I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
David Rabe’s Vietnam plays—The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones and Streamers—were among the most evocative works to come out of that dark period in America’s history. More than war plays, these were about the moral crises individuals encountered when faced with power struggles that were beyond their control, and often beyond their understanding. Rabe continued to explore these issues in other contexts. In plays like In the Boom Boom Room, Hurlyburly, Those the River Keeps and A Question of Mercy, his characters try to find a right path in a morally complicated world, sometimes encountering terrifying aspects of their own subconscious in the process. For Rabe, we are in an untamed, but not untamable universe.
Rabe is unflinchingly honest with his characters as they move through harsh realities. Whenever I teach his work in my classes, students always have the same reaction: they are awestruck by the truth of his writing. Rabe never takes the easy route, and as dark as some of the plays are, there is always a strong moral center. This past season’s enormously successful revival of Hurlyburly presented New York audiences once again with this masterpiece of Rabe’s work—dark, horrifying and often very funny. This fall, a new collection of short stories, A Primitive Heart, will be published by Grove.
I first met Rabe when I was working on a production of Those the River Keeps at the McCarter Theater. I have since produced two of his plays off-Broadway—Those the River Keeps and The Dog Problem—as well as worked with him in a number of other contexts, including spending an amazing summer with his family at a theater and film festival in Italy. What always strikes me about Rabe as a person is his enormous gentleness, generosity, and humor. In rehearsals, he is a caring, patient, and lively collaborator. He is an incredible mentor to other writers, both gifted and giving.
Evangeline Morphos Let’s start with your collection of stories, which is about to be published. What transition did you make moving from writing in a dramatic medium to prose?
David Rabe It’s been gradual and ongoing. When I started writing in college, I wrote mostly prose. Later, as I wrote plays, I continued doing prose pieces that I wouldn’t finish, and that included novels.
EM So these stories in A Primitive Heart are ones you had begun years ago?
DR They were started earlier, but I devoted a chunk of the last year to rewriting and in some cases doing new sections.
EMThe characters or the story continue to intrigue you?
DR My way seems to be to work, move on, and then go back. Streamers, for example, came out in three periods of writing consisting of four or five hours at each sitting, but these sittings were spread out over seven years. It was only after the last one that I felt I had a play. So it was maybe 20 hours spread over seven years. Yet when production came, very little needed changing. After the army, I tried prose, but my sensibility was more equipped for the sprint. Even the short story doesn’t feel like a sprint the way a play does. As time has gone on, I’ve shifted.
DR I like the patience required by prose now. My plays seemed a metaphoric burst from the unconscious that would bring this archetypal, organizing momentum.
EM Almost mythological?
DR Some unconscious charge. Often my characters don’t know what the issues of the play are. They think they’re doing one thing but something else is actually orchestrating their lives and hence the play.
EM It’s almost impossible to think of the stories in A Primitive Heart as plays.
DR My ideas seem to arrive as one or the other. In the plays, as I said, there’s this metaphor bringing size to the characters and events. In In the Boom Boom Room, the go-go bar is a metaphor. In Streamers, it’s the parachute that doesn’t open. Basic Training is training by the army, but also “basic” training about life, being guided and misguided. With certain experiences, though—as in the stories “A Primitive Heart” and “Holy Men”—it feels impossible to do them as theater. So for years I’d start stories and get to where I had them under control and then move on. Each story has a different style. Which is true of my plays, too. The use of language changes from play to play. And I find going back and reconnecting with the life of something started in the past satisfying. It may be due to the Streamersexperience, those seven years, which made clear that my way is to leave something and then come back.
EM In going back, are you drawn to a repeated theme, or a character moving through several works, like Phil, who is in Hurlyburly and Those the River Keeps?
DR With Phil, I wrote Hurlybury, and then was dissatisfied with the way he was perceived—
EM In the production?
DR In the way people saw him in the play. I felt connected to him, that through him I could explore things I was thinking about, which had to do with the way the past hangs onto you and shows up in spooky ways. Sometimes as new people who embody things left behind, feelings, events. The things and people you leave behind don’t always like being left. They hunt you down in the shape of new people, or sometimes in your head, and they’re—in the sense of the metaphor of the title, Those the River Keeps—they’re waiting and lonely at the bottom of the river.
EM Do you mean in your perception of the past and whether you accurately remember?
