The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 3. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel


David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was the first American play of stature to deal with the experience of the Vietnam War. At least one historian of the Vietnam era, Philip Beidler writing in American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, found that Rabe made “the most important contributions to the dramatic literature of Vietnam during the period 1970-75.” After being rejected by numerous regional and experimental theaters, the play was first produced professionally in 1971 at the Public Theatre by Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, one of the country’s most prestigious production organizations. Rabe’s professional debut was a success: Pavlo Hummel enjoyed a run of 363 performances and received predominantly enthusiastic critical response. Clive Barnes of the New York Times acclaimed Rabe as a “new and authentic voice of our theatre.” For this play, Rabe received the Village Voice’s Obie Award for distinguished playwriting, and a Drama Desk Award for most promising playwright.

From trying to keep a journal during his military service in Vietnam, Rabe found that his experience there defied description, exceeding the capabilities of “language as mere symbol,” as he wrote in his introduction to Two Plays: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones. Unwilling to bring his “full sensibility to bear upon all elements” of the experience, Rabe “skimmed over things and hoped they would skim over me.” In Rabe’s depiction, the Vietnam experience is a “sur-real Page 23  |  Top of Articlecarnival of death,” reflected in Pavlo’s extremely confused state of mind, and in the mood of expressionism throughout the play. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is not strictly an anti-war play; its author believes that war is inevitably a part of what he calls the “eternal human pageant.” Instead, Rabe examines the process of basic training as an American rite of passage, using his metaphor to illustrate the coercive power of the institution. Rabe himself called military basic training a metaphor for the “essential” training by which society reshapes all individuals.


David Rabe was born March 10, 1940, in Dubuque, Iowa, the son of a high school teacher who later became a meatpacker, and a department store worker. He was educated at Catholic institutions for whom he also played football. He earned his B.A. from Loras College in 1962. Rabe went to Villanova University in Philadelphia for a master’s degree in theatre but was drafted before he completed the program of study. From 1965 to 1967 he served in the U.S. Army, with eleven months of duty in Vietnam. Rabe—like his character Pavlo Hummel—was assigned to hospital duty, and though he did not engage in combat, he witnessed fighting at close range. His experience in Vietnam—particularly his shock at the youth and inexperience of the soldiers dying there—provided the substance for his early theatrical successes.

As he recalls in the introduction to Two Plays: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, Rabe says that when he returned from Vietnam it was six months before he thought seriously of writing; he began only when he realized “there was nothing else to do with the things I was thinking.” Rabe returned to Villanova to complete his master’s degree, afterwards holding a variety of jobs, including feature writer for the New Haven Register and assistant professor at Villanova. In 1969 he married Elizabeth Pan, a laboratory technician. The couple had a son, Jason, but the marriage ended in separation. (Rabe later married actress Jill Clayburgh in March, 1979.)

Rabe made an impressive theatrical debut in 1971, with the professional productions of his plays The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones. The plays were received enthusiastically as challenging explorations of America’s involvement in Vietnam written by a soldier who had served there. The success of these two plays assured Rabe’s place in the contemporary American theatre, a reputation later cemented by Streamers (1976), widely considered to be his most accomplished play. The three plays are taken collectively as Rabe’s “Vietnam trilogy,” although they were not conceived or executed as a cohesive cycle.

Rabe’s Vietnam plays are full of dark humor and stark images, expressing with lyrical and symbolic language the rage of alienated characters. The most well-known of Rabe’s other dramatic works are In the Boom Boom Room (1973), about the humiliation and exploitation of a female go-go dancer, and Hurlyburly (1984), a bitter comedy about the Hollywood entertainment industry. Rabe’s other works include the plays The Orphan (first produced 1974), The Crossing (a one-act, produced at Villanova around 1963 and professionally in 1976), and Goose and Tomtom (written 1978, produced 1982).

In addition to adapting several of his own works to film (including Streamers), Rabe has written screenplays for the films I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, Casualties of War, and others. The many honors Rabe has received during his playwriting career include an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Drama Guild Award—all for Pavlo Hummel. He has also won an Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Award for Best Play (for Sticks and Bones), a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play (for Streamers), as well as a Rockefeller grant and a Guggenheim fellowship.


Act I

The play opens with the title character, Pavlo, in a Vietnamese brothel with the prostitute Yen. Pavlo brags about his various escapades as a soldier, but underneath his bravado he appears insecure and edgy. A grenade is tossed through the window; Pavlo picks it up and attempts to throw it back out, but it explodes, mortally wounding him. Ardell enters, a black soldier in a “strangely unreal” uniform who serves as Pavlo’s alter ego throughout the play (only Pavlo can see or hear Ardell). Ardell’s

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David Rabe David Rabe

entrance triggers for the dying Pavlo a flashback of his army life; this jumbled series of recollections constitute the fragmented action of the play.

The action goes back in time to Pavlo’s arrival at boot camp. There he encounters Sergeant Tower, the imposing drill sergeant (“I’m bigger than my name”), who immediately isolates Pavlo for “looking about at the air like some kinda fool” and makes him do push-ups; this initiates a pattern which is repeated throughout the play.

Though Pavlo desperately wants to identify as part of a group, his quirky individualism gets him in trouble not only with Tower but with the other recruits as well. Two of these men, Kress and Parker, are working in a furnace room and are particularly dissatisfied with their situation. Their comments reveal that Pavlo has quickly developed a bad reputation; Kress in particular curses the army for “stickin’ me in with weird people” and wishes that Hummel would die. When Kress and Parker leave, Pavlo tries to please the squad leader, Pierce, by reciting the General Orders, to “see if I’m sharp enough to be one a your boys.” When the whistle for company formation is blown, however, Pavlo ignores it, and is again reprimanded by Tower. Pavlo is then confronted by a group of trainees who accuse him of stealing a soldier’s wallet and consequently give him a “blanket party” (that is, they cover him in a blanket and collectively beat him).

