When David Rabe returned from Vietnam in 1967, the nation was on the brink of upheaval over the violent quagmire in Southeast Asia. Over the next decade, Rabe painted a portrait of that war, and the country's disillusionment, refracted through the lens of young men forced into combat, in what have been dubbed his Vietnam plays - "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," "Sticks and Bones," "The Orphan," and "Streamers," the latter of which is getting its first major revival in nearly 30 years courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company.
As America finds itself embroiled in another seemingly intractable war halfway around the world, the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam have become increasingly apparent. Yet Rabe is loathe to speculate on the echoes between past and present conflicts.
"That's for other people to say," he maintains. "Of course, I have my thoughts and feelings about Iraq. But it wouldn't be right for me to put the play into that light. If other people do or don't, that's fine."
Set in 1965 during the early days of Vietnam, "Streamers" takes place at a US Army barracks near Washington, D.C., where four recruits from diverse backgrounds anxiously wait to be shipped off. Tension builds from the men's fear, but also from matters of race, class, education, and sexuality that divide them.
While playwriting put Rabe on the map, he worked for many years in Hollywood, penning screenplays for "Casualties of War" and "The Firm." Recently, he has stepped away from theater to concentrate on short stories and a forthcoming novel, "Dinosaurs on the Roof," the writing of which he calls "one of the most gratifying couple years I've ever had in my life."
Now something of a theatrical eminence at 67, he spoke to the Globe from his home in Connecticut.
Q: As you look back on "Streamers" today, do you see it in a different light?
A: It's very complicated because it takes you back to whatever experiences provoked the play itself and the experience of actually writing it and the experience of going through the original production . . . because it's all so different after so many years. Not like you've lost all track. But you're not possessed of the same energies and the same questions anymore.
Q: Do you think the play will still resonate with audiences?
A: The only clue I have is that the [younger] actors [in rehearsals] don't seem to have the same sense that we're raising this dark, mysterious ship from somewhere. They don't seem to have the same sense of alarm about dealing with the material that the original actors had. Whether that will be true of the audience, I have no idea.
Q: When you returned home from Vietnam, how had your service affected you?
A: I was in a medical unit in a field hospital, not in the infantry. And I was over there in a very primitive stage, when the infrastructure of war was just being built. Yet in spite of only marginal involvement with really harrowing [expletive], I came back in a fairly ragged state.
Q: How did it shape you as a writer?
A: When I came back, almost immediately, I began to see that nothing was at stake. People here were just going along with their lives. Everything was normal and fine. As it is, more or less, today. That kind of shocked me on a number of levels. And then it caused a reaction where a whole other point of view [inside me] started to surface. It demanded that I strip away a lot of hokum about myself and what I thought - this very naive point of view that I had growing up. It forced me to shed it and examine it.
Q: What unleashed this torrent inside of you to write a quartet of Vietnam plays?
A: I was a little bit lost. I think it just became a practical matter, on some level. I had a teacher and mentor in graduate school at Villanova, Bob Hedley, who kind of made fun of me because I was supposed to be a writer, and yet I wasn't writing. [Laughs] He just said, "You must have something going on [in your head] from being over there."
Q: Can you talk about the genesis of writing "Streamers"?
A: "Streamers" was the first play I started of the four and the last one I finished. I started writing it around '68, and it was another six or seven years before it was done. I wrote it in these very intense, short episodic bursts, separated by years.
Q: How is it different from the other three Vietnam plays?
A: It's the closest to a realistic play of the four, although it violates an awful lot of the rules and doesn't necessarily operate like one. And I don't know if anybody will agree with me, but I think it has a serenity to it, ultimately, that the others don't have.
Q: How did the antiwar movement respond to your Vietnam plays?
A: The environment in the '70s was very different. People were eager to hear things. They weren't always eager to hear what I had to say, but they were eager to hear. Often, my plays were far too complicated and violent for the people who were against the war. They wanted a different kind of narrative.
Q: A number of films and plays in recent years deal with the war in Iraq. Most have not done well at the box office. Do you think we're still too close to the conflict for audiences to embrace these works?
A: I don't think it's that we're too close to it. But I think there are two elements to this. First, there's a climate that's been created where there's almost like this shield that's been put up between any sort of emotional narrative and [the war itself], especially when it's critical. It's very hard to penetrate this bubble surrounding the war. . . . Second, if you're talking about fictional narratives, I think there hasn't yet been an authentic voice who's emerged to speak about [the war] from experience.
Q: Have you thought about taking on that challenge yourself?
A: I've thought about it, yes. But I don't want to do something that's secondhand.