DR What you remember, or even what you forget. But it isn’t a particular person so much as a force embodied by different people in the plays, so that in Those the River Keeps, Phil, who is the force of upheaval in Hurlyburly, is no longer in that role. He’s attempting an orderly life and Sal is the explosive one. In Streamers, it’s Carlyle. In The Dog Problem, Uncle Mal. It isn’t something I do intentionally, but—in Sticks and Bones, it’s the vet, David.
EM In your first novel, Recital of the Dog, one simple incident triggers chaos.
DR There’s a scene in Hurlyburly when Darlene and Eddie have a screaming fight about a restaurant until they realize that what they’re really fighting about is their unhappiness in the relationship. Everything seems nice, and then they’re screaming about restaurants, and the only way to understand what they’re fighting about is to see the truth of what’s really bothering them, and then the relationship’s over. That’s a threat constantly in one’s life, and sometimes you’re the person who finds the passion you think you’ve put away and “dealt with,” as we like to say, pouring out of you, and you’re kind of unknown even to yourself in that moment, even though the emotion is definitely your own.
EM In some of the plays and many of the stories, a baby seems to be an answer, but also in some way a threat. In “A Primitive Heart” an expectant father has ambivalent feelings. In “Veranda” the son is both a comfort and an opportunity for despair.
DR In “Veranda,” when the father’s leaving the family, the little boy is shrieking that he wants his daddy to stay. Suddenly, they’re in this primal moment in the midst of suburbia. There’s something inescapable in powerful feelings. They’re enriching and threatening because they make you feel alive and connected but it’s also like being possessed or kidnapped.
EM The word romance occurs in there somewhere—pertaining to the bond between father and son. Romance literally implies a story, a beginning, middle, and end.
DR You’re not just going to walk away from it.
EM The first part of “Veranda” is in fact a very romantic story: it begins with the line “Someone is weeping on the veranda, but it doesn’t seem connected with the present moment.”
DR I don’t mean this literally, but at times I feel a story is something that I would whisper, and a play is something I would shout.
EM One scene in “Veranda” does feel whispered. The father has been away in California after his marriage has dissolved, and he’s been writing letters to his son that tell a fictional story about a little boy. When he visits his son, he reads them aloud to him, and the son has heard them before but still is riveted. After the last of the letters, the father, who is the narrator, tells us, “I wait and then I say, ‘I wonder what will happen next.’” The story goes on: “His eyes respond with a bright and crucial revelation, for in my question he finds a mirror of his own present state and perhaps far more than that. This is exactly where he was stuck; it’s exactly what he was wondering … . I can see it well up from some concealed, serious, very private place inside him. He can’t believe how much we are alike. ‘I don’t know,’ he says, grinning at me.”
DR I’m sitting here wondering if I’d tried writing that story as a play whether such a moment would have occurred.
EM The story “Holy Men” is about two men who have taken very different paths. A young journalist comes back to reconcile with his mentor, a priest. The priest reads to him from his poetry, and that exchange is almost a substitute confessional.
DR Their bond is writing, teaching, literature. They’ve ended up in different places. The priest is older and was the mentor and feels he still should be on some level. He remains a priest, and the other guy has left the church; they have this affection, but it’s imperiled by the positions they’ve taken. And so the story is how they work their way through this very complicated, somewhat drunken and necessary evening.
EM That one struck me as a very personal story, a story about writing.
DR I don’t ever expect to write a memoir, because I think everything’s a kind of fiction anyway. So you might as well treat it that way, even when you think you’re remembering exactly what happened.
EM Is part of the appeal having a narrator’s voice, which you can’t have in the theater?
DR Narrators, as I’ve used them, occupy a consciousness with limitations. “Holy Men” is in the first person. A tricky technical element is the way the story appears to be told in the moments being narrated, but there’s a sense layered in at the start that lets the reader feel that the story is being told from a point in time a while after the events. That perspective, had it been eliminated, would have made a certain development near the end impossible. And yet the sense of immediacy for much of the story had to be protected. At one point in the rewrites I almost lost this balance, because I wasn’t fully conscious of how it worked until then.
EM Is there more control in prose without the collaborative input that’s in theater?
DR It’s more an experience of being finished. The book is just there, waiting.
EM Were the stories written in the order in which they appear?
DR The order is based on my sense of how they would interact if they were read in sequence.
EM Does the violence of some of your characters surprise you? The violence that lurks inside them surprises them.
