Q&A: David Rabe

Author and playwright David Rabe discusses his writing career, including his acclaimed works like Hurlyburly, in the July issue of Connecticut Magazine.


Thomas A. Brown

Litchfield County author David Rabe, 69, is best known for powerful plays like the Hollywood evisceration Hurlyburly and his 1970s Vietnam trilogy: Sticks and Bones, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers (the latter's 1976 premiere at New Haven's Long Wharf was a defining moment in regional theater history). This month, two more recent plays-The Black Monk and The Dog Problem, both of which premiered in New Haven-will be published by Simon & Schuster; his 2008 novel Dinosaurs on the Roof comes out in paperback in August.

Whenever I read about you, what I read focuses largely on your Vietnam plays. But I'm curious as to where you think these two more recent plays, The Black Monk and The Dog Problem, fit into your work as a whole.

Do I get to ramble? It's an interesting question; I wish I'd gotten to think about it more ahead of time. The Vietnam plays are, of course, important to me-and I've had a few others with a similar notoriety, like Hurlyburly.

The Black Monk is based on a Chekhov story and adheres quite closely to the plot. I was exposed to it while driving through New Hampshire or Vermont to pick up my younger son, who was at bicycle camp. My wife had Chekhov tapes in the car, and I plugged them in. Now I listen to books on tape endlessly, but at the time I didn't.

So, anyway, this story came on, and I was just really captivated by it and thought about making it a play. Looking back, what I see in it construction-wise is a certain similarity to one of my early plays, Pavlo Hummel. That is, there is this figure accompanying the main character in his most personal moments, and the figure is a phantom or a vision or whatever you choose to call it, but no one else sees it. And the guide or guidance is in question throughout, especially in The Black Monk.

One of the themes that unites Dog Problem and Black Monk for me is the sense that the characters seem to need a lot of guidance.

That's an ongoing theme for me, the chaos of these unguided male energies, who screw up and then wonder what happened to them. If there's anyone offering guidance in The Dog Problem it's Uncle Mal, who's not exactly a good father figure.

It seems that your characters are always doing damaging things to each other, and to themselves, that are inadvertent.

I think all my plays have this, but in some it's more apparent than others: There's what the characters talk about, plan, and think they're doing, and then there's what actually happens. What comes of what they do is always quite different than they expected. And so, the architecture of the play or story has a different development than the audience expects, too.

I think that when people are uncomfortable with my plays, they often pick reasons that are not the real reason. The real reason is that it's very uncomfortable to see that there are other forces-even from within oneself-that are having a lot more influence on one's life than one would like.

There's also the sense that our past is never really "over."

Well, that's a big theme in everything I've ever done, especially as I've matured and become more aware of it. The past kind of waits for an opportunity to have its way.

You seem to have a great love of animals. Do you have a philosophy of their relationship to humans?

I certainly have a lot of strong feelings about it. From my work, you can see that dogs are the primary attachment, as they are for many people. We used to have four dogs, now we're down to one-we lost my very favorite last December. I find dogs profound companions, and the purity of their commitment to their lives-however foolish that may be-is something that's so admirable. They're utterly in the moment. I particularly love their commitment to what appears to be folly-they commit their entire being and get such joy out of whatever they do. They don't hold back.

Along this line, I should mention I just had a children's book come out too, about a month ago-called Mr. Wellington-in which the main character is a squirrel. It's based on something that happened when my younger son brought a helpless baby squirrel home. I made a lot of notes from that experience and ultimately wrote the story, with alternating chapters from the squirrel and human points of view.

Can you tell me more about what inspired it?

My son was biking home from school and saw this little squirrel in the road about a quarter-mile from our house. He stopped and moved the squirrel to the grass, and it was just cowering. So he put it on a tree to see if it would climb and as soon as he started walking away, it screamed. Then he went back and put it back on the ground, and it went under his foot. So he took his shoe off, the squirrel climbed in and my son brought him home. He walked into the kitchen with this little squirrel in his shoe-Jill was away but my older son was visiting, and we tried to cope with this. We ultimately realized that we needed advice and found a wildlife rehab person online to consult with. It all tuned out pretty well. What we learned is you can't handle something like this right unless you're really informed and have all the right foods.

You had a Catholic school background. How big a role does that play in how your work has evolved?

Well, I think the whole background-including my Midwestern Iowa background and the particulars of that-all has an influence. My Catholic education certainly was narrow; I remember that in college there were books you couldn't read because it was considered a sin. That was a much more repressive time than now. I assume I was a more imaginative child than many, though most children are quite imaginative. That, combined with iconic Catholic images and the whole philosophy of an invisible world, had quite an impact.

Looking back, which of your plays, do you think, was most masterfully brought to the stage? In its original production?

I would say Pavlo Hummel, definitely, and Streamers. It's very hard for me to distinguish between the two-they were both really well done. And by the time we brought The Dog Problem to New York, it certainly was, too-but it evolved more slowly. I loved the Long Wharf production of Streamers, that was an amazing event. It was so raw, and audiences were just not prepared for it. It was really explosive. There was a very good and powerful production of it in New York City just recently. But it didn't have the raw surprise it had at Long Wharf.