The end of basic training arrives, and when the scores of the final proficiency tests are announced, Kress and one other soldier have been held back. They will be “recycled” (sent back for eight more weeks of training), while the rest of the men are sent home until they receive their assignments. Pavlo tells Kress “I feel sorry for you” and asks him several questions. Kress feels he is being taunted, so he attacks Pavlo and can only be subdued with great difficulty.

Pavlo, having blurted out previously that he plans to kill himself, swallows an entire bottle of aspirin; his life is on the line as the other men attempt to revive him. The act closes with a monologue of Ardell’s in which he tells Pavlo, “Ain’t doin’ you no good you wish you dead, ‘cause you ain’t, man.” Ardell transforms Pavlo by putting the latter in his dress uniform and sunglasses, preparing him for his trip home.

Act II

The act opens on an address by the Captain to the platoon regarding the commencement of bombing campaigns against North Vietnam. The troops scatter at the end of this speech, and the scene Page 25  |  Top of Articlechanges immediately to Pavlo’s arrival at the home of his half-brother, Mickey. The relationship between Pavlo and Mickey is somewhat strained. Pavlo appears anxious to prove himself as Mickey provokes him by refusing to believe Pavlo is in the army and stating that “Vietnam don’t even exist.” Pavlo lies about his relationships with the other men in his platoon, claiming “I got people who respect me.”

Pavlo’s frustrations at home continue as he unsuccessfully attempts to track down an old girlfriend, Joanna, whom he suggests might have killed herself out of despair (in reality, she is now married). Pavlo is then thwarted in his attempts to get his mother to reveal to him the identity of his father. Instead, Mrs. Hummel is fixated on a story about a coworker learning of her son’s death in Vietnam; “I know what to expect,” she says to Pavlo, a foreshadowing of Pavlo’s own demise.

Interspersed with these scenes of home life are glimpses of Pavlo with his platoon. The scene then shifts fully to Vietnam, where Pavlo, despite his protests, has been posted as a medic at a mobile hospital. The setting of the field hospital—where Pavlo cares for the crippled Sgt. Brisbey—is juxtaposed against the setting of Mamasan’s brothel, where Pavlo meets Jones and has his first sexual experience with the prostitute Yen. The scene of Pavlo and Yen’s lovemaking is interspersed with another of Sergeant Tower’s lectures to the platoon, this one about the care of their M-16 rifle: “You got to have feelin’ for it, like it a good woman to you. . . .” Pavlo marches away from his bed as the rest of the troops move out, and the scene changes back to the hospital. Brisbey is obviously depressed about his condition. (“Some guys, they get hit, they have a stump,” he says. “I am a stump.”) Brisbey hints at a desire to commit suicide, asking for Pavlo’s rifle to “save you from the sin of cruelty,” but Pavlo refuses, attempting to dissuade Brisbey from his suicidal thoughts.

The setting of the field hospital is juxtaposed against a scene of Parham, a young Black PFC, attempting to cross a dangerous field under orders. Parham is wounded and cries for a medic; instead he is discovered by two Viet Cong who torture him for information, then kill him. Pavlo arrives with Ryan, and in attempting to remove Parham’s body from the field, Pavlo is wounded. Ryan returns to retrieve Pavlo, as a body detail removes Parham; these actions are juxtaposed against a series of addresses by Sergeant Tower to his troops. A series of short scenes follow dramatizing Pavlo being wounded two more times. Pavlo begins agitating to be sent home; instead, he is given the Purple Heart and sent back to duty.

At Mamasan’s brothel, Pavlo is quarreling with Sergeant Wall over the attentions of Yen, “the whore I usually hit on.” Pavlo assaults Wall, who leaves and returns moments later, throwing in the grenade which kills Pavlo. Ardell and Pavlo have their final interaction as Pavlo is sealed in his coffin. Pavlo admits that in the end, the cause for and the circumstances under which he died are “all shit.” This serves as the play’s final pronouncement on not only war, but the human condition more broadly, as Ardell slams Pavlo’s coffin shut and exits the stage.



An African American soldier in a “strangely unreal” uniform who functions as Pavlo’s alter-ego throughout the play. Only Pavlo can see or hear Ardell, and Rabe uses the device of this character to depict Pavlo’s extremely confused state of mind. Ardell moves in and out of the fragmented action, creating a mood of expressionism throughout the play. Ardell allows the audience a glimpse into Pavlo’s interior character at crucial moments in the play; he also provides a point of transition between scenes. At the close of the first act, Ardell tells Pavlo, “Ain’t doin’ you no good you wish you dead, ‘cause you ain’t, man.” Ardell transforms Pavlo by putting the latter in his dress uniform and sunglasses, preparing him for his trip home. Similarly, the play ends with Ardell and Pavlo having their final interaction. 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.” Ardell slams Pavlo’s coffin shut to conclude the play.

Sergeant Brisbey

A soldier at the field hospital in Vietnam who has been crippled by a land mine. He is extremely depressed about his condition and hints strongly that he wants to kill himself, asking Pavlo for a gun.


A trainee who plays craps with Pierce. He claims to have seen Pavlo steal from one of the other

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  • There are no media adaptations of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel available. Rabe’s two other well-known Vietnam plays, however, have been adapted. Sticks and Bones was produced for CBS in 1972, although the network withdrew support for the play and left the choice of whether to air it or not to their affiliates. Streamers was made into a film in 1983, directed by Robert Altman.

men. He and Kress are the two trainees who fail basic training.

