lowest level of human life which is also, in Rabe’s terms, the lowest level of linguistic usage. He is the quintessential consumer: a virtual eating machine. His language combines the triteness of Harriet’s utterance with the debased slang formulae of Ozzie’s: the song he sings at the “party” is banality perfected, and sex is having “the greatest piece a tail ... a beautiful piece a ass” in the back seat of a car. Throughout the play linguistic repetition captures the ritualized quality of domestic routine. But Rick’s repetitive discourse has a specifically psychological function: it defines his imaginative, moral, and emotional retardation. The intermittently perceptive Ozzie sees this: “He is all lies and music, his brain small and scaly, the brain of a snake forever innocent of the fact that it crawls”. Rick’s usual way of greeting his parents is through a bitterly amusing and brainless chatter:
RICK Hi, Mom; Hi, Dad.
HARRIET Hi, Rick!
RICK Hi, Mom.
OZZIE Hi, Rick.
RICK Hi, Dad.
Rick’s mindlessness is apparent in his lack of grammatical control and his abandonment of syntactical structure. In a long speech to David at the end of the play, the sparse punctuation indicates a mind both disordered and underdeveloped:
It’s just really comical because you think people are valuable or something and, given a chance like you were to mess with ‘em, to take a young girl like that and turn her into a whore, you shouldn’t, when of course you should or at least might ... on whim ... you see?
Rick is another ambulatory cliche: the teenager of situation comedy whose spiritual home is the refrigerator. But again, the apparently bland and trivial masks the actively pernicious. Rick is a study in smug and casual cruelty. If David is capable of butchering animals and sewing razor-blades into his hat, Rick can savage his own family in the comfort of his own home for the sake of his own convenience. Wars begin in the living-room.
David is set against his family in a position of almost visionary enlightenment. His phantasmagoric, poetic style jars with the multiple cliches of his parents and brother. The symbolic force of David’s language is weakened, however, by its self-consciousness. Meant to be lyrical, it is often embarrassingly limp: “The seasons will amaze you. Texas is enormous. Ohio is sometimes green. There will be time. We will learn to speak”. Yet the stilted formality, the deliberate formulation of images, and careful grammatical constructions suggest David’s search for a new and appropriate vocabulary to express the reality of experience: “We will learn to speak” a language viable as human communication. The language and values inherited from parents and society have not equipped David to cope, either with war or with self-discovery. Language is a defunct medium, a means to evade reality and stave off introspection. In undermining his family’s language, David erodes its complacency and attacks the very roots of its life.
He embodies the threat of exposure to reality, and is the living expression of his parents’ own repressed guilt, hatred, and hostility. As the invader who becomes a victim, David has both a symbolic and naturalistic function in the play. Through him, Rabe extends the metaphor of battle to the home-front: his power struggle with his father is war in the domestic arena. He almost succeeds in transferring to Ozzie his own mode of perception, based on the recognition of violence and the confronting of self. Ozzie often slips into David’s lyrical style of speech. His rhapsodic, nostalgic reliving of the past and its wasted potential contains a further important element in the imaginative structure of the play:
I lived in a time beyond anything they can ever know—a time beyond and separate, and I was nobody’s goddamn father and nobody’s goddamn husband! I was myself! And I could run ... In the fields and factories they speak my name when they sit down to their lunches. If there’s a prize to be run for, it’s me they send for. It’s to be the-one-sent-for that I run.
Ozzie’s sense of personal loss is emphasised by his tendency to slip into the present tense at these moments of recollection. This strange, parabolic mode, like the black comedy and David’s poetic vision, interacts with the exaggerated stock situation to give the play a weird, kaleidoscopic force.
Ozzie struggles to give birth to the articulate, vital self suppressed within him. His need for creativity and self-assertion is shown in his desire to play the guitar and to build a wall. He tries to communicate his sense of alienation to his son: “Do you understand? There’s no evidence in the world of me, no sign or trace. . . My life has closed behind me like water. But 1 must not care about it. I must not. Though I have inside me a kind of grandeur I can’t realize. . . But I can’t make you see that”. The ambivalent psychological interplay between father and son saves the play from becoming over-simplified or merely didactic. It also distributes the sympathy of the audience more evenly: David himself is too ambiguous to be either a hero or martyr. We are aware of his self-righteous frigidity, and the suffering he inflicts on his parents is genuine. There is a grain of truth in Ozzie’s words: “You’re phony, David—phony—trying to make up for the thousands you butchered, when if you were capable of love at all you would love us, your mother and me—”.