DR That’s truer in the plays. There’s some violence in one story. A lot of psychological violence in another. The plays have surprised me. The end of Sticks and Bones was startling. Recital of the Dog, my first novel, certainly surprised me. (laughter) Over and over, I thought, who is writing this?
EM The violence there is triggered by a seemingly simple incident. A man, a painter, living in the country with his family shoots a dog that’s been chasing his cows.
DR And you don’t get to know the piteous thing that drove him to shoot the dog and launch the subsequent terrors until near the end. The book tries to manifest the unconscious past, and maybe even the unknown past, in someone as it overtakes their present. As I worked on it, I thought that the reader would become aware as the story progressed—and then be constantly aware halfway in of the growing shadow of this man’s childhood. There seemed no other possible explanation than that he was reenacting some horrific childhood and that realization would be a prism through which the story was viewed. I felt there would be this accompanying ghost image as the character’s perceptions became extremely distorted, and you would see what he described, but alongside that perception you would see what was really happening—what you would see if you were present—and it would be different from what he described. It may be that I was asking too much, because he couldn’t know he was re-enacting his past, because he is becoming too crazy. It’s all real to him. I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t write a prequel, you know. His life before. (laughter) Once he gets involved with the old man who was the dog’s owner, there’s a scene where he decides that the only way to make the old man happy is to let the old man throw dirt and rocks at him and to pretend he’s having a good time—that seemed a dead giveaway of a childhood scene. The more sadistic the old man becomes, the more enjoyment he takes from hitting the narrator, who’s running around the backyard pretending to have a good time—what else could that be?
EM Childhood is a very perilous place in your world, a place where children are buffeted by events that the grownups construct around them. And yet, the children in these short stories seem to be okay; they survive.
DR There’s certainly a lot of effort to help the little boy in “Veranda” survive, but he’s under a lot of stress. The child in “A Primitive Heart” never materializes fully. There’s an Anne Sexton poem that goes something like, “They pick me up and put me down and move me here and there.” That’s not exact, but it stuck in my head for years—the idea of childhood. It’s from poems about fairy tales, and those lines are about—I can’t remember which figure, but a female.
EM In the plays, in the stories, certainly in Recital of the Dog, the death of a dog is a big part of it.
DR As they mix with us, animals exist in a world they no longer understand. On their own, in the wild, they’re experts. Where I live now, there are deer and foxes and all the other ordinary creatures. I love the fact that I can walk out and be startled by five or six deer looking at me. I love the way my dogs go about their lives. The things that interest them, that they remember.
EM Is part of it a purity of motive?
DR Most dogs are perfectly “dog,” in a way people are rarely perfectly “people.” Dogs are committed completely. My dogs are very individual—Tizja and Saz—both committed to their dogness. Tizja insists on getting her way. I know that she’s deluded. It seems true about all of us. I mean, the dog is completely dependent on the people who live here. Her sense of who she is, her sense of her prerogatives, could be wiped out in a second. But I love her being assertive, expressing, testing, communicating her will. It’s touching, because she dares to think she has the right, when she’s really totally in our world. Dogs were large in my imagination growing up. I always wanted a dog, but I couldn’t have one, even though I grew up in the Midwest. I lived in an apartment building most of my childhood, and dogs weren’t allowed. Not only that, the landlord killed them. There was one dog—when I was small. I lived with my grandparents during World War II, because my mom was working in an ammunitions plant and Dad was welding in a shipyard. We all lived with my grandparents in a little town in Illinois. Grandpa and Grandma had a dog that I was close to, but I never had a dog of my own until the ’80s when my wife picked out Blueberry. We’ve had them ever since.
EM Some of your characters have a problem with the Catholic Church. Is it the presentation of a world in which the rules are clear?
DR To the degree that the church is Aristotelian, it’s logical. But the other side is very mysterious.
EM That’s actually a trump card that one of the characters in “Holy Men” plays.
DR If you’re in the Church and arguing issues, sooner or later you will be told, “Well, that’s an article of faith. You have to believe it. We can’t prove it and we don’t have to.” I grew up very much a believer. Partly I suspect it was because I was imaginative or susceptible to imagination. In college I started to find things not quite making sense, but it was a long struggle. They had reason in one hand and the trump card of faith in the other. Reason is tricky. Useful. But dangerous if overvalued, because given a set of false premises, reason can’t help but race to a “reasonable” but wrong conclusion. Reason can’t take everything into account, and because it can’t, but still acts like it has, it’s actually not reasonable, but only pretending, and so suspect.