The Corporal

Second in command of Pavlo’s platoon, he leads the trainees in drills occasionally. Pavlo is envious of him because he has already seen combat in Vietnam.


A soldier who serves in the field hospital with Pavlo.


A combat-seasoned soldier and therefore a person with some authority over the trainees. He is close to the Corporal and keeps lookout while the Corporal hustles Pavlo at pool.


A trainee; he speaks with a deep Southern drawl. It is his wallet that Pavlo is accused by the other men of stealing.

Mrs. Hummel

Pavlo and Mickey’s mother; she suffers from mental illness. Mrs. Hummel’s story about a coworker learning of her son’s death in Vietnam is a foreshadowing of Pavlo’s own death; “I know what to expect,” she says to Pavlo. Pavlo tries, unsuccessfully, to get his mother to reveal to him the identity of his father; Mrs. Hummel cannot understand why Pavlo doesn’t remember her whispering his father’s name to him when he was a child of three.

Michael Hummel

See Pavlo Hummel

Mickey Hummel

Pavlo’s half-brother, considered weird, even by Pavlo’s standards; Pavlo says of him that he “don’t give a rat’s ass for nothin’ or nobody.” The relationship between Pavlo and Mickey is somewhat strained; Mickey provokes Pavlo by refusing to believe he is in the army, and stating, “Vietnam don’t even exist.”

Pavlo Hummel

A teenager estranged from his family who seeks companionship and meaning in his life. Pavlo’s desperate desire to belong cements his ties to the U.S. Army; he remains, however, a misfit who steals from his fellow soldiers and attempts suicide to get attention. Pavlo’s confused state of mind is reflected in the play’s expressionistic structure and in the characterization of Ardell, whom only Pavlo sees or hears. Pavlo wants to become a model soldier, but he is inept at his training. He sees himself as an effective fighting machine, but as Rabe points out in a note to the play, the only talent Pavlo reveals is “a talent for jumping into the fire.” Seasoned by his experience in Vietnam, Pavlo becomes the kind of soldier who can brag, “I’m diggin’ it man. Blowin’ people away. Cuttin’ em down.” This comment exemplifies a kind of character degeneration, a substitution for Pavlo’s lack of meaningful human contact.


An American soldier Pavlo meets in Mamasan’s brothel in Vietnam. More experienced not only at war but at sex, he facilitates Pavlo’s first sexual encounters with the prostitute Yen. He provides Pavlo with an extremely frank introduction to Vietnam: “You gonna be here and you gonna sweat. And you gonna be here and you gonna get V.D.!”


A trainee, large and muscular, “with a constant manner of small confusion as if he feels always that something is going on that he nearly, but not quite, understands.” He is from New Jersey and is unpleasantly surprised to be so cold all the time at the Page 27  |  Top of ArticleGeorgia base. Kress is one of two trainees who fails basic training the first time, for which he holds a grudge against Pavlo. When Pavlo tells him “I feel sorry for you, Kress,” he thinks Pavlo is taunting him, and he responds with a physical attack.


An older Vietnamese woman and keeper of the brothel where Pavlo meets his fate.

Captain Miller

Pavlo’s commanding officer at the field hospital, who first attempts to talk Pavlo out of his request for a transfer, then grants the request. Pavlo shows him a lack of respect because he is an R.O.T.C. officer rather than “regular army.” (There is also a Captain who addresses Pavlo’s platoon at the end of basic training; the same actor plays all the officers.)

Jay Charles Johnson Parham

A young African American Private First Class who is wounded and cries for a medic; instead he is discovered by two Viet Cong who torture him for information, then kill him.


A trainee, small, wears glasses. At first, he is somewhat more sympathetic to Pavlo than the other trainees; he tells Kress not to “knock that ole boy” because “Hummel’s gonna keep us laughin’.” Like the other men, however, Parker does not believe Pavlo when he denies having stolen from them.


A trainee who acts as a squad leader. He is older than the other men in the squad and has a bit more life experience. While many of the trainees resent Pierce, Pavlo tries hard to please him. Pierce, meanwhile, likes Pavlo enough to try to keep him out of trouble with the other men.


Pavlo’s partner on patrol in the Vietnamese jungle.

Mrs. Sorrentino

The mother of Pavlo’s former girlfriend, Joanna; she appears only as a voice when Pavlo speaks to her on the phone. She hangs up on Pavlo because he is acting strangely and grows violent when he learns Joanna is unavailable.

Sergeant Tower

Pavlo’s African American drill sergeant in boot camp, a tough officer who states ‘I am bigger than my name.” Tower’s name and military authority are also reflected in the drill sergeant’s tower which dominates the play’s set, giving him a literally central position in the play. Pavlo is fascinated by Tower, a near archetypal figure of masculine power who personifies the perfect solider in Pavlo’s mind. Although Pavlo passes his basic training, however, he can never really live up to Tower’s own standards and is constantly being reprimanded by the Sergeant.

Sergeant Henry Wall

A friend and visitor of Brisbey’s at the Vietnamese hospital, “middle-aged, gray-haired, chunky.” His name somewhat describes his personality, as he is unmoved by Brisbey’s shows of emotion. Later, Wall is drunk and behaving lewdly in the brothel; he and Pavlo fight. Humiliated, Wall leaves the brothel and returns moments later, throwing the grenade that kills Pavlo.


(Pronounced “Ing.”) A Vietnamese girl who is a prostitute in Mamasan’s brothel. Pavlo fights with Sergeant Wall over her and is killed as a result.


