In 1973, when I was fifteen, CBS aired Sticks and Bones (apparently to much controversy: see here and here). I seem to remember it being proceeded with a disclaimer about it’s being disturbing. And it was. Deeply disturbing. A blinded vet returns home from Vietnam to his family: parents Ozzie and Harriet and brother Ricky. And really, that’s the entire play right there. The horrors he brings—and comes to epitomize—cannot coexist with their happy blandness. Something has to give.
I was the right age for this play, and the play was the right match for the age.
Now, four decades later, Sticks and Bones has been revived by the New Group, and it’s playing in a quite well-done production directed by Scott Elliott and starring Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter, and Richard Chamberlain. Well acted, well directed, and apparently able to deliver something of the shock I experienced on first encountering the play. Steve found it absorbing and deeply unsettling.
But what I felt was how completely this play was a reflection of its time. Back then, there was something called Middle America. Which does not exist anymore. Anymore than the three TV networks, Ed Sullivan, Walter Cronkite, or any other of the homogenizing, unifying forces that made us a mass culture. Or the satiric, bitter consciousness—conscience—that arose from the ashes of peace and love with the escalation of Vietnam, and would soar with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. That consciousness pervades the gritty, angry films, plays, and TV of the period. Think Archie Bunker and MASH. Think Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. Think Joseph Papp, who first produced Sticks and Bones.
And I wondered, what does this play say to us now? Then we all more or less had access to the same information delivered via limited mechanisms. Today, we have no mass culture, but instead splintered, fragmented subgroups. We have no way to pierce the hide of Middle American hypocrisy because—to mix a metaphor—no one lance can penetrate the multiple echo chambers that proliferate today. We do not share a cultural reality, so increasingly we cannot communicate with each other. Sticks and bones cannot be hurled effectively if we don’t face one another.