EM In your essay about Arthur Miller, you talk about your difficulties with the consequences in a well-made play being “proportionate” to the actions that cause them. You said you had two influences in thinking about these things, one being the unconscious and the other being physics.
DR I claim only a slight understanding of physics, but what I felt was that the Newtonian worldview presented the universe as a machine and the well-made play was a reflection of that set of ideas. Clockwork universe, clockwork play. Certain motions delivered certain consequences in a predictable, proportionate way. It just didn’t seem true of living things. The way a seed produces a tree is somehow not proportionate. Considering in a simple way nuclear fission in the atomic bomb, you find that a small substance can obliterate cities. Huge structures of what would seem far more substantial materials—even human beings themselves—all this is obliterated by ounces. Where’s the proportion in that? And our psyches are similar. On the most basic level, take road rage. Someone is driving and someone else cuts in front of them, and that leads to a furious person trying to run somebody off the road. The stimulus seems to have no proportion or even bearing on the result. The cause has passed through a psyche where it was magnified by something lurking in the perpetrator’s unconscious that resulted in a consequence larger than the cause could ever prompt if proportion ruled. My play Streamers appears well-made up to the point where the violence occurs.
EM And that point isn’t the endpoint. You think that it should end, but the arc keeps going.
DR Once the force of rage is let loose, it keeps going. I guess I was in fact taking the form and blowing it up. Two people are headed for a collision, Carlyle and Billy, and when they actually collide, violence erupts between them. The well-made play would end things there. But in Streamers this sergeant who has no idea what’s been going on, no idea of the motivations and feelings let loose while he was somewhere else, walks in—he just happens by, and the violence swallows him up too. It doesn’t care about its cause or the motives that might have set it free. The violence has its own life once it’s loose.
EM Let’s talk about Chekhov and how you got involved in adapting a story of his into a play.
DR I just happened to listen to a book on tape driving somewhere. My wife had left the tape in the car. One of the stories was “The Black Monk.” It was so compelling I felt a desire to inhabit it. So I set about adapting it.
EM I’m struck by your wanting to inhabit his world. Keats talks about a quality of “negative capability.” In Shakespeare’s writing, it’s as if, as a writer, he negated himself and allowed the actor or the audience into the world of the play.
DR It’s true of Shakespeare, not only that you can enter the plays, but that it’s probably how he wrote them. That’s why people don’t know who he is. Everyone’s saying, “Who the hell is this guy?” There are all these debates about his origin, was he this guy or that guy, and he had to have lived in the court. I think he was pure genius, and that he’s just not there, you can’t really identify him. He was capable of being open to whatever the hell source he had flowing through him. It’s a negative capability for the characters to show up, and for language, too. Clearly he’s beyond most of us. I feel he’s the Buddha of playwrights, a highly spiritual creature. I can’t find any other explanation for the wisdom, the abundance. Like Beethoven composing symphonies of astonishing complexity when he’s totally deaf. Now that’s genius, that’s not background.
EM No, and it’s not training.
DR What surprised me in Chekhov’s stories was the irrationality. The mysticism. I’d thought of him as realistic, but he’s impressionistic. “The Black Monk” is enigmatic. Is it a mystical story, or a story about a crazy man? Chekhov doesn’t decide for you.
EM You don’t decide those kinds of things for many of your characters either.
DR The way “The Black Monk” ends, which was hard to duplicate on stage, and I don’t know that I succeeded—it’s a moment in which you really have no idea whether the man at his death was visited by a spirit to whom he had an allegiance, or a psychotic delusion that destroyed his life. Nothing in the story will tell you. And so you’re left with the suggestion that maybe there’s no difference.
EM Did you come to a conclusion about that in the play?
DR I tried to do the same as the story.
EM In the Arthur Miller essay, you talk about a nearly lifelong engagement with his work.
DR With many others I was invited by Christopher Bigsby to contribute to a book of essays in response to Miller. Once I started to trace my relationship with this man, whom I met twice but didn’t know in any real way, I realized it went way back. I found I could chart some of my development as an ongoing exchange with him conducted in my head, sometimes with a sense of counsel, often with a sense of argument. I saw the movie All My Sons when I was 12 or so and home sick from school, and it was a big experience. Then I reread the play in college and felt it didn’t hold up. It seemed implausible that the corruption in faulty airplane parts during World War II could return to this guy’s doorstep and kill his son. It seemed well-made and deceitful in the sense that form was satisfied, but the chaos of life wasn’t represented. In later plays that I loved, he developed these themes, but they were thought less successful: After the Fall and The Price, for example. But as far as All My Sons, I had to change my mind again when later on I happened to watch a news magazine story about an admiral in Vietnam who was instrumental in dispensing Agent Orange through certain sectors of Vietnam. His son, who had been in one of those sectors, was dying from Agent Orange. Immediately, I thought of All My Sons.
