The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel Analysis

David Rabe

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel uses expressionist techniques to re-create the inner turmoil of Pavlo Hummel on the stage, while maintaining an almost naturalistic treatment of the Vietnam War through dialogue and character portrayal. One expressionist device is apparent in the symbolic names, such as Sergeant Tower, Sergeant Wall, the prostitute Yen, and Hummel himself. Thematically, naturalism is reflected in the physical motivations of sex and survival governing most of the characters; the settings, however suggestively staged, are also naturalistic. For example, at one point minimalist staging allows the reality of the Vietnamese bar to be suggested on one side of the stage and the field hospital on the other, while upstage center is dominated by the sergeant’s tower and soldier formations, which establish the ongoing influence of basic training on Hummel. Each scene is established by the characters associated with the place and by dialogue appropriate to their setting. Consequently, while the play actually takes place in Hummel’s mind—his life flashing past him as he dies—the audience is also graphically experiencing the realities of the war.

Contrasting with the realistic dialogue of these war experiences is the repetitive shouting by Sergeant Tower and others by which the basic tenets of the “regular army” image are expressed. Actual marching and training chants reveal the blatant racism and sexism with which Hummel learns...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Decades of civil conflict in Vietnam paved the way for the entanglement of the United States in the war in Indochina. Soon after the end of...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Realism and Expressionism
While Pavlo Hummel struck audience members as a realistic portrayal of an American soldier's...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1971: Reintegradon into American society proves a difficult process for many Vietnam veterans. Denied the kind of celebration which...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

What is a conscientious objector? Research the experience of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war; you might examine Gerald R....

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

There are no media adaptations of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel available. Rabe' s two other well-known Vietnam plays, however,...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Herr, Michael. Dispatches (1977). A highly personal, dramatic narrative, written by a journalist who was sent to Vietnam with the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Chve. Review of Pavlo Hummel in the New York Times, May 21,1971, p 25. ,


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Asahina, Robert. “The Basic Training of American Playwrights: Theater and the Vietnam War.” Theater 9 (Spring, 1978): 30-37.

Biedler, Philip D. “In the Middle Range, 1970-1975.” In American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Herman, William. “When the Battle’s Lost and Won: David Rabe.” In Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Hertzbach, Janet S. “The Plays of David Rabe: A World of Streamers.” In...

(The entire section is 159 words.)