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:

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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...

(The entire section contains 2673 words.)

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