Hailed by critics as the most promising young dramatist to appear in a decade, David Rabe made a shattering impact on the American theatre with his plays The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, both written in 1968-70 after his 1967 return from military service in Vietnam. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel which earned Off-Broadway’s coveted Obie award, canvasses the effects of war on a particular soldier, other combatants, and victims, while Sticks and Bones, which received a Tony award for best Broadway play of 1971-72, is about a soldier’s homecoming to a family lost in illusions, swimming in a materialistic wash, and violently devoted to the maintenance of both. A third play on Vietnam followed, The Orphan in which Rabe dealt with the eternal, ever-present, phenomenon of war within the framework of the Oresteia. Streamers, the fourth Vietnam-related play completed his quartet, and was directed by Mike Nichols. All the aforementioned plays were produced by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Theatre, and to Joe, David remains hugely indebted and grateful.
He has since written In the Boom Boom Room, Goose and Tomtom, Hurlyburly, Those The River Keeps, and A Question of Mercy which was adapted from the journals of Doctor Richard Selzer, an American surgeon and author who explored the mystery and meaning of medicine. His play, Cosmologies, was produced at The Wellfleet Actor’s Theatre, and then at The Gift Theatre, and The Dog Problem was developed at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, after having been work-shopped in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before moving on to a run in New York at the Atlantic Theatre. Good For Otto, inspired by material from Undoing Depression by Richard O’Conner, was produced at The Gift Theatre, and Visiting Edna at Steppenwolf Theatre, both in Chicago. An Early History of Fire ran at The New Group in New York. The Black Monk, a play based on a Chekov story was produced at Yale and was on its way to Williamstown Theatre before COVID derailed it. He’s Born, He’s Borne was scheduled to be produced at the Undermain Theater in Dallas, Texas also before COVID. David has worked with joy at the Undermain Theatre several times, as they gave three of his plays beautiful productions under the direction of Katherine Owens, with a key performance in each from Bruce Dubose. After Katherine’s recent death, a loss impossible to calculate, Bruce is continuing the theatre’s relationship by producing and staring in a streaming adaptation of David’s recent New Yorker story, Suffocation Theory. Bruce intends to return to their production of He’s Born, He’s Borne, as Katherine had planned, when live theatre is again possible. David has worked twice with New York Stage and Screen: once on his play Gilgamesh, the Prince, and recently on a new play, Breathing In. He has completed a draft of a second Gilgamesh play, called Gilgamesh, the King, and is gestating a third. He has worked at Roundabout Theatre and multiple times with The New Group and Scott Elliot on remarkable productions of Hurlyburly, Sticks and Bones, and Good for Otto. David has twice enjoyed sustaining, nurturing, and rewarding experiences at The Gift Theatre, first with his play Good for Otto, and again with Cosmologies. He cherishes his relationship with the theatre, its Ensemble, and with his friend Mike Thornton. His screenplay credits include I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can and Casualties of War, Streamers, The Firm, and an adaptation of Hurlyburly.
Four of Rabe’s plays have been honored with Tony nominations for best play on Broadway, and one, Sticks and Bones, was chosen as best play in 1972. In addition, David has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and his work has been celebrated by the Drama Desk Awards, the John Gassner Outer Critics Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle, and three times he has won the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Drama Guild Award.
As a director, Rabe mounted a workshop of Goose and Tomtom at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center staring Sean Penn, Madonna, and Harvey Keitel. In Los Angeles, he guided Hurlyburly, starring Sean Penn and Danny Aeillo, to a successful run at the Westwood Playhouse. His fiction includes novels Recital of the Dog; Dinosaurs on the Roof; Girl by the Road at Night; and A Primitive Heart, which is a collection of short stories. He wrote The Crossing Guard, a novel based on the screenplay by Sean Penn. Three of his short stories were published in the New Yorker magazine in 2019 and 2020, and he is completing work on other novels and stories.
David Rabe was born on March 10, 1940 in Dubuque, Iowa to William and Ruth (McCormick) Rabe. After attending Holy Trinity grade school, Rabe went on to Loras Academy where he played football and was the starting varsity running back and line backer in both his junior and senior years. It was in the later part of his senior year that he found the beginnings of his interest in theatre and writing, first in acting and then in writing. James Dean in life and death was a messenger and influence not to be underestimated. In 1958, he went on to Loras College where he began to write stories and poems under the guidance of Reverend Ray Roseliep, a fine teacher and poet of power and grace, and a refuge in that time and place with his genuinely creative presence. Later in life Father Roseliep turned to the creation of Haiku, a field in which he became nationally prominent. As he studied creative writing with Father Roseliep, David pursued his interests in drama with George Herman, a professor at a neighboring school, Clark College. After graduating in 1962, he went on to do work on a Master’s Degree at Villanova University in a department chaired by Richard Duprey. Dropping out in 1964, Rabe was drafted into the army in 1965. After his military service, Rabe returned to Villanova to complete his M.A. under Robert Hedley and James Christy. This was a time of wild, hopeful, unleased creativity for everyone lucky enough to be there, a time for which David is forever grateful. He wrote drafts of Pavlo Hummel, Stick and Bones, The Orphan, and In the Boom Boom Room, and made a stab at a portion of Streamers during this heady time. He then worked several years as a reporter in New Haven, Connecticut, and as a teacher at Villanova University. In 1971 Joe Papp produced The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and a few years later, David was able to turn to writing full time.
He lives in Northwest Connecticut.