The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, while coming out of David Rabe’s experiences in the Vietnam War, is not only a war play; it is also about growing up male in contemporary America. Pavlo Hummel offers the admiration of the outsider for those soldiers who can be considered “regular army,” the infantry, and for their civilian counterparts as well. As Rabe explains in an author’s note, “He has romanticized the street-kid tough guy and hopes to find himself in that image.” With matinee-idol soldier images in place of a father, he seeks and finds in the army a similar pattern to fulfill.
The play is set in the United States Army of the Vietnam War period. Basic training provides the language which defines reality for Hummel, and the world he encounters must be perceived to fit that language. He must also behave in accordance with the male image it defines. Therefore, he is ashamed of the intelligence and compassion which cause him to be assigned as a medic rather than as an infantry soldier; he suppresses the part of himself that would criticize the sexism, the racism, and the dehumanization of the image offered by the army.
The Vietnam War experience, however, resists being defined by language. When Hummel confronts human suffering and death on such a scale, when he himself suffers three physical wounds, the voice he has suppressed begins to be heard. As he fulfills the image his mother gave him of the film hero little Jimmy (“what a tough little mite he was, and how he leaped upon that grenade, did you see”), his awareness of his own impending death releases Ardell from within him to lead Hummel through his own past training. Repeatedly, Ardell pushes Hummel to see himself as separate from the image he has been trained to fulfill. “In there where you live, you that awful hurtin’ black so you can’t see yourself no way,” Ardell tells him after he reveals his father’s desertion. Furthermore, Ardell points out, the training given is not even appropriate for a modern world. As Pavlo is trained to put on his gas mask, for example, Ardell reminds him that in this war he will probably be hit with radiation, not gas, and that the mask will not protect him.
As long as he is alive Hummel clings to his faith in the male image he has been given, but with his death he tries to rid himself of his training. “You gotta get that stuff outa you, man,” Ardell encourages him. “But . . . I . . . I’m dead!” Hummel realizes, and his coffin is carried away to a military march, revealing the pessimistic conclusion of Rabe’s vision. Once again, Pavlovian training has suppressed the individuality and the innocence implied by Hummel’s last name. Only a lonely outsider such as Pavlo Hummel could reveal so completely the masculine image embodied in contemporary American realities; as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne’er succeed.”
Change and Transformation "I'm different than I was'" Pavlo brags to his half-brother, Mickey, during a visit home following his basic training. "I'm not the same anymore. I was an asshole. I'm not an asshole anymore." This somewhat desperate statement, however, proves to be much more an expression of desire than a statement of fact, as Pavlo demonstrates by lying to Mickey about being respected and liked among his fellow army trainees Pavlo does not succeed in developing meaningful human relationships, nor does he seem capable of learning from his mistakes. He is generally incapable of change,...
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expressing self-awareness only symbolically in his conversations with Ardell after the grenade explodes.
Death True to the theme of a protracted and bloody military conflict, death pervades every aspect of Rabe's play. Mrs. Hummel is obsessed with a story about a coworker learning of her son's death m Vietnam. Her comment “I know what to expect'' is a foreshadowing of Pavlo's own death, but Pavlo is not engaged enough to respond to this warning nor to his mother's accusation "I know what you're trying to do." Indeed, Pavlo by this time has already attempted suicide, but in an almost offhanded way, only expressing abstractly to Ardell a desire to "be bone." Later, Pavlo may receive his first real intimations of mortality from attending to Sergeant Brisbey in the field hospital. Although Pavlo's enthusiasm for combat fades a bit each time he is wounded, he continues to act carelessly and is unprepared for the possibility of his own death. The struggle to comprehend violence and death remains a theme throughout Rabe's trilogy of Vietnam plays.
Duty and Responsibility The theme of duty pervades Pavlo Hummel. Pavlo wants to serve well, to do his military duty, but in this pursuit he cannot stop himself from breaking the army's rules. It makes more sense to him, for example, to practice handling his rifle on his own, rather than respond to the whistle for company formation. Sgt. Tower is incredulous, saying Pavlo must be " awful stupid, because all the good soldiers is out there in that formation like they supposed to when they hear that whistle."
Pavlo does not understand that the primary duty of the soldier is to obey, that without this collective discipline, the men cannot depend on one another in combat. While Rabe has stressed repeatedly that Pavlo Hummel is not an anti-war play in the strictest sense, the conclusion of the play does challenge directly (at least in the context of Vietnam) the idea of war as a soldier's patriotic duty to his country As Pavlo is sealed in his coffin, Ardell prompts him to admit that in the end, the cause for and the circumstances under which he died are "all shit."
Human Condition The play's perspective on the human condition is a fairly bleak one. The absurdity of human existence is highlighted strongly, especially by Sgt. Brisby who, for example, tells Pavlo about a soldier whose hand was blown off, "and he kept crawlin' round lookin' for his fingers. Couldn't go home without 'em, he said, he'd catch hell." Sgt. Brisbey's anecdote about the explorer Magellan symbolizes a central theme of the play: Magellan, according to Brisbey, wanted to know the depth of the ocean on which he was sailing, so he dropped a rope of two hundred feet over the side of his ship. "He thinks because all the rope he's got can't touch bottom, he's over the deepest part of the ocean. He doesn't know the real question. How far beyond all the rope you got is the bottom?" This concept—the existential question of just how low a human being can sink, is also reflected in Pavlo's story about swimming in the Hudson River as a child, when he became disoriented and was fighting his way toward the bottom, thinking he was swimming upward In both of these images is also reflected the confusion of existence—not only do human beings suffer, but, much of the time, they also lack a basic understanding of their situation.
Revenge The climax of the action in Pavlo Hummel is an act of revenge Sgt Wall throws the grenade which kills Pavlo, in revenge for having been beaten and humiliated by him in the Vietnamese brothel. An analogous scenario marks the end of the first act, when Kress attacks Pavlo because he thinks the latter is taunting him. As Pavlo continues to yell obscenities at Kress, Pierce intervenes "You gotta learn to think, Hummel.... You beat him; you had ole Kress beat and then you fixed it so you hadda lose. You went after him so he hadda be able to put you down '' Thus, while there is no rational excuse for Sgt. Wall's brutal act of vengeance at the brothel, Pavlo is established as a character who often goes too far, pushing others into doing him harm. It is part of the complex psychology of his character, and of Rabe's play in general, that the audience is not allowed to perceive Pavlo as an unwitting victim of violence.
Rites of Passage As a teenager estranged from his family and seeking companionship and meaning in his life, Pavlo has a desperate desire to belong; this need cements his ties to the U.S Army. Pavlo wants to become a model soldier, but he is inept at his training. He sees himself as an effective fighting machine, but he remains a misfit who steals from his fellow soldiers and attempts suicide to get attention. The army training as ante of passage is a journey to nowhere: the army has not fostered Pavlo's individuality nor his manhood—nor does it act as a surrogate family. The play suggests that those who look to an external institution to provide a rite of passage will ultimately be betrayed.