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

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  • What is a conscientious objector? Research the experience of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war; you might examine Gerald R. Gioglio’s Days of Decision: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War (Broken Rifle Press, 1988). Why does Sgt. Brisbey ask Pavlo in the hospital, “you’re not a conscientious objector, are you? So you got a rifle.” How does the perspective of a conscientious objector compare to Pavlo’s feelings about the war, or, based on what you might know from other sources, to those of Rabe?
  • Many playgoers are surprised by the fact that Pavlo is not killed at the front but in a whorehouse after an argument that is ultimately meaningless. Research American casualties in the war; was it common for soldiers to be killed away from combat? What do the circumstances of Pavlo’s death contribute to Rabe’s depiction of the full experience of Vietnam?
  • Tragedy, in its classical form, usually involves some act of self-recognition on the part of the primary character near the play’s conclusion. What, if anything, does Pavlo seem to learn as a character throughout the course of the play? Compare his awareness while living to the symbolic dialogue he has with Ardell after his death.
  • Research perceptions of the Vietnam war at home in the United States and how they developed as the war progressed. Consider Mickey’s response to Pavlo’s stories about basic training. What is the significance of Mickey’s taunt, “Vietnam don’t even exist”?

developing meaningful human relationships, nor does he seem capable of learning from his mistakes. He is generally incapable of change, expressing self-awareness only symbolically in his conversations with Ardell after the grenade explodes.


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 in 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) Page 29  |  Top of Articlethe 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. Brisbey 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.


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 a rite 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.


Realism and Expressionism

While Pavlo Hummel struck audience members as a realistic portrayal of an American soldier’s experience in Vietnam, this fact should not obscure the manner in which Rabe’s play breaks from the form of theatrical realism. The interior dialogue between Ardell and Pavlo (continuing even after Pavlo’s death) gives the play its psychological complexity, in a manner associated with expressionism (conversely, the psychology of characters in realism is revealed externally, through their actions). Rabe writes in his introduction to the play that it was primarily the influence of producer Joe Papp which caused him to refashion his essentially linear, realistic play during the course of rehearsal, giving it the expressionistic structure it was eventually to have (Rabe’s career later moved more strongly toward realism).

Rabe has described in interviews his careful bridging of two styles, acknowledging that in Pavlo Hummel he “set up a framework in the play that wasn’t realistic” but yet tried “to keep Pavlo as close to the facts. . . the graphicness of the events, as I could,” (as he described his process in Vietnam,

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Pavlo (Al Pacino) plays billiards with his fellow soldiers in a scene from a 1977 Broadway production Pavlo (Al Pacino) plays billiards with his fellow soldiers in a scene from a 1977 Broadway production

We’ve All Been There). Much of the realistic quality Pavlo Hummel does have is a reflection of Rabe’s application of his own military experience onto the events and language of the play. Rabe’s dramatic influences reflect his integration of varying theatrical styles: he calls Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman, known for realistic plays on social issues) his favorite American playwright, but also acknowledges the influence of the Absurdist playwrights Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Prima Donna), Jean Genet (The Balcony), and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot).

Plot Construction

Ultimately, Rabe’s play achieves thematic unity not through telling a linear story from beginning to end but through the complex relationships which develop between scenes. Rather than simply building to Pavlo’s death as a conclusion, the play stages the death twice, once at the very beginning and then repeated near the end. The audience thus knows Pavlo’s death is inevitable and will watch the play differently than they would if its plot depended more upon an element of suspense.

Writing of the relationship between scenes in the play, Critical Quarterly’s Richard Homan called Rabe’s technique “collage,” through which, for example, the playwright “suggests the incompatibility of Pavlo’s military way of life with his civilian life through the juxtaposition of scenes and speeches from both lives in simultaneous settings.” Beidler, writing in American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, similarly identified a quality of Rabe’s dramatic style that he called “pastiche,” and he believed more strongly than Homan in its effectiveness; Beidler found the play “inexhaustible,” “a collection of master images.”


Because the action of Pavlo Hummel does not unfold in a fully realistic or linear form, Rabe’s characters are often seen as something other than real people. Homan commented that while effective, Rabe’s collage “allows only for personifications; character development and sustained dramatic conflict are impossible.” Pavlo does have genuine complexity as a character, however, and many of Rabe’s other portrayals—especially of the trainees and military characters like Sgt. Tower—are considered vivid and engaging. Edith Oliver was among the critics who found Rabe’s characterizations to be Page 31  |  Top of Articlea strength of his work, writing in the New Yorker: “For all its factual background, the play is not a documentary but a work of the imagination, and its drama, scene by scene, lies in what it reveals about the characters, whatever their circumstances.”

Theatrical Space

Rabe’s play makes use of multiple spaces on the stage with fluid changes between them and the interweaving and occasional overlapping of scenes. The sparse, abstract set design allows for rapid changes between scenes by merely suggesting different locales on different parts of the stage. The setting both facilitates the movement of scenes in Rabe’s distinct dramatic structure and is itself an element of the play’s expressionism. Dominating the sparse set, for example, is the drill sergeant’s tower, which remains a pervasive image throughout the play (visible even during scenes set elsewhere than the boot camp).


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 World War II, the guerrilla forces which had resisted Japan in the north turned their energies against the colonial power of France, the current occupying force in Vietnam. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established in Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh as president. In July, 1954, after years of escalating military conflict, the French and Ho’s communist forces signed an agreement calling for an armistice and the temporary division of the country with French authority consolidated around Saigon in the southern half of the country. In 1963, southern military leaders, with the support of the U.S., overthrew the government of Ngo Dinh Diem.

