Monday, December 10, 2007

Boston Theatre Streamers

I saw David Rabe's Streamers at the Huntington last week.

I have always found Rabe's play, at least on the page, to be one of the better dramatic depictionss of army life. The story takes place in that strange purgatory between training and the mission. Anybody who has served in the armed forces can relate to the rythyms Rabe documents during the course of two days at an Army detatchment in Virginia sometime in 1965. (Fort Lee, VA barracks in photo above.)

The rythyms of a replacement detachment are counted out in mind-numbing routines that fill most of the waking hours . There is always the underlying apprehension about the coming assignment or duty station, especially if it is overseas, but there isn't any outlet for stress aside from normal training.

The duties you are assigned during this period, sometimes called ("being on casual,") are random and sometimes pointless. While on casual duty at Fort Huachuca we moved desks and office furniture from one abandoned building to another almost identical abandoned building in 102 degree heat. During casual detail at a different fort, several soldiers and I dug up and replaced a basketball pole because the contractor who had installed it had in set the rim at about 10 feet 2 inches. (His reasoning was that it had to have a little room to settle over time to the regulation 10 feet.) The batallion commander demanded it be at exactly 10 feet, and we corrected it. Mowing lawns was a common task and KP duty was occasional, but even back then kitchen duties were being taken over by civilian contractors.

In the abundant spare time you could read, you could work out, but, most of all, you could bulls**t. About everything.

The military is intense activity for very brief periods of time, punctuated by an almost endless stream of tall tales, embellishments, metaphysical conversations, debates about military regulations, stories of sexual conquests, (real and imagined,) and infinite lists of gripes. And there are fights. These are usually between people of different MOS's or units who are thrown together in small replacement detachment.

During my enlistment years if you were assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, you had to pass through the infamous Camp Casey Replacement Detatchment. It was a small sliver of property made up of small wooden buildings and quonset huts that may have been there since the Korean War. It was affectionately called "The Turtle Farm."

The process was simple enough. We were driven from Seoul up to Camp Casey in a bus piloted by a Korean driver who seemed to pay absolutely no attention to the basic concepts of western principles of driving an automobile. (While studying at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California, one of our instructors, an octagenarian ex-professor from Seoul University, joked that "The Korean people look upon traffic regulations as something that one should aspire to obey.")

We arrived at Camp Casey in the north, went through the Indian Head gate and then we were driven into the fenced off Replacement Detachment. We were billeted in tripled and quadrupled wooden bunks liked merchandise in the backroom of a General Store. In between medical exams and physical training tests, we were to spend our time awaiting a unit to claim us.

I am not kidding. We would go to formation every day and Hummers or Duece and a Half trucks would pull up from various units and grab soldiers who fit the MOS's they needed. Aside from this daily occurence I would do physical training, eat at the mess hall, get my hair cut, and....shoot the s**t.

We were not allowed to leave the Turtle Farm and this rule was of particular annoyance to one sergeant who kept loudly proclaiming how he could hear the ladies "downrange" calling out to him! "So near and yet so far!" he would bark with his ear cocked towards the city outside the gates of Camp Casey. "I'm coming soon ladies!"

This lothario was not in our company for long though, he was picked up by a lone Hummvee at one the first formations. "He's lucky," a bespectacled private, drawled slowly to me. "That's the pathfinder guys. You have to have your shit wired to go there."

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'm gonna get my wings and air assault. Once I get to my unit, I am getting my ass into the schools. Got to be on the training NCO's ass, so you get the schools...."

Perhaps only those who have actually been in the army might comprehend how long this monologue about schools and air assault and airborne could possibly last. The answer is: For all time. It is going on as we speak.

It is the same type of discussions one hears on the set of a big Hollywood movie as a day extra: SAG Waivers, regulations for getting a credit, etc. But imagine you don't get to go home, the shooting doesn't end after a couple of days, and you have to sleep, work, and brush your teeth next to these discussions for the next few years.

I was at the Farm with another MI Linguist from my training and we hung out together. People were very interested in our MOS, mostly because we could speak the language, (a pride of which we were soon humbled when we would meet many tankers, infantry men, etc, who could speak Korean far more fluently just from their adverturous forays out "on the economy," or their courtships and marriages to Korean women.)

In our barracks was an airborne jumpmaster, a good natured guy from Fort Bragg, who would loudly pontificate on current events while we waited around indoors to escape the unbelievably frigid weather. (In Rabe's play the character Billy speaks about the cold of Korea, and it brought shivers to my spine just remembering the shock of those first December days as a Turtle.) The only problem with this NCO's ranting was that he rarely had any of the facts straight. But we all laughed and listened, while flipping through our personnel files or magazines, or polishing our boots.