EM In the essay you also talk about Miller being criticized for using the image of Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall. In your story “Early Madonna,” a young woman is eager to become the image of the star singer. It’s an idea that moves through a lot of your work; the appropriation of a popular image by the need to imitate what is contrived.
DR Most of us need guides. Adolescents look to pop culture. The girl in “Early Madonna” wants to perpetuate what she believes was the best of Madonna. Of course there are other Madonna figures lurking in the story: the Catholic one, and one from antiquity. So what is she really after?
EM The play in which you most overtly use a mythical image is The Orphan, where you take the Orestia as a framework, and shuffle that with the images of violence in America—the Vietnam War and the Manson family.
DR I was freshly back from Vietnam and listening to arguments for and against the war, the “reasonable” assertions of why we were there. Then I saw a production of Iphigenia at Aulis. There’s a moment where the priest explains why Iphigenia has to die—he laid out the bones of this dead bird and said they declared the reason for her death, which was that it would let the becalmed fleet sail. It struck me as a metaphor for all the explanations of why we were in Vietnam. In Iphigenia at Aulis everybody kind of nods and says, “I see.” Given the premise that a priest is an expert who can read the messages contained in the entrails of a dead bird, the conclusion is reasonable. When I wrote The Orphan, the first act struggled with this absurdity, the young girl being sacrificed because garbage said to do so. The more I delved into it, the more I was fascinated to find out the Temple of Apollo was given over to Dionysus for part of the year. In other words, the Greeks saw that reason was simply the flip side or dark side of unreason. I thought I had all these new ideas, but they were ancient. I played with the idea of Orestes being like me—the new person who arrives thinking, “I can solve all the problems. I know good from bad. I’ll take care of things.” I put him in the company of Charles Manson who was Mr. Unreason, but certainly had his own premises and logic.
EM What you just said strikes me as the core of much of your work. A character arrives thinking, I know good from bad, I can take care of things, but in fact he can’t know what the circumstances will bring.
DR You never know what your behavior can ignite in other people. What can be ignited in you. Who’s primed to explode.
EM You don’t excuse your characters. I’m thinking of the husband’s less than sympathetic reactions in “A Primitive Heart.” The honesty makes him totally believable.
DR His reactions seemed real and understandable. Some of them are primal. He didn’t like them either, but there they were.
EM He encounters a description of a fetus at a particular point of development, where it has a “primitive heart.” The phrase resonates with him.
DR In researching, I read that description. It’s important that he encounter it in a scientific setting, where it means rudimentary, barely working. But for him it brings manifestations of “wild” and “natural.” They enter his dreams, float in his thoughts.
EM I wonder who your influences are in addition to Chekhov?
DR One person I went back to recently was John Cheever. There are a number of contemporary writers—Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Ann Beattie, Mary Gordon, Jonathan Franzen, Thom Jones—a couple of his stories are amazing. Denis Johnson can take you on a trip. And then there are the long shadows: Mailer, especially The Deer Park, Executioner’s Song, Ancient Evenings, An American Dream. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is something I’ve read many times. When they finally arrive at that damn lighthouse and she completes her painting, I can’t get over how I feel. From Here to Eternity. I’m going back in time now. Updike. Salinger. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. A book called Stoner that I read recently. I guess I’m just listing what I’ve loved.
EM And what’s after the stories?
DR I’m working on a novel that I had to put aside to do a screenplay to pay the bills. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I’ve written so many screenplays that never will be done. But when I’m finished, I’m going straight back to the novel. I’ve done about 440 pages over the last year and a half. I took time out to do the stories, got pulled into another hundred pages on a different novel, and then Hurlyburly was done in New York. But I’ll be back at it soon, and I anticipate that I can finish in about three months.
Evangeline Morphos has produced more than 15 plays off-Broadway, including two by David Rabe. Most recently she produced The God of Hell by Sam Shepard. She teaches at Columbia University, where she heads the program in television, and will be working this season on The Bedford Diaries, an upcoming series for the WB network.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee