The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

by David Rabe
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Conceptions of an Antiwar Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1736

Although The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel dramatizes the senseless death of a young man in Vietnam, David Rabe has emphasized repeatedly that he did not intend his play to be received as an "antiwar" work. Certainly, the play is critical of the reasons that countries engage in wars and that young men go to fight in them. Pavlo's enthusiasm for the military is drawn strongly into question, as Ardell forces him at the play's conclusion to confront the reason for his death:

ARDELL: You tell it to me: what you think of the cause' What you think a gettin' your ass blown clean off a freedom's frontier' What you think about R A Regular Army lifer?

PAVLO: (softly, with nearly embarrassed laughter) Sheeeeeeittttt Oh, lord . oh ..

ARDELL: Ain't it what happened to you? Lemme hear it

PAVLO: Shit'

ARDELL: And what you think a' all the "folks back home," sayn' you a victim,.. you a' animal.. you a' fool''.

PAVLO: They shit'

This is strong commentary, punctuated by Ardell slamming shut the lid of Pavlo' s coffin. Significantly, though, Pavlo scorns not just "the cause" and the enthusiasm with which he (and many other young soldiers) went off to Vietnam but also the "folks back home" who might view Pavlo as a victim of American involvement in the war. This complex perspective is true to Rabe's own definition of Pavlo Hummel as something other than an antiwar play. The distinction for Rabe rests not so much on content as the intended result of a play, or any other work of art. Rabe has written in his introduction to Two Plays that "in my estimation, an 'antiwar' play is one that expects, by the very fabric of its executed conception, to have political effect."

Rabe not only rejects the idea that he intended his early Vietnam plays to have apolitical effect but more generally demes such a possibility for the theatre: "to think a play can have immediate, large-scale political effect is to overestimate vastly the powers that plays have." To Rabe, classifying his early plays as "antiwar" would serve only to narrow their impact to "the thin line of political tract," and thereby diminish their richness. Rabe believes that war is inevitably a permanent part of what he calls the "eternal human pageant,'' along with such elements as family, marriage, youth, and crime; therefore, the subject of war can (and should) be treated with as complex a perspective as these other topics. “A play in which a family looks bad,'' Rabe explains, "is not called an 'antifamily' play."

When Pavlo Hummel premiered in 1971, the subject of Vietnam was, as Barbara Hurrell wrote in the Journal of American Culture, "considered box office poison." (Even two years later, after the tremendous success of Rabe's first two plays, CBS withdrew its support for the broadcast of a television version of Rabe's Sticks and Bones, fearing that audiences would find it offensive.) Writing about Vietnam was still largely the realm of the journalist, as Robert Asahina observed in Theatre: "In the light of this apparent success of journalism in spearheading opposition to the war by making it 'more vivid' to the American public, it is scarcely surprising that conventional playwrights should have remained virtually silent about Vietnam."

When the American theatre did address the war, as in the Open Theatre presentation Viet Rock, it tended to be by "emptying] the stage of its literary content" (Asahina) in experimental, non-representational, and highly polemical productions. Rabe almost single-handedly broke this mold, opening up the possibility both for more complex treatments of Vietnam in the conventional theatre, and more broadly, for other writers and artists to treat seriously the painful experience of the Vietnam war The Vietnam-themed film work of writer/ director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July) hardly seems possible without Rabe's innovations.

In the context of the American theatre's treatment of Vietnam, most critics found Pavlo Hummel astonishing, the first work of real significance regarding the American experience of the war. Harold Clurman, writing in the Nation, referred to other theatrical portrayals of Vietnam as "commonplace," with their "sham stage hyperbole," but he found that in Pavlo Hummel "the sense of real men at war is present." Clurman commented: "It is the first play provoked by the Vietnam disaster which has made a real impression on me." In the New Yorker, Edith 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."

While critics seemingly responded merely to the literary quality of Rabe' s writing, the praise they heaped upon Pavlo Hummel nevertheless had political implications. In praising Rabe's play, the critics simultaneously rejected other theatrical treatments of Vietnam, specifically the more polemical, "antiwar," productions based on a belief that theatre can effect political change, or at least significantly alter political consciousness. 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."