The new military government that took Diem’s place was weak, however, and by late 1964, South Vietnam was in virtual chaos. The administration of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing a total collapse of the Saigon regime, began to deploy American combat forces in the South in the hopes that a display of U.S. might would dissuade the communists from attempting to conquer South Vietnam. Hanoi, however (with support from the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist countries), stepped up their military campaign against the government of South Vietnam. In early 1968 Hanoi launched the Tet Offensive, a major series of attacks throughout the South. Though communist casualties were high, the offensive was a tactical success in that it made clear the might and commitment of the guerilla army. The Tet Offensive also succeeded in increasing antiwar sentiment in the United States and persuading President Johnson to halt further escalation of U.S. troop levels in South Vietnam.

By 1971, the gradual U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam accelerated with President Richard Nixon’s announcement that the offensive combat role of American troops was at an end. The number of American soldiers in Vietnam had peaked at 543,000 in April, 1969; by January, 1972, the number was down to 139,000, and dropping steadily. American troops were also increasingly less involved in direct combat; while American war deaths had peaked at 14,592 for the year 1968, this number dropped to 1,380 for 1971. The withdrawal was part of the U.S. government’s strategy of “Vietnamization”—that is, to return the military initiative to the South Vietnam Army. U.S. involvement in the war continued to be significant, however, particularly in the continuing bombing campaigns against the North and in the use of modern high-tech weapons (five of every six helicopter missions flown during 1971, for example, were piloted by Americans).

In 1971, the South undertook an ambitious campaign in the neighboring country of Laos. For some time, the communist forces had used this region as a staging area for attacks against the South; the southern initiative was an attempt to destroy the North Vietnamese supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Southern forces achieved some early victories, but as the campaign pushed farther into Laos it stalled. U.S. involvement in the effort remained selective; a base at Khe Sanh, for instance, was reactivated in January, 1971, to support the attack on Laos but was evacuated on April 6 of that year, a symbol of continuing U.S. disentanglement from the Indochina war.

The complexities of Cold War diplomacy remained a factor throughout the war in Vietnam. With President Nixon indicating a change in American policy towards China (a “thawing” of U.S.

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  • 1971: Reintegration into American society proves a difficult process for many Vietnam veterans. Denied the kind of celebration which marked the end of World War II, many American soldiers return from Vietnam with a great deal of shame, finding they have been rejected by their society. Many people who do not support U.S. involvement in Vietnam blame the soldiers who fought there for the tragedy of the war.

    Today: While Vietnam veterans continue to struggle with such legacies of the war as unemployment, homelessness, and mental illness, Americans have more widely addressed the need to welcome vets back into the fold of society. A national monument erected in Washington, D.C., along with numerous parades and other events, have publicly acknowledged the sacrifice of American soldiers in Vietnam.
  • 1971: Vietnam is the first “televised war,” and the first in which the press operates practically free of external restraints. Television makes Vietnam more vivid to the American public—it is dubbed “the living room war”—with the result that it serves to fuel the growing opposition to the war.

    Today: War, along with seemingly every other aspect of human existence, is ever-more rigorously documented by television and the other media. The Cable News Network (CNN) sets new standards with their close coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf. Americans are thrilled by images of missile attacks and other high-tech military gadgetry; the media coverage fosters American public support for the war.
  • 1971: The Vietnam war remains for the most part unaddressed in American literature, drama, and film; the topic is widely considered, as Barbara Hurrell wrote, “box office poison.”

    Today: Works like Rabe’s Pavlo Hummel have created an opportunity for other writers and artists to address the war seriously and insightfully. A much wider body of art concerning the American experience in Vietnam has come into being in the last twenty-five years. Some of these works—like the films The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon—are widely considered American classics.
  • 1971: Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg releases the “Pentagon Papers” to the press, documenting the decisions which led the U.S. into the Vietnam quagmire. The publication of these secret papers fuels further protest against American involvement in Vietnam.

    Today: While support for the U.S. military has not necessarily decreased, a larger portion of the American people believe in their right to know more about the actions of their government.

relations with that communist government), the North Vietnamese began to fear the possibility of an Indochina deal being made behind their back. China, however, hastened to state publicly that there was no question of its seeking a deal with the United States.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, surpassed the United States as the global superpower, self-confidently increasing its military strength and political influence throughout the world (for example, signing new treaties with Egypt and India). America’s belief in its need or ability to fulfill a global military role had been declining since it first realized it was unlikely to win the Vietnam war. This, combined with continuing domestic problems, resulted in a snowballing loss of national willpower.

At home in the United States, meanwhile, 1971 was a year of both success and failure for the peace movement. Peace leaders stressed that despite the withdrawal of American troops, the geographic scope of the Vietnam struggle had enlarged. American casualties might be replaced by South Vietnamese Page 33  |  Top of Articleones, they argued, but this fact did not alter the inherent immorality of the war. Two hundred thousand demonstrators attended an anti-war rally at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., while 156,000 people gathered for a similar demonstration in San Francisco. Additional groups continued to join the anti-war coalition, but the movement remained divided over strategy, with a split between those who simply protested U.S. participation in Vietnam and mainline peace organizations with a more inclusively pacifist strategy.

American society was rocked in 1971 by the actions of Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department analyst and consultant who had gradually changed his mind about the war while witnessing the failure of the “pacification” program in the Vietnamese countryside. Ellsberg released to the press a collection of “Pentagon Papers” documenting the decisions which led the U.S. into the Vietnam quagmire. As a result, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for unauthorized possession of national documents and later for the more serious charges of theft of government property and conspiracy. Publication of the documents, and news coverage of Ellsberg’s case, fueled further protest against American involvement in Vietnam.


