The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

by David Rabe

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Critical Context

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The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel uses many of the techniques of postmodernist drama to explore its themes. Originally produced in 1971, this play reflects the anger of the agitprop playwrights of the 1960’s. Its language also connects the play with such absurdists as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee: Communication fails even when it is attempted, while seemingly meaningless words symbolically communicate the irrational patterns of contemporary life. The minimal realistic staging is reminiscent of the symbolism of Tennessee Williams, while the graphic naturalism of character and dialogue recalls Eugene O’Neill’s plays. The darkness of David Rabe’s vision suggests as well the existentialist drama of the time.

Joined with Sticks and Bones (pr. 1969) and Streamers (pr. 1976) in what has been called Rabe’s Vietnam trilogy, only The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel takes the audience to Vietnam, although each of the three offers penetrating analyses of American society and contemporary life in or out of war. While this play was recognized immediately as important to Americans’ understanding of the Vietnam experience, only since Streamers finished the trilogy have critics appreciated Rabe’s more encompassing purpose and acknowledged that his bleak vision of contemporary life did not end with the war. His implicit attack on social programming is extended to the socialization of women in In the Boom Boom Room (pr. 1974), while the violent and impossible demands put upon individuals by social institutions are offered a universal context in The Orphan (pr. 1973) by paralleling Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777) to twentieth century atrocities such as the My Lai massacre and the Manson family murders. Still, it was with The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel that a new talent eager to expand the stylistic possibilities of theater and to examine the concerns of the contemporary world was recognized and awarded the Obie Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the award of the Variety Critics Poll. As the twentieth century drew to a close, Rabe continued to explore his predominant theme of protagonists undergoing initiation rites and experiencing moral conflicts in screenplays for The Firm (1989) and Casualties of War (1993) and in his 1997 play A Question of Mercy.

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Critical Overview