The complexity of this perspective rests on the enigmatic character of Pavlo, who on the one hand accepts what he has been told about Vietnam (responding to the question "Soldier, what you think a the war?'' with the simple reply: “It’s being fought''), but on the other expresses a personal enthusiasm for his participation, which does not allow audiences to see him as a misled victim. "I'm diggin' it, man," he brags. "Blowin' people away. Cuttin’ ‘em down.. . It ain't no big thing.''

Again, Rabe's rejection of the idea of an "antiwar" play stems from a lack of faith in theatre's ability to affect the course of society. He commented in an interview in Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers, "The theater's expertise is not developed like the machinery of the media and the facility to use it. You just don't have the access—your ideas just don't reach the same numbers of people. The tremendous amount of skill and brainpower that goes into advertising, and governmental advertising, is so huge that a play barely makes a bubble.'' But by reaching a mainstream audience in a well-respected off-Broadway theatre, Rabe certainly made a "bubble" larger than that made by the more experimental and polemical Vietnam productions. Rabe has allowed the label “confrontational'' to be applied to his plays, and if they are not "antiwar" in a strict sense, they nevertheless forced audiences to confront a war far from home and remote in thought. In short, Rabe can be credited with "bringing the war home" to a sizable audience. Indeed, as Philip Beidler wrote of Rabe's "trilogy" of Vietnam plays in American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, "the principle of bring the war home evolved into a central thematic issue. "Rabe has recounted the need for this kind of intervention, drawing from his own personal experience. "Like Pavlo," he observed in Vietnam, We've All Been There,' cat the time I was drafted, unless you were fairly politically astute, there was no war." In Pavlo Hummel, this perspective may be presented most clearly in Mickey, who taunts Pavlo, "Vietnam don't even exist." Upon his return from Vietnam, Rabe discovered a "tremendous indifference at home" that changed his entire perspective, forcing him "to view the whole thing as decadent, really corrupt." Another kind of awareness about Vietnam, equally disturbing to Rabe, was that of the politically active war protester.

As he told Robert Berkvist in the New York Times, "people kept trying to tell me what the war was about—they were the ones interested in debating the war but who didn't want to hear about the war itself. They weren't interested in any kind of evidence of, say, a Vietcong atrocity." In Vietnam, We've All Been There, Rabe commented that he "was against the war ultimately, but I was never comfortable with the antiwar movement." Thus, Rabe's writing on Vietnam trod a careful line, forcing audiences to confront the tragedy of a war to which many had not yet faced but challenging the politically aware to adopt a more complex perspective on America's involvement in Vietnam.

Rabe told Berkvist, "All I'm trying to do is define the event for myself and for other people. I'm
saying, in effect, 'This is what goes on,' and that's all.'' Certainly, Rabe's Vietnam plays served a very personal end, as writing did for so many Vietnam veterans, allowing them a means to address the repressed trauma of their experience. Rabe attempted to keep a journal during his military service in Vietnam but found that his experience there defied description, exceeding the capabilities of "language as mere symbol." He observed in Vietnam, We've All Been There, "you knew you were not going to get it; it was larger and bloodier than anything you were going to put down." To Rabe, this inability to represent in a realistic manner the full experience of Vietnam nullified the value of certain types of writing. Rabe has said that "I felt at the time that... 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".

Theatre, by its very nature a tangible, shared experience among performers and an audience, proved to be for Rabe the appropriate art form. He created in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel a theatrical event audiences and critics found truer to experience than the polemical "antiwar" plays which had preceded it. Rabe's play, therefore, might have lacked a kind of political impact, but it made a different kind of impact through the perspective with which he addressed the experience and complex psychology of a soldier killed in Vietnam. The complexity of his first play ensured that years later, Pavlo Hummel, unlike Viet Rock and other works of the Vietnam era, has not faded from public memory. The play remains not just a significant work of the contemporary American theatre but specifically an enduring and complex examination of an unpopular war, the legacy of which still haunts American society.