Reviews of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel upon its opening were largely enthusiastic, commenting on both the play’s artistry and Rabe’s promise as an up and coming playwright. Edith Oliver, reviewing the play for the New Yorker, called it “an astonishing accomplishment.” Clive Barnes of the New York Times acclaimed Rabe as a “new and authentic voice of our theatre.” Similarly, George Oppenheimer of Newsday highlighted Rabe’s “new and striking talent.” Henry Hewes, summing up the 1971 theatrical season for the Saturday Review, called Rabe “possibly the most promising playwright” of the year. “[I]mmensely gifted” is how Charles Michener described Rabe in a Newsweek article.

Pavlo Hummel has continued, since its initial production, to captivate many critics. In a 1982 article for the New York Times, Mel Gussow referred to the play as “searing.” Philip Kolin, in his book David Rabe: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography, observed: “As long as the spectre of Vietnam haunts us so will Pavlo.”

Pavlo Hummel, however, has had its detractors. Walter Kerr’s review for the New York Times was decidedly mixed, finding both promise and disappointment in the play. Rabe’s work, he wrote, “is like a current of air on a very hot night that teases us and then goes away. It lacks a discovery.” Stanley Kauffmann found little significance in Pavlo Hummel, calling it “one more good-hearted sentimental undergraduate play about the horrors of war . . . using stale expressionist fantasy and even staler rhetoric.” To Kauffmann, the praise Rabe received was endemic of “professional yea-saying by theater critics” who lack “rigorous” judgment and refuse to write anything critical of the American theatre. Richard Homan was among critics who found that Rabe’s “collage” technique merely renders characters as stereotypes or personifications; he called Rabe’s treatment of his theme in Pavlo Hummel “crude.” Similarly, Richard Watts of the New York Post found Rabe’s title character a “ridiculous” creation and observed that “I felt Pavlo never really developed as a character.”

Although critics differ in their assessments of the effectiveness of Rabe’s dramatic technique, they are in stronger agreement that Pavlo Hummel was one of the first works of real significance regarding the American experience in Vietnam. 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.” Harold Clurman, writing in the Nation, referred to other theatrical portrayals of Vietnam as “commonplace,” with their “sham stage hyperbole,” but found that in Pavlo Hummel “the sense of real men at war is present.” He commented: “It is the first play provoked by the Vietnam disaster which has made a real impression on me.” Not finding Rabe’s treatment as genuine as did Clurman, Time’s, Horace Judson, somewhat enigmatically, called the play “an antiwar cartoon, but a good one.” Writing in his book Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963-73, John Simon found Pavlo Hummel “the best play about the war so far,” but also criticized it, stating that it “often manages to stretch beyond the breaking point.”

Pavlo Hummel, along with Rabe’s other Vietnam plays, marked a transition from a time when the Page 34  |  Top of Articlesubject of Vietnam was, as Barbara Hurrell wrote, “considered box office poison.” The success of Rabe’s early plays considerably opened up the possibility for other writers and artists to treat seriously the painful experience of the Vietnam war. To Hurrell, however, much of the treatment of Vietnam appeared superficial; she observed that “it is not clear that the times are entirely receptive to such penetrating artistic inquiries as Rabe’s trilogy.” From Rabe’s writing on Vietnam there is much to learn, Hurrell believed. The “shadows” cast by Rabe’s characters, she commented, “are reminiscent of the plight of the nation itself, which in a self-destructive momentum devoid of acceptable goals, was embroiled in a war many did not accept as necessary, under conditions many did not accept as real.”

Not surprisingly, critics of Rabe’s work have continued to focus their attention primarily on the lingering effect his plays have had upon American perceptions of the Vietnam experience. Beidler found that in Rabe’s “trilogy” of Vietnam plays, “the principle of bring the war home evolved into a central thematic issue.” The play brings home the Vietnam conflict “in the fullness of its commingled banality and terrifying waste.” On this bewildering “landscape of death” Pavlo’s basic training serves as existential metaphor; it is “the means whereby he learns, as the author notes, ‘only that he is lost, now how, why, or even where.’” In his Vietnam plays, Richard Homan wrote, “Rabe chooses a situation in which the horror of violence can be juxtaposed with the assumptions of everyday life. In the first two plays he tends to personify normal life in his civilian characters and the horror in his military characters with a resulting sense of ridicule toward both.” Homan concluded that Rabe’s Vietnam trilogy “illustrates that violence on a personal scale, or on a national scale through military involvement, is a way of evading what troubles us most.”

Many critics have been 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.” Rather than appearing as anti-war propaganda, Rabe’s plays seem to critics to be true to experience. Michener wrote in Newsweek that experience, “not ideology, is clearly the motherlode for Rabe’s writing. Faithfulness to experience is what gives his plays their bite—and their comic edge.” Rabe has said that “I felt at the time that his rage and 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.”


Christopher G. Busiel

Busiel is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, specializing in modern drama and theatre. In this essay he discusses Rabe’s play in the context of differing conceptions of what constitutes an “antiwar” play.

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 a bein’ R.A. Regular Army lifer?
PAVLO: (softly, with nearly embarrassed laughter) Sheeeeee . . . ittttt. . . . 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,” sayin’ 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,

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  • Herr, Michael. Dispatches (1977). A highly personal, dramatic narrative, written by a journalist who was sent to Vietnam with the assignment of writing a monthly column from there. Eric Schroeder, in his book of interviews with American writers, Vietnam, We’ve All Been There, called it “the best book written about Vietnam.”
  • Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (1971), which focuses on the painful homecoming of David, a blinded and embittered Vietnam veteran. David’s family is unable to sympathize with his experience, a symbolic presentation by Rabe of American society’s refusal to acknowledge the horrors of the war.
  • Rabe’s Streamers (1976), considered by many critics to be Rabe’s most accomplished play. It is often grouped together with Rabe’s Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones as his “Vietnam Trilogy.” The entire play takes place in an army barracks where troops await transport to Vietnam. Three soldiers—two white, one black—have an uneasy camaraderie which is disrupted by the intrusion of a embittered black soldier, leading to the eruption of violence.
  • Eric Schroeder’s Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers (1992) takes its title from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, highlighting how the Vietnam war, as Schroeder writes, “refused to remain a foreign conflict in a strange country far away; it came home in ways that we’re still trying to work out.” Included in the text, along with the chapter “David Rabe: ‘A Harrowing Audience Experience,’” are interviews with novelists Norman Mailer and Robert Stone, poet Bruce Weigl, journalist/authors like John Sack, and others.