One day the jumpmaster's subject for our lecture was Michael Jackson's recent troubles with small boys. An opportunity to incorporate many different topics presented itself, and so he started speaking about the Jackson case and all the world events tangential. Not a single fact got in the way of his discussion. Suddenly, my M.I. comrade lying on the next bunk muttered, "Jeez, why don't you read a newspaper sometime."

The barracks went silent and the jumpmaster barked out, "Who said that!??"

I looked over at my friend. His face was getting a little white as he realized that this was not going to be a pleasant experience.


My friend was only a PFC at the time and he hopped to and went to parade rest, facing the hulking jumpmaster who was an E-5. The Sergeant, eyes bulging, asked, "Who are you?"

"Sergeant! PFC Tom Williams! Sergeant!"

"Williams, huh? Williams, you must be one of them KOH-rean linguists, right?

"Sergeant, yes, Sergeant!"

"Williams, you know how I know that you are a KOH-rean linguist?"

"No, sergeant."

"You must be one of those M.I. KOH-rean Linguists cause you're talking S**T!"

Here we had an African-American high school graduate from inner city D.C. face to face with an upper middle class Oregonian with a couple of years of college. The rest of us sat silent, watching and relying, I guess, on the structure of the army and its hierarchy to prevent what could, at any second, become a fight. (In basic training I witnessed a horrible, bloody fistfight in the showers between a country boy and city boy.)

But the sergeant's last quip was so outrageously funny that it had the effect of diffusing the entire situation. People laughed, half out of tension and half out of the comedy. The jumpmaster was a such a skilled military man he knew instinctively that he shouldn't ruin the best line of the day with a beating or a continued disciplinary action.

He let my friend go with a warning to "not believe everything you read in the newspapers."

When I came back from getting a haircut later I heard a couple of guys, several bunks over, talking about the incident and how the MI guys were probably "faggots." They then went into a little improvised skit, the ending of which involved, or course, a simulated sex act. I left quickly out of the barracks undetected.

That night, in the darkness of our billets, there were a few whispered jokes about wanting the MI guys to come over and "service them." Neither of us were gay, but in that in that barracks of probably over 100 soldiers, there must have been, at the very least, one or two gay men. How must they have felt hearing these comments?

I was a resident of the Turtle Farm for only a couple of days, but there were some who were there for weeks, months and, in certain cases, a year. As people move out, others move in to take their place. My rapid progression through the farm was a combination of a desperate shortage of my skillset (Military Intelligence Linguists,) and the fact that I had arrived a couple of days before Christmas and it seemed they wanted to get us processed fast.

I ended up hopping into a Hummvee and taking off to the 102nd Military Intelligence Battalion in a remote corner of Camp Casey called Camp Hovey. As we drove down the road, we looked up to see a brightly lit tree mountain high above the post . "That's the Signal Battalion, they do that every year at this time!"

It was Christmas Eve, and I arrived at Charlie Company during a party at which just about everybody I was introduced to was hammered. The First Sergeant filled out my liberty pass paperwork and assigned me to my squad with a drunken smile.

A few days later we were off to the field for a week. Here it was, after all the training, the real army. During my time in that unit I was to serve with some of the finest people and soldiers I have ever met.

It was later, while serving at another unit, one of these soldiers I had respected, worked alongside and became friends with came out to me. And over the course of the next year, (his last in the army,) he came out to other soldiers he felt he could trust.

One day, while we were working in the motor pool, he told me he was going to go on a date with a gay soldier serving in another company, a different MOS. I asked him who it was. He told me that the circumstances of this soldier were much different than his. This soldier could not, for fear of both administrative and physical reprisals, be at all out.

My enlistment ended about eleven years ago, and I can't imagine that things have changed that much, except, as Thomas Garvey points out, the stretched- thin military has been forced to lighten up a little on their continued pursuit and purge of gay men in the armed services, (a process dramatically well-documented by Marc Wolfe's Another American Asking and Telling.)

The play Streamers has not lost one bit of its timeliness or relevance, the audience has. Many seem to believe the play is dated and its characters stereotyped. Please. I can't think of a recent character as complex and difficult as Billy or Sergeant Cokes. In fact, as a testament to the reality of the young men Rabe has written into his play, the actors in Scott Ellis's production sometimes have difficulty in portraying them. Quirkiness as a substitute for true complexity is not the currency with which Rabe traffics, and the cast works very hard to bleach tics from these portraits. But these roles are people to be inhabited not "played," and maybe the shortened rehearsal periods our regional theaters are having to deal with just can't serve this type of work.

There are other flaws in Ellis's staging, but the work perseveres. The set has too much of a stylized feel and the expansiveness between the bunks dulls some of the immediacy of the events. (I disagree completely with Louise Kennedy who found the set "realistic.") But while I am not sure these choices serve the work, they more than adequately prove its continued relevance. This distancing effect made me see the language is not as rooted in 1965 as I had previously thought, and the audience can listen through the decades and be just as engaged. However, the language also ain't Shakespeare, and so it seems to need a more realistic setting for a production to succeed.

Critics are really split on this one. Carolyn Clay, Thomas Garvey, Sandy Macdonald are on the positive, if not raving, side, whereas Louise Kennedy, Jenna Scherer, Jennifer Brubriski and Bill Marx were underwhelmed.

The sights of the naysayers seemed to be trained more on Rabe's drama than the production itself. Marx even talks about how audience members were leaving at intermission and how a few patrons sitting near him expressed that the play was boring. I will report that I saw people leaving at intermission as well, and I saw many people who seemed disappointed after the show.

However, I also heard a communal gasp when the plays bloody climax begins to unfold. I could feel the focus of attention when the dramatic threads tighten, and I heard some sobbing when Sergeant Cokes delivers his tortured coda, a prelude and epilogue all in one. The young soldiers have just witnessed something they can barely conceive and can barely talk about, and the Sergeant's dark reminiscence delivers the news that they will see more of the inconceivable. And, these visions will haunt them, if they survive, for the rest of their lives.

During war we need artists just as much as we need documentary. Rabe's Streamers, far from a creaky cousin of the well made play, is more experimental than most critics are giving credit. Bill Marx worries that cinema and television has permanently surpassed theatre in its technical and imaginative abilities to convey violence. But Rabe's play, rather than an example of this, may provide an answer.

Rabe doesn't set the violence on the battlefield, in fact, he rarely does. Even in his earlier play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the protaganist is killed while drinking at a local bar on the economy. His screenplay for DePalma's Casualties of War sets violence either between soldiers or enacted on innocent civilians. In the time for which Streamers is set, the war in Vietnam seems at its most remote. In fact, the gears of war are really just starting to grind, the Marines landed at DaNang and the the troop levels began to swell, and the first major battle of the war was fought in Ia Drang. In Rabe's play, the winds of war blow, but very lightly.

However, the charge that Rabe's plays really aren't about war is misleading. He is intensely interested in violence, and armies, as Colin Powell puts it so succinctly, are the instrument through which we apply state violence. (My drill sergeant was not quite so eloquent, but they are on the same page.) Rabe is constantly congnizant of this connection and he demonstrates an acute awareness that the application of state violence is executed by real human beings and refuses to sugar coat or mythologize these men. Even attempts at minor allusions are denied their completion. One of the veteran Sergeants sees remembers the mayhem of a firefight as an old silent movie. "He was Charlie Chaplin, and I was...I don't know who I was."

It is through this technique and discipline that we can feel such pity for the pain and alienation of Carlyle, a transient soldier overwhelmed by loneliness and terrified of what he sees as his inevitable fate. As my wife pointed out as we walked home, "While Carlyle may be thought of as mentally ill or crazy, he seems to be the only one who has come to grips the reality of their situation." Exactly.

Rooney and Cokes, the two veteran sergeants , dull the pain of their hellish experiences with booze. Carlyle, (in a dynamic performance by Ato Essandoah in the Huntington Production,) sees very clearly on the front end what Rooney and Cokes know from having come out the other side, so he too is swilling liquor all through the evening. Both the veterans and the seer offer the alchohol to the fresh faced young recruits.

Rather than a dose of wisdom, those who know offer ways of numbing the pain. And truth and enlightenment only seems to come after death. Pavlo Hummel dies and gets to watch his life again with the strange and enigmatic Sergeant Towers. In Streamers Cokes's imminent mortality allows him to at least reach towards some type of understanding, and Billy's admission that he made a mistake comes so absurdly late that it elicited laughter from the audience the night I attended. (An odd reaction, that I wished hadn't happened.)

A criticism of Rabe's war plays has always been that the protaganists are arrested by a brutal death before reaching any understanding, maturity, or wisdom. Rather than a flaw, it could be argued that this is the point.

"The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept that we stumble down a darkly lit corridor of disasters. It hides from view our own impotence and the ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained."

That is Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The military is internally full of mythology. You sign a contract with an implied understanding that the United States will not put you in harm's way except to defend this country. During basic training you are built up to believe that the better you are at the tasks the better chance you will have at surviving. That Don't Ask Don't Tell works.

This last one is probably the source of much of the shrugging by audiences. The idea that there is actually a place in this country that operates with the same general mentality as Larry Craig's brain must seem so pase to most modern audiences. In fact, many reviewers just couldn't get over the fact that a debate over whether somebody is gay or not could possibly be so grippingly dramatic. After all, aren't we giving same sex benefits to gay men and women these days?