Source: Christopher G Busiel, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998

In the Middle Range, 1970-75

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

In the most important contributions to the dramatic literature of Vietnam during the period 1970-75— David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, the first two plays in what, with the addition of Streamers in 1977, would become a major trilogy—the principle of bringing the war home evolved into a central thematic issue. Similarly ..., the attempt to explore the effects of Vietnam on actual American life would also come to suggest the degree to which the war's horror had been implicit in the American character from the outset, a collective tragedy waiting to happen, a prophetic curse hiding at the heart of a whole mythology of culture. The range and ambition of Rabe's endeavors are suggested in the two plays by the large formal challenges he poses for himself. In both The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, he deals in visions of pure hackneyed Americana, opts for the mode of the almost oppressively quotidian and familiar. In the first, he works (as he will again in Streamers) the old American ground of boot camp and barracks, the world of See Here, Private Hargrove and Sands of Iwo Jima and No Time for Sergeants, and later on of Ernie Bilko and even Beetle Bailey. In the second, his broad-ranging debts to domestic and popular lore are equally evident. The blinded veteran, David, returns to his family, including Ozzie the father, Harriet the mother, and Rick the younger brother, who hops about with a snapshot camera and asks plenty of vaguely cute, witless questions. At issue in these plays, then, is not only the experience of Vietnam but also the nature of what passes for reality in America, and how the war is precisely the function of a culture holding fast, against a whole accumulation of geopolitical evidence to the contrary, to a sentimental, even banal complacency in some idiot sense of its own goodness and right.

The size of the risk is repaid again and again by the enduring quality of the accomplishment. Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones bring the war home in all the immediacy of spectacle and even affront that modern drama in its greatest strength can produce. In these plays, like a sore or a boil or an encysted anger that can no longer be kept in. Vietnam spills its hot burden across the whole reach of our collective existence as a people.

Pavlo Hummel is a mad, inexhaustible pastiche of the American experience of Vietnam in the fullness of its commingled banality and terrifying waste. It is a collection of master images. The play opens with Pavlo in a Saigon bar. stinking, foul-mouthed, high-school drunk. ... Then, like all drunks feeling sorry for themselves in a strange place, he begins to tell the usual sad story, sloppy, stumbling persiflage about lost love and other conlidings.... Appropriately, just as he has begun to spill his guts in a figurative sense, a grenade is thrown into the bar, Pavlo gets his real chance. In an enactment of the worst fear of every GI in the war. he wakes up dead. . . . (pp. 112-14)

A foot on the landscape of death, and accompanied by Ardell, the black comrade who serves as his slangy, irreverent Gl Virgil, he now voyages in retrospect through the last stage of the American life that has eventually brought him to his moment of second-rate apotheosis. With him, we get to see the basic training as the basic training of Pavlo Hummel, the means whereby he learns, as the author notes.

"only that he is lost, not how, why, or even where.'' If he has time to work up a talent, it is only the one he already has "for leaping into the fire."...

Source: Phillip D. Betdler, "In the Middle Range, 1970-75" in his American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, University of Georgia Press, 1982, pp. 85-136.

An Authentic Piece of Theatre

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287

At the Public's Newman Theatre, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel has been given a superb production by director Jeff Bleckner and a disciplined cast headed by William Atherton in the title role. The play is little more than a story told in flashbacks, in which we see Pavlo's basic training and his career in Vietnam. Although it tells us very little about Vietnam, it paints an impressively accurate picture of the military life and its pathetic waste of men and boys. The basic-training phase of the action features a jazzy first sergeant, nicely played by Joe Fields, who catches the ironic humor of an experienced soldier having fun dehumanizing recruits into reasonably efficient dogs with the conditioned reflexes that give them a chance for survival in a shooting war.

A second irony in the play is that Pavlo does survive the shooting, but eventually loses his life in a brothel. Here Pavlo encounters another soldier with the girl he wants, and instead of waiting his turn viciously attacks and humiliates his rival. The soldier responds by throwing a grenade into the brothel. There is a flaw in all this, because we are not able to connect Pavlo's sudden sadistic behavior with his Army experience And although the play includes a chorus character, the significance of the action, beyond a vague suggestion that war is a tragedy of meaningless accidents, fails to emerge. On the other hand, it might have required a wrenching of the material to make this important point clearer. And to wrench the material could have poisoned the honesty of this impressively authentic new play.
"
Source: Henry Hewes, review of The Basic Training of Pavel Hummel in Saturday Review, Volume LIV no. 28, July 10,1971, p. 36.

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