Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Rabe was educated at Loras College and Villanova. His service in Vietnam has had a major influence on his work, particularly in his early plays. In 1971 both The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which traces a soldier's life from basic training to an ugly and ironic death in Vietnam, and Sticks and Bones, a slightly absurdist play that combines broad satire of U.S. family life with a realistic portrayal of the suffering of a blind veteran, were produced at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. Rabe's other plays of the 1970s were also produced there. Streamers (1976), which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, is the most notable of his Vietnam plays. Set in an army barracks, it is a powerful presentation of the destruction that can result from blind, uncontrolled rage. Hurlyburly (1985), which concerns the hollow lifestyle of a group of hip southern California men, began a long run on Broadway in 1984. As with many of Rabe's other plays, it explores the horrors that can result from distorted ideas of masculinity. Another recent play, Goose and Tomtom (1987), is a forceful drama about two small-time jewel thieves. In it, Rabe explores the theme of the illusory nature of reality.