David, like Oedipus, Samson, and Gloucester, has achieved moral insight in physical blindness, but also retains illusions. He refuses to confront fully his desertion of Zung. She is a symbol both of his projected desires and his failure of nerve; her absence is paradoxically represented by her physical presence on stage. David has not resolved the cultural, racial, and moral conflict which informs the play and lies at the core of his psychic life. Without resolution and stricken with guilt, he can only reiterate the contradictory statements which express this conflict: “‘She’s the thing most possibly of value in my life’ . . . ‘She is garbage and filth and I must get her back if I wish to live”’. Paralysed by the forces of social conditioning on the one hand and the discoveries of mind and spirit on the other, David can only act destructively, and his insights lead him to a nihilism which opens the way to despair and death: “that’s what I am—a young . . . blind man in a room ... in a house in the dark, raising nothing in a gesture of no meaning toward two voices who are not speaking ... of a certain . . . incredible . . . connection!”. David’s existential nightmare is his discovery of identity as nothingness, a hole: “when you finally see yourself, there’s nothing really there to see . . .”. Ozzie approaches this perception and frantically distributes inventories of his possessions to prove that he exists. But he prefers to live by the “fraud which keeps us sane”. His insights enable him to see Zung, but his dependence on life-lies forces him to kill her. The shift at this point to a purely symbolic level of action signals the spiritual death of Ozzie and foreshadows the “murder” of David. The end of the play confirms David’s moral irresolution. Ozzie and Harriet sanction and promote the suicide, which represents the triumph of blindness, deception and moral irresponsibility. Even then they deceive themselves about their own actions. Ozzie comforts himself: “No, no, he’s not gonna die, Rick. He’s only gonna nearly die. Only nearly”. Rabe implies that the fault lies with David as well as his family, with the individual as well as society.
Given the emphasis on language in the play, the significance of the title and the “play within a play” device becomes clear. The title suggests the children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never harm me.” Rabe gives the verse ironic effect, for it disclaims the power of psychological violence which the play affirms. In fact, Rabe explores the tendency of psychological violence to issue not only in verbal abuse, but also in physical brutality, first within the family and then in the international arena of war. Through a suggestive re-arrangement of its words the title of the play invites us to question the truth of the rhyme, and it affords a clue to the major stylistic strategy of the play itself.
This strategy is also signalled by the set, which physically presents domestic cliché in the Nelson home: “very modern . .. this room, these stairs belong in the gloss of an advertisement”. Zung introduces another level of reality into this setting; her appearance represents the multiple conflicts of the theme as it questions the adequacy of naturalistic theatre. The split-level set depicts and reinforces the play’s two major dramatic modes: realism and symbolism. The downstairs set is fully realistic; the upstairs floor—which focuses on David’s bedroom as a kind of retreat—is more expressionistic, a place where people can move through walls. Zung moves between both floors: she seems to be both a metaphor and a literal reality.
The “play within a play” provides a framing comment on the dramatic action of the whole. The slides function as alienation devices which distance the audience. The brief set-pieces which open the two Acts represent the triumph of the visual image over the spoken word: the journalistic, cinematic mode is dominant while the verbal interchange of the unseen watchers is reticent and banal. Ironically, Rabe reveals the outcome of the play—the victory of Ozzie and Harriet—at the start and reiterates it half-way through. But these two vignettes take the ending a step further: the stage is empty, the voices disembodied, and only the images of the slides visible, suggesting that David’s defeat at the hands of his family leads finally to the extinction of viable human personality. The watching family of second-generation Nelsons is just a collection of voices. We are left then, with the sense of historical determinism implied in the content of the slides, and recall that the child David was once accidentally locked in an ice-box. His alienation from and isolation within consumer society seems almost like predestination.
Despite its rather limiting topicality, Sticks and Bones is a powerful play, attracting the audience through its symbolic resonances and the nakedness of the emotions it explores. Rabe’s commitment gives his work dignity; the nature of his material has explosive impact. When the play first appeared, Rabe’s concentration on language signalled a healthy swing away from the emphasis on visual effects and spectacle which influenced theatre in the 60s. Sticks and Bones is a far cry from Megan Terry’s Viet Rock.But Rabe’s symbolism and his use of expressionistic and absurdist techniques show that he did not simply retreat into old-fashioned or moribund theatrical modes. The play combines visual intensity with forceful manipulation of language. In its dramatic execution and choice of subject-matter, Sticks and Bones presents drama in suggestive conjunction with historical documentary.
Source: Pamela Cooper, “David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December 1986, pp. 613-24.
Barnes, Clive, Review of Sticks and Bones, in New York Times, March 2, 1972, p. 33.
Gottfried, Martin, “Sticks and Bones... A Striking and Original Play,” in Women’s Wear Daily, November 8, 1971.
Kauffmann, Stanley, Review of Sticks and Bones, in The New Republic, December 4, 1971.
Rabe, David, Sticks and Bones, in The Vietnam Plays, Volume One, Grove Press, 1993.
Tallmer, Jerry, “Casualty: America,” in New York Post, March 2, 1972.
Watt, Douglas, “Sticks and Bones Brings the Vietnam War Home,” in Daily News, November 8, 1971.
Watts, Richard, “Soldier’s Homecoming,” in New York Post, November 8, 1971.
Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History, Viking Press, 1983.
This history of the Vietnam War provides a balanced explanation of events, considering all sides.
Kolin, Philip C., David Rabe: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography, Garland, 1988, pp. 29–43.
A section outlines various productions of and critical response to Sticks and Bones, including international stagings.
Santoli, Albert, ed., Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It, Random House, 1981.
This nonfiction book provides a firsthand account of the war, including personal experiences of soldiers.
Zinman, Tony, David Rabe: A Casebook, Garland, 1991
This book includes an interview and nineteen articles that cover many of Rabe’s plays, including Sticks and Bones.