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 a political effect but more generally denies 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 Page 36  |  Top of Articletreat 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, “at 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 Page 37  |  Top of Articlesaying, 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.

Phillip D. Beidler

Beidler discusses Rabe’s “Vietnam Trilogy” (which also includes the plays Sticks and Bones and Streamers,) calling The Basic Training of Pavel Hummel “a mad pastiche of the American experience in Vietnam.” The critic terms Rabe’s contributions vital to literature concerning Vietnam.

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Pavlo with Yen (Tisa Chang) in the brothel where he will meet his doom Pavlo with Yen (Tisa Chang) in the brothel where he will meet his doom

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

Henry Hewes

In this review of the play’s original production, Hewes praises The Basic Training of Pavel Hummel as an “impressively authentic” piece of theatre.

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.

Harold Clurman

Clurman reviews The Basic Training of Pavel Hummel’s original production, finding the work a

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stirring representation of the war in Vietnam. Beyond terming the play as “good” or “bad,” the critic praised Rabe‘s work for creating a vivid impression of the horror of the war.

I understood little more than half of what was spoken or shouted by the actors in David Rabe’s, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (Public Theater). But though I gathered the impression that much of its text was well written, I was not troubled by missing so many of its lines. The pace had to be hectic, the scenes had to overlap, the sounds needed to be raucous: here was inferno.

It is supposedly a simple matter to write or stage a play depicting the horrors of war. That is not so. People screaming in agony, bodies flung about, wounds inflicted, harsh words yapped, ruthless cruelty on all sides nearly always become commonplace and boring in the usual anti-war play or picture. They are piteous preachments thundered at us in sham stage hyperbole; we do not believe them. This is not the case with Pavlo Hummel. The staging is largely stylized (without artiness), the gunfire is not deafening, no blood spurts out from the injured, but the sense of real men at war is present. We come to know the human abjectness of it all. It is haunting in its personal challenge.

Pavlo Hummel is a dumb kid who doesn’t wish to go to war but once there he wants to fight it “like a man.” He prefers combat duty to work as a hospital orderly. He’s a fool, almost crackers, an amalgam of the innocent vices and stupid virtues of the universal unknown GI. He’s good-natured and atrocious. Around him are the other clumps of recognizable humanity, reduced to the point where they lose any identity except that of soldiers, food for slaughter, self-killers, ridiculous and terrible, victims who are also venomous. War makes them

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so; they are totally immersed in a “planet” where everything has turned to filth.

The First Sergeant bellows a spiel of oaths and exhortations which are projected like bullets: they cause laughter and hurt. The phantomlike enemy is fierce and unfathomable. The savagery of “our” men is visited upon one another almost as much as on those of the opposite side. At the end of the play it is a shock and yet no surprise when we see that Pavlo Hummel has not been killed by an enemy raid but by a drunken U.S. sergeant who vied with Hummel over a girl inmate of a cat-house. The murder has nothing to do with the issues of the war, but much to do with war itself.

Is then The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel a “good” play? The answer hardly concerned me. It strikes home as very few “better” plays do. It is the first play provoked by the Vietnamese disaster which has made a real impression on me. The author, David Rabe, was there, and we are there with him. The large cast—notably William Atherton, Joe Fields, Albert Hall, Lee Wallace, Bob Legall—is excellent throughout in type and performance, and the direction by Jeff Bleckner has the right overall sweep and smash and is often truly felt in detail. The setting by David Mitchell solves a knotty scenic problem with forceful simplicity.

Source: Harold Clurman, review of The Basic Training of Pavel Hummel in the Nation, Volume 212, no. 23, June 7, 1971, p. 73.


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

Berkvist, Robert. “If You Kill Somebody . . .” in the New York Times, December 12, 1971, sec. 2, p. 3.

Clurman, Harold. Review of Pavlo Hummel in the Nation, Vol. 212, June 7, 1971, p. 733.

Geis, Deborah. “‘Fighting to Get Down, Thinking It Was Up’: A Narratological Reading of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel” in David Rabe: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland (New York), 1991, pp. 71-83.

Hewes, Henry. “Taps for Lenny Bruce” in the Saturday Review, July 10, 1971, p. 36.

Homan, Richard L. “American Playwrights in the 1970s: Rabe and Shepard” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 24, no. 1, 1982, pp. 73-82.

Hughes, Catharine. Plays, Politics, and Polemics, Drama Book Specialists (New York), 1973.

Judson, Horace. “Rags of Honor” in Time, April 24, 1972, p. 66.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Sunshine Boys” in the New Republic, May 26, 1973, p. 22.

Kerr, Walter. “He Wonders Who He Is—So Do We” in the New York Times, May 30, 1971, sec. 2, p. 3.

Kroll, Jack. “This is the Army” in Newsweek, June 14, 1971, p. 70.

Marranca, Bonnie. “David Rabe’s Vietnam Trilogy” in Canadian Theatre Review, Vol. 14, 1977, pp. 86-92.

Michener, Charles. “The Experience Thing” in Newsweek, December 20, 1971, p. 58.