Ask the family of PFC Winchell who was found in 1999 by a fellow soldier in his bunk in the following condition:

Back in the barracks, Winchell struggled to breathe, gurgling on his own blood. Both his eyes were blackened and swollen shut. Blood poured, and brains oozed, from the left side of his head. An Army investigator said it had been shattered "like an eggshell."

A gay soldier, Winchell had been beaten with a baseball bat by another soldier. His homosexuality had played a central role in the assault.

The play, while having obviously riveted theatregoers in its original incarnation, doesn't seem to be striking the solar-plexus as it once did. Maybe in a more intimate setting like the BCA plaza, Black Box, or even the Wimberly or Roberts, the play may be able relay some of its immediacy. For it is immediate and timely.

The Huntington Program has little page referencing the Basic Training experience that recruits go through. One of the pictures is that of a two young women being screamed at by a superior, and the caption indicates that the setting is the United States Air Force Academy. The Air Force Academy, one of the premiere insitutions in the country, recently had an enormous shakeup over sexual assault and harassment of females cadets. It was rampant to such an extent that commands were lost, and during the investigations victims and other women were intimidated.

The volunteer army has continued to insulate more and more Americans from the reality of having to point a loaded weapon at another human being in order to prevent them from pointing it and firing it at you. In basic training my Drill Sergeant said:

"Make no mistake, maggots, as to what your are here for. You are not here to make college tuition, you are not here to learn a skill, you are not here to 'be all that you can be.' You are here to KILL people. To Kill. Now, lateley a lot of Reservist motherf***ckers, were complaining when they have to go over to Kuwait and fight in Desert Storm. 'I signed up for the college money,' they were whining. 'I didn't know that I was gonna have to maybe shoot at another person.' Well, I would say to them the same thing I am gonna say to you, so that there is no misunderstanding. Maggots, there is a REASON that the targets we are practicing on are shaped like PEOPLE!"

But the volunteer army, (which has shrunk to such a point that many people don't even know anybody with relatives in the armed forces,) has also insulated people to the general atmosphere of serving at the will of the United States. While there are abuses and violations in every career and community, the army presents a unique circumstance for us freedom loving Americans: You can't just leave, you can't just quit, people can't come and get you or help you.
This is underscored by the darkly comic line delivered in the play by a soldier, incarcerated by the military police and being interrogated about a violent crime: "That's it, I quit the Army!"
The OIC is incredulous. And so are we.
After all, there is no way out.



Thomas Garvey said...

Great post, Art. It's nice to hear from someone who's really "been there," as opposed to all us theatre girls. (You hunka real man, you!) I think you and I agree about a central problem for the play: its audience has "moved on," but its society hasn't - another intriguing dilemma that goes along with the death of "monoculture." As for its critics - how to explain that so many of them miss the truth of Rabe's voice? I suppose we could explain it with a quick analysis of each one - for Kennedy, if it's not about mothers or daughters, it's not art; Sherer is just too snarkily young to "get it"; and Marx only responds to its literary form, which is somewhat dated; etc., etc. Luckily some folks are sticking up for it.

Art said...

Hi Thomas,

I thought the play was very powerful.

Critics and audiences seemed to have, generally, more positive reactions to Nicky Martin's production of Observe the Sons of Ulster, and, more recently, Journey's End on Broadway. (Even Dying City, which isn't exactly what we are talking about.)

The danger, in those plays, looms far more closely over the men.

In the Huntington production of Ulster the wall up which the men will eventually scale to their doom was a dominant presence. That play dealt with a homosexual relationship as well, but critics didn't seem to yawn as much.

It is an interesting question. Is Ulster simply a better dramatic construct? It was certainly more literary.

I have always thought streamers to be more aligned with The Brig. (Which recently had a revival in New York.)

Our current war is undoubtedly producing dramatists who have REALLY "been there." (I never fired a shot outside of training.) We will see their work soon, I have no doubt, unless they decamp for television and film.

We have, on the American stage, cycled through Shakespeare and The Greeks to make sense of what is going on in our name on the other side of the world.

Perhaps it is time we started seeing plays that look at the world through the eyes of the warriors doing the job right now.

The late Will Stackman used to say, "On the current stages you would have no idea that we are a nation at war."

Jenna Scherer said...

To Art: Great post. It's good to hear a really well-thought-out opinion from someone who's seen what you have.

To Thomas: I get that you disagree with me, but I'd really like it if you stopped dismissing my opinions as irrelevant. Yes, I am young. That doesn't mean I'm an idiot.

Novel said...

Thank you for a fascinating post, Art.

Todd Williams said...

Great post Art, thanks for sharing your experience.