The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel opens in a Vietnamese bar. American pop music blares from the radio while Pavlo Hummel, a young soldier dressed in army fatigues and wearing sunglasses, boasts of his fighting ability and of his girlfriend Joanna back home. Yen, a prostitute, and her Mamasan watch as a grenade is tossed into the bar, and Pavlo picks it up just before it explodes onstage.

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In the aftermath of the explosion, a black soldier named Ardell abruptly appears upstage and calls Hummel to attention, questioning him in military style about his identity and his feelings. The apparent reality of the Vietnamese bar is replaced by expressionist scenes from the Georgia boot camp where Hummel had received eight weeks of basic training. A group of trainees join Hummel and Ardell onstage; the set now exhibits a drill instructor’s tower manned by a black man, Sergeant Tower. Although he remembers catching the grenade and asks if he is dead, Hummel still runs to join the other trainees when he hears the sergeant call, plunging into his own past as the part of him that is Ardell (“You black on the inside”) observes and comments.

The language of boot camp, bellowed by Sergeant Tower and repeated by the trainees of Echo Company, ironically reflects the sexism and racism that have become basic to training military personnel in the United States. Hummel, however, is never quite in step. While the training scenes reveal the common Pavlovian programming suggested by his first name, the innocent peculiarity of Hummel (whose surname means “bumblebee”) is revealed in interspersed barracks scenes. The first of these finds him with fellow trainees Kress and Parker, who label Hummel as stupid and weird; they are not impressed with his attempts to appear streetwise by inventing stories of a criminal uncle and a past of car theft. While Hummel’s squad leader, Pierce, often intervenes in these scenes to restore order, he too informs Hummel, “you ain’t Regular Army.”

Hummel’s lies open him to accusations of theft in the next barracks scene; further harassment, especially by Kress, reveals that Hummel is also sexually innocent. When he is assigned to clean the dayroom, Hummel listens to war tales from a corporal with actual experience in Vietnam. He admires the reported ability of a Sarge Tinden to know intuitively when an apparently innocent old man and child are loaded with dynamite and must be shot on sight. This attitude is reinforced as the company shouts that the spirit of the bayonet is “TO KILL!”

The next barracks scene reveals that Kress has failed the proficiency test and will have to repeat basic training, and Hummel does not miss the opportunity to get even with his tormentor through a mocking speech. Their resulting fight is ended by Pierce, and Hummel then attempts suicide in his bunk by sniffing airplane glue and swallowing a bottle of aspirin. The scene freezes as Pierce once again comes to his aid, and act 1 ends as Ardell orchestrates a ritualistic costuming of Hummel in a clean uniform. Hummel is passively transformed, while Ardell’s monologue reveals the similarities between successful military training and other social programming (“doffin’ his red cap, sayin’, ’Yes, Massa’”) and confirms the loss of individuality in such uniformity (“That ain’t no Pavlo Hummel. Noooo, man. That somebody else”).

Act 2 opens with the same military background, complete with the tower and soldiers in formation, while Mickey, Hummel’s brother, appears downstage to represent the New York setting for Hummel’s trip home before Vietnam duty. Mickey echoes Kress and Parker as he accuses his brother of “doin’ that weird stuff again” and rejects the same lies, which Hummel has revised to fit his army experience. Their brief...

(The entire section contains 4895 words.)

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