The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

by David Rabe

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

Reviews of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel upon its opening were largely enthusiastic, commenting on both the play's artistry and Rabe's promise as an up and coming playwright. Edith Oliver, reviewing the play for the New Yorker, called it "an astonishing accomplishment." Chve Barnes of the New York Times acclaimed Rabe as a "new and authentic voice of our theatre.'' Similarly, George Oppenheimer of Newsday highlighted Rabe's "new and striking talent " Henry Hewes, summing up the 1971 theatrical season for the Saturday Review, called Rabe "possibly the most promising playwright" of the year. "[I]mmensely gifted'' is how Charles Michener described Rabe in a Newsweek article.

Pavlo Hummel has continued, since its initial production, to captivate many critics. In a 1982 article for the New York Times, Mel Gussow referred to the play as "searing." Philip Kolin, in his book David Rabe- A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography, observed "As long as the spectre of Vietnam haunts us so will Pavlo.''

Pavlo Hummel, however, has had its detractors. Walter Kerr's review for the New York Times was decidedly mixed, finding both promise and disappointment in the play Rabe's work, he wrote, "is like a current of air on a very hot night that teases us and then goes away. It lacks a discovery." Stanley Kauffmann found little significance in Pavlo Hummel, calling it “one more good-hearted sentimental undergraduate play about the horrors of war ... using stale expressionist fantasy and even staler rhetoric." To Kauffmann, the praise Rabe received was endemic of "professional yea-saying by theater critics" who lack "rigorous" judgment and refuse to write anything critical of the American theatre. Richard Homan was among critics who found that Rabe's "collage" technique merely renders characters as stereotypes or personifications; he called Rabe's treatment of his theme in Pavlo Hummel "crude." Similarly, Richard Watts of the New York Post found Rabe's title character a "ridiculous" creation and observed that "I felt Pavlo never really developed as a character."

Although critics differ in their assessments of the effectiveness of Rabe's dramatic technique, they are in stronger agreement that Pavlo Hummel was one of the first works of real significance regarding the American experience in Vietnam. Oliver wrote that Rabe's play "makes everything else I've seen on the subject seem skimpy and slightly false." Newsweek's Jack Kroll found Pavlo Hummel "the first play to deal successfully with the Vietnam War and the contemporary American army." Harold Clurman, writing in the Nation, referred to other theatrical portrayals of Vietnam as "commonplace,'' with their "sham stage hyperbole," but found that in Pavlo Hummel "the sense of real men at war is present." He commented: "It is the first play provoked by the Vietnam disaster which has made a real impression on me." Not finding Rabe's treatment as genuine as did Clurman, Time's Horace Judson, somewhat enigmatically, called the play "an antiwar cartoon, but a good one." Writing in his book Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963-73, John Simon found Pavlo Hummel "the best play about the war so far," but also criticized it, stating that it "often manages to stretch beyond the breaking point "

Pavlo Hummel , along with Rabe's other Vietnam plays, marked a transition from a time when the subject of Vietnam was, as Barbara Hurrell wrote, "considered box office poison." The success of Rabe's early plays considerably opened up the possibility for other writers and artists to treat seriously the painful experience of the Vietnam war. To Hurrell, however, much of the treatment of...

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Vietnam appeared superficial; she observed that "it is not clear that the times are entirely receptive to such penetrating artistic inquiries as Rabe's trilogy." From Rabe's writing on Vietnam there is much to learn, Hurrell believed. The "shadows" cast by Rabe's characters, she commented, "are reminiscent of the plight of the nation itself, which m a self-destructive momentum devoid of acceptable goals, was embroiled in a war many did not accept as necessary, under conditions many did not accept as real."

Not surprisingly, critics of Rabe's work have continued to focus then: attention primarily on the lingering effect his plays have had upon American perceptions of the Vietnam experience. Beidler found that in Rabe's "trilogy" of Vietnam plays, "the principle of bring the war home evolved into a central thematic issue." The play brings home the Vietnam conflict “in the fullness of its commingled banality and terrifying waste." On this bewildering "landscape of death" Pavlo's basic training serves as existential metaphor; it is "the means whereby he learns, as the author notes, 'only that he is lost, now how, why, or even where."' In his Vietnam plays, Richard Homan wrote, "Rabe chooses a situation in which the horror of violence can be juxtaposed with the assumptions of everyday life In the first two plays he tends to personify normal life in his civilian characters and the horror in his military characters with a resulting sense of ridicule toward both." Homan concluded that Rabe's Vietnam trilogy "illustrates that violence on a personal scale, or on a national scale through military involvement, is a way of evading what troubles us most.''

Many critics have been pleased by the seeming absence of a strong ideological slant in Rabe's Vietnam plays. Catharine Hughes commented in Plays, Politics, and Polemics that "unlike most of those who have written antiwar plays, Rabe refuses to grind the axe, to present pure victims and pure monsters." Rather than appearing as anti-war propaganda, Rabe's plays seem to critics to be true to experience. Michener wrote in Newsweek that “Faithfulness to experience is what gives his plays their bite—and their comic edge." Rabe has said that "I felt at the time that his rage and the rage of a lot of vets was such that they couldn't just come back and explain it; you had to make an experience of it somehow.''


Critical Context


Essays and Criticism