"It was during basic training that our field first sergeant was up on his platform — that tower they'd get on in the morning and yell at you about what you were going to do that day. And one day, we were all standing there in this large formation, and he started shouting about how some of us were going to die in Vietnam! People around me were saying, 'Where?' We hadn't really heard of it. Of course, that changed very quickly!"
That's how David Rabe learned about the war that would be a key influence for him artistically. Vietnam would supply the budding playwright with material for Sticks and Bones, the first of his four plays to earn a Tony nomination and the only one to win. Now, Sticks and Bones is receiving its first major New York revival since 1972.
"When I came back," continued Rabe, "I began to see that everything was fine here, and there was no threat. And then I began to question the logic that sent me over there, and the logic that sent other guys over there."
The New Group's staging of Sticks and Bones, helmed by artistic director Scott Elliott, stars Bill Pullman (The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia) and Holly Hunter ("The Piano") as Ozzie and Harriet, the archetypal suburban parents. Their suburban façade hides a precarious complacency that gets disrupted when their elder son David (Ben Schnetzer) returns from the war. In the Vietnam era, a soldier's homecoming was particularly charged with strong emotions. Hunter recalls, "I had two brothers who enlisted; one went to Vietnam. The other was in Thailand for a year, and it was a giant, unforgettable day when he came home. I was extremely young — I was born in 1958, and this must've been '68. It was a huge homecoming." This scenario replayed itself across the country all through the war years.
The military draft affected nearly every family in America, and the social climate seemed to demand some sort of stance on it. "I went to college in the early '70s, so I had a number in the last year of the lottery, where they were no longer using the deferrals," reveals Pullman, "The Vietnam War was very much a part of our home life. My older brothers had gotten very involved politically. They dropped out of college to go door-to-door, trying to get people to protest the war."
After his own homecoming in 1967, Rabe "knocked around a bit" and then returned to graduate school, where he began to write Sticks and Bones. But although he questioned the reasons for the war, he never viewed his work as a gesture of protest. "I was never trying to write something that stopped the war or anything like that. That's why I've said I didn't write anti-war plays."
Instead, Rabe saw his play as wrestling with the nature of the experience that he had. "The idea of writing a play that's going to stop war seems very arrogant. I was trying to create a theatrical experience and not a political one."
Audiences of the time (and especially Tony voters) applauded Rabe for tackling tough issues about America and the war, and in a modern, absurdist style. A younger viewer may be astonished at how far Sticks and Bones goes and how bold it gets. Rabe, as Pullman put it, asks the audience to do things that they're probably not used to. "He invites the audience into a place where they're almost inside the same trauma and chaos that characters going through — it is really adventurous."
"The characters get shattered and they speak in a shattered way," he continued, "But you sense that there's some intention underneath the chaos, that they're speaking through that. Maybe that's why it's such hard material and why nobody often touches it, but why it's also so memorable." Hunter finds the rewards well worth the challenges that the play poses. "There's something fantastical about these scenes that don't really have any special effects. It's not 100% naturalism." An actor, Hunter says, must ask herself the question, "Where does this world exist? Because it doesn't fully live on the ground."
Of course, the theatre of that era reflected the contentious zeitgeist. But even so, Rabe found it difficult to get his demanding drama produced. It wasn't until Joe Papp read the script that it found its champion. "It had been turned down everywhere before he took it — it had even been turned down at his theatre and I sent it back! At a certain point I just felt he was my only hope. Without Joe and his desire to shake Broadway up, it wouldn't have happened."
In that desire to shake audiences up, Papp has a modern counterpart in Scott Elliott, whose company often selects new plays and classics with a similar sensibility. Pullman worked with the New Group on last season's The Jacksonian, and got to know Elliott backstage. He commented, "Thinking about it, he's a very unusual theatre animal. He's doing plays that are not often touched by other people. And he's able to sustain it, I think, because of his particular theatre intelligence. He's a provocateur by nature, but he's also loves to share that, he wants everybody to have that. He's a little bit of an anomaly."
Under Elliott's direction, Sticks and Bones retains its power to provoke audiences. But its central event of a soldier's homecoming undeniably has an different context today. "The draft made Vietnam felt in a way that voluntary enlistment doesn't," observes Hunter, "Afghanistan and Iraq, in some ways, feel slightly like unseen wars, because people haven't felt the cost unless you knew somebody who went, or you were a family member of someone who went."
She extends the comparison even further, contrasting Vietnam's prominence on television with the invisibility of today's conflicts. "With Iraq, we didn't see a single solitary coffin in Iraq. Not a single solitary coffin was viewed on a television screen being transported off of a plane."
Pullman feels very aware of the differences between then and now, having recently worked on a play about veterans, a project called Healing Wars at Arena Stage. His director on that piece, Liz Lerman, had shared her research with him — "interviews with returning veterans, and wounded veterans particularly, using fMRI machines to study their PTSD, talking with vets at counseling centers." "When they come back," noted Pullman, "there is a great deal of compassion for returning veterans in a lot of ways from people in general. 'Thank you for your service' is an easy thing to say. But some of them still feel separate and caught."
Rabe had noticed the same frame of mind among veterans. "I saw an Iraq vet on the news recently, talking about the difficulty he had when he returned home, and the surprising way that he felt 'lonely.' That is one of the first words David uses in the play about how he feels when delivered home."
Did he have a similar feeling when he returned from Vietnam, or perhaps he channeled it into the play? "Oh, yes — before, during, and long after returning to grad school. Of course, I did put it into my work on the play but it remained."