Oliver, Edith. Review of Pavlo Hummel in the New Yorker, May 29, 1971, p. 55.

Oppenheimer, George. “Stage: Salute to Pavlo” in Newsday, May 21, 1971, p. Al.

Patterson, James A. “David Rabe” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, two parts, Gale (Detroit), 1981, pp. 172-78.

Rabe, David. Introduction to Two Plays: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, Viking (New York), 1973, pp. ix-xxv.

Schroeder, Eric. Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers, Praeger (Westport, CT), 1992.

Silver, Lee. “Pavlo Hummel Opens at the Public/Newman” in the New York Daily News, May 21, 1971, p. 64.

Simon, John. Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963-73, Random House, 1975.

“Talk of the Town: Rabe” in the New Yorker, November 20, 1971, pp. 48-49.

Watts, Richard. “An Innocent in Vietnam” in the New York Post, May 21, 1971, p. 31.

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Werner, Craig. “Primal Screams and Nonsense Rhymes: David Rabe’s Revolt” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 30, 1978, pp. 517-29.


Asahina, Robert. “The Basic Training of American Playwrights: Theater and the Vietnam War” in Theatre, Vol. 9, no. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 30-47.

This article places Rabe’s “Vietnam Trilogy” in the context of other dramatic works concerning Vietnam. Asahina feels that journalism controlled the public perception of the war and that dramatists of the era tended either to ignore it or to write strictly polemical plays against it. He examines how Rabe’s “Vietnam Trilogy” broke with this pattern and dealt with the war in more complex, artistic terms.

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, University of Georgia Press (Athens), 1982.

Beidler states his study is “about the literary ways in which people have tried to talk about an experience called Vietnam.” Like other historians and critics, Beidler’s interest in the Vietnam War includes its deep effects upon American culture at home; speaking of the soldiers who served there he says, ‘Tneluctably theirs, the experience of Vietnam would have to become ours.” Finding that in Rabe’s “trilogy” of Vietnam plays, “the principle ofbring the war home evolved into a central thematic issue,” Beidler calls Rabe’s first two plays “the most important contributions to the dramatic literature of Vietnam during the period 1970-75.”

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Vol. 4, 1975; Volume 8, 1978; Volume 33, 1985.

This resource compiles selections of criticism; it is an excellent beginning point for a research paper about Rabe. The selections in these three volumes cover much of Rabe’s playwriting career with material on Pavlo Hummel contained in each of them.

Gilman, Owen W., Jr., Editor. America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, Garland (New York), 1990.

The essays in this collection, rather than focusing on individual authors, treat in depth a specific topic concerning literature and film of Vietnam. The essays include J. T. Hansen’s “The Helicopter and the Punji Stick: Central Symbols of the Vietnam War,” Marilyn Durham’s “A Dual Perspective: First-Person Narrative in Vietnam Film and Drama,” and David J. DeRose’s “Vietnam and Sexual Violence: The Movie.”

Hurrell, Barbara. “American Self-Image in David Rabe’s Vietnam Trilogy” in the Journal of American Culture, Vol. 4, 1981, pp. 95-107.

Hurrell stresses the importance of Rabe’s early work in bringing the Vietnam war home to American audiences, making the subject of the war a legitimate one for writers and artists. She highlights the transformational role of Rabe’s own Vietnam experience, for while his upbringing in Iowa “shaped Rabe’s basic images of America, his experience in Vietnam added the other ingredients necessary to fuel the creative force behind the Vietnam plays he later produced.” Hurrell finds in all three of Rabe’s Vietnam plays “exposition of the gulf between the self and the other as represented in the Vietnam conflict.”

Kolin, Philip C. David Rabe: A Stage History and a Primary and Secondary Bibliography, Garland (New York), 1988.

This minutely detailed resource contains a biography of Rabe and a stage history of his plays. It also lists more than 1300 writings by and about Rabe, with evaluative annotations of many of them. The stage history of Pavlo Hummel is discussed on pp. 43-51.

Zinman, Toby Silverman, Editor. David Rabe: A Casebook, Garland (New York), 1991.

Contains a 1990 interview with Rabe and numerous other sources, including Deborah Geis’s article “‘Fighting to Get Down, Thinking It Was Up’: A Narratological Reading of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.”

Other Sources on the Vietnam War:

Hundreds of book-length studies have been written about various aspects of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. General studies include Maurice Isserman’s The Vietnam War (Facts on File, 1992), John Devaney’s The Vietnam War (F. Watts, 1992), Ray Bonds’s The Vietnam War: The Illustrated History of the Conflict in Southeast Asia (Crown, 1983), and Kathlyn Gay’s Vietnam War (Twenty-First Century Books, 1996). Many books focus on the perspectives of individual soldiers who served in Vietnam, such as Kim Wilenson’s The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War (American Library, 1987), Al Santoli’s Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War, by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (Random House, 1981), and Kathryn Marshall’s In the Combat Zone: Vivid Personal Recollections of the Vietnam War from the Women Who Served There (Penguin, 1988). Many of the book studies, like Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, focus on the pain many American soldiers experienced during readjustment to home life; these include Steve Trimm’s Walking Wounded: Men’s Lives during and since the Vietnam War (Ablex, 1993) and Richard Severo’s The Wages of War: When America’s Soldiers Came Home, from Valley Forge to Vietnam (Simon & Schuster, 1989). Other specialized studies include Daniel C. Hallin’s The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 1986), Andrew Martin’s Receptions of War: Vietnam in American Culture (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), and Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War, by Black Veterans (Random House, 1984). In 1985, an international team of journalists and media professionals produced Vietnam, a Television History, a thirteen-part documentary on America’s involvement in Vietnam. It is widely available in libraries.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800012