I know Hurlyburly was also recently staged in New York. I always wonder how well a revival will work, because you take the play out of the original context in which it was received.

In the case of Hurlyburly, people saw it clearly for the first time, as far as I'm concerned. Originally, people had had a lot of conflicted ideas about it that I didn't think were accurate. With this production of Streamers, I was quite nervous about the time-period shift. The solution was just to emphatically set it in its time period, 1965. I even added a few lines that inserted the date into the play. And it seemed very effective.

I thought it was important to lock it into that year and not try to . . . I had a lot of reservations about doing the play again for that reason. We even made sure to include period music and to incorporate more use of the era's civilian clothing.

I wanted to ask about your novel-writing, as your latest, Dinosaurs on the Roof, is about to come out in paperback. I hear you're concentrating more on prose-writing these days.

True, I've been concentrating on it for the past five or six years. I did a book of short stories first. It was a longtime aspiration; part of me wondered if I could do it at all. Through the years my priority was theater, then I would periodically write film screenplays-but much of that was financially motivated. I did a lot of screenplays for hire for which I was well paid. In my spare time I would fuss with and try to write some prose. At a certain point, I decided to put it to the top of the pile. I think there was a feeling that there were certain things I'd wanted to write for years that I couldn't find a way to deal with theatrically, for which the techniques of prose and fiction seemed more suitable. So I wanted to see if I could refocus, and I did.

What was the biggest challenge in this shift?

Certainly with the novel, it was the long haul of it-which I didn't think I was capable of when I was younger, but now I kind of welcome. When I was working on the short stories I realized I wanted one of them to be bigger, and that turned into Dinosaurs on the Roof. So I put it away and went back to it. I was here working on it for a couple of years-my younger boy was in college, my daughter in New York and Jill was away working a lot. So, it was just me and three dogs for a long time, not that people didn't come and go, but there was a focus that was satisfying.

Dinosaurs on the Roof is a very dense piece of writing-a lot goes on in a very short span. I think of your plays as dense in a different way, but playwriting is by nature more streamlined; most everything is expressed via dialogue. Prose allows you to be much more descriptive. I'm sure that requires a different type of thinking.

And I just somehow was more comfortable with it. In the theater, depending on the style of your play, you can use soliloquies or monologues, which are expressions of a character's inner thoughts to the audience. The Black Monk has a number of them. But in a novel, you can switch in and out of what a person is saying and what's going on in their heads much more naturally. That was what appealed to me.

On the other hand, the process is kind of mysterious. When I got into this story, it dictated itself a certain way. It never would have occurred to me to make this a play. Like we were talking about earlier, there's a lot of misdirection in this story-people think one thing is happening while something else develops.

This seems like the first major work you've done that has women as protagonists.

There is a play I did a long time ago, In the Boom Boom Room, and I once wrote a movie with a similar type of protagonist. On the other hand, you're quite right, in terms of the general perception of my overall work. This was part of what happened as I was working on the novel. The opening event of the story was something that a friend of mine in my hometown had happen to her. For years, I thought about writing about it-it intrigued me. It started as a short story, but took a different direction. Somehow Bernice and Hazel got together, and when they took off in the way they did it was amazing to me. I realized it was an opportunity-it was like I had absorbed things I didn't even realize I absorbed. And I was able to develop them out of it.

What I'm trying to say is, I didn't plan to write this book about women-I started writing, the older woman was there-and then suddenly, there seemed to be this richness and further development I just felt intrigued to follow. Once I did, that's the way I went.

Is there any difference for you between trying to get inside a woman character's head versus a man's?

In any given moment, there isn't. If in 1980-something, when I was writing Hurlyburly, somone had said, "Here's a million, write this novel about these two women," I'd have said "I can't, I don't know what you're talking about." Similarly, if someone had come when I was writing this and said, "Put this aside and write about two male agents," I would have said, "I don't know how to do that." Because it was organic to me at the time, it didn't require extra contortions. Whatever came to me, came to me, and was appropriate to the characters.

You mentioned your screenplay work earlier. I came across some news that you have done the screenplay for an upcoming Untouchables movie.

Several years ago I was hired to write the prequel, which I did-but I don't know if it's going to be made or not. Now it's looking like it will, but there's nothing concrete as far as I know.

Also, I had heard that your play A Question of Mercy might be made into a film.

That's the same story. I had people lined up to make it, and it looked like it might happen, but there's nothing yet. I did a number of different screenplays for different people at different points. But it got very difficult, no one wants to put up the money.

What other projects do you currently have in the works?

I have some plays I'm fussing with every now and then, but right now I'm concentrating on rewriting a novel that Simon & Schuster will publish in 2010.

Do you have a title for it?

I don't. We're calling it Whitaker, but that won't be the title; that's the name of the main character. The story goes back to what I started with, Vietnam.

Why do you write, at all? What are the rewards?

Can I get back to you? (laughs). The two years of writing Dinosaurs on the Roof were just the most satisfying, challenging, fulfilling time of my life. Overall, that's the kind of experience you stay with. And even though there are disappointments, which are abundant, when the books and plays reach the world-that's what keeps you going.

I began without a choice. There seemed to me to be no other way to go forward in life. And I guess it still feels that way.

Q&A: David Rabe

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