The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971)

By David Rabe

That’s just this whole damn army messin’ with me and it ain’t ever gonna end but in shit.
— Pavlo Hummel, before attempting suicide

I am in a world of shit.
— Private Pyle, before committing suicide in Full Metal Jacket

I began to think about Kubrick’s film long before I reached the end of the first act of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. I knew little about Rabe’s play, other than what I had picked up from reading his own introduction. Most notably, I knew that it was built in two sections: a first act that showed Hummel’s development from raw recruit to “Regular Army,” and a second that took place in Vietnam. It’s that same structure that so struck me the first time I saw Full Metal Jacket. By the time Hummel began equating his world with shit (seen most clearly in the drama’s finale), I found it difficult to ignore his connection to Pyle. There are other similarities as well—the “blanket party” both young men suffer, the “friend” who tries to help (Pierce in the play, Joker in the film), and, of course, the gruesome death that both men meet. Of more interest to me though, is that Pavlo Hummel, again like the film, is difficult to neatly classify into any one particular genre. In his introduction to the Viking edition of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, Rabe responds to the label “antiwar” which has been frequently applied to his work:

I have written them to diagnose, as best I can, certain phenomena that went on in and around me. It seems presumptuous and pointless to call them “antiwar” plays . . . I think these labels [antifamily, antimarriage, antiyouth, and anticrime] do not exist because family, marriage, youth, and crime are all viewed as phenomena permanently a part of the eternal human pageant. I believe war to be an equally permanent part of that pageant. (xxv)

As is the case when I watch Full Metal Jacket, I find Pavlo Hummel much more interesting when viewed in this light—as an examination of “the eternal human pageant,” that constant process of interaction, performance, and construction.

Rabe bookends Pavlo Hummel with Hummel’s death scene. It’s an interesting device. I’ve read several novels (most recently Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies) and seen a few films (Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and, of course, Citizen Kane) that use the structure to reinforce the development of a character, either by building a mystery (“Rosebud”) or by creating a suspenseful, and at times melodramatic, sense of inevitability. Pavlo Hummel, though, seems to do the exact opposite, pointing out how little its main character is capable of developing. As the play opens, Hummel is a loud-mouthed kid, boasting loudly of his own sexual prowess and jumping blindly to retrieve a live grenade. Two hours, and more than a hundred pages later, he is unchanged. It’s a great manipulation of our expectations. We come to the play expecting to see a green recruit, one stupid enough to volunteer for firemen duty, grow into manhood—a nice, typical bildungsroman. Instead, we watch his journey knowing that he will be blown to bits. “You had that thing in your hand, didn’t you?” asks Ardell in the opening scene. “What was you thinkin’ on, you had that thing in your hand?” Even after his “basic training” and a tour of combat duty, Hummel, still the green recruit, is capable of only jumping into action. He is oblivious to any causal relationship. “[I was thinkin’] About throwin’ it,” he replies, as if the explosion were in no way inevitable.

On one level then, the play does criticize the basic training, as seen in act one, as a failed means of constructing some cookie-cutter-like masculine identity. For Rabe, the training is nothing but hollow ritual. (Though Rabe throws off the label “antiwar,” the political ramifications of this, particularly when situated in early-70’s America, are obvious.) As the act closes, Hummel, reeling from his failed suicide attempt, is chastised by Ardell for consistently proving himself to be a fool. “What kinda shit this?” he yells, after seeing Hummel’s uniform lying on the floor. “Your poor ole Sarge see this, he sit down on the ground and he cry, man. Poor ole Sarge, he work himself like crazy tryin’ ta teach you so you can act like a man.” But the Sarge’s lessons are lost on Hummel. His attempts all end in failure—he drags his pants across the floor, oblivious to the dirt they collect. Finally, Pierce and the other men come to his aid. “All is ease now,” writes Rabe in the stage directions. “It is a ritual now: Pavlo must exert no effort whatsoever as he is transformed.” That passive verb is interesting. The act ends with Hummel in full dress uniform, complete with sunglasses, staring at himself in the mirror. “Who you see?” asks Ardell. “That ain’t no Pavlo Hummel. Noooo, man. That somebody else. An’ he somethin’ else.” But Hummel’s transformation has been passive. He has relied on others to define himself as “Regular Army,” just as before he had relied on lies, foolish boasting, and empty quips to define himself as a streetkid. As Rabe mentions in his “Author’s Note,” “real insight never comes [for Hummel] . . . he will learn only that he is lost, not how, why, or even where.”

Questions of masculinity inform nearly every scene in Pavlo Hummel. After Hummel’s transformation at the end of Act One, the play shifts dramatically, moving to the “real” world of Pavlo’s home. There he is united with his half-brother, Mickey, and the two share stories over drinks. Their conversation is littered with verbal attacks and retaliations. Mickey calls Hummel a “fuckin’ myth-maker” and a “goddamn cartoon.” Hummel protests, screaming, “I’m not an asshole anymore!” and “I don’t need you anymore.” But Hummel’s reliance upon his new-found identity as a soldier is unconvincing. He imagines himself part of a new fraternity, referring to his fellow soldiers as “real brothers.” But Mickey doesn’t allow Hummel any victory, calling him a bastard and their mother a whore, and playfully mentioning Joanna, thereby reminding Hummel of his virginity.

These questions of masculinity are only intensified once Hummel reaches Vietnam. The first scene “in country” is a disorienting collage of images:

Hummel and Brisbey. Brisbey has been literally emasculated—”got seventeen years in the army; no legs no more, no balls, one arm.” It’s only beside him that Hummel appears virile.

Hummel and Jones. Hummel is pure green compared to Jones, the man who brokers Hummel’s first sexual experience.

Hummel and Yen and Sgt. Tower. Yen undresses Hummel while Tower holds up an M-16 and chants, “You got to love this rifle, Gen’lmen, like it you pecker and you love to make love.” Rabe’s phallic imagery is none-too-subtle. (I can’t help thinking of the recruits in Full Metal Jacket who sing, “this is my rifle, this is my gun” as they marched, their hands grasping their M-16’s and their crotches.) It’s no surprise that Brisbey asks to hold a rifle or that Hummel describes his first lay as: “I just about blew this girl’s head off.”

Hummel and the Captain. Again, Hummel attempts to define himself by emulating the examples he sees around him. “I want to feel,” he says, “that I’m with a unit Victor Charlie considers valuable enough to want to get it.” The consequences of such a request are lost on him.

Hummel’s combat duty is further proof of his emptiness. He is injured repeatedly, but is so mesmerized by the idea of being a soldier that he passes up a chance to go home. “How many times you gonna let ’em hit you?” Ardell asks. “As many as they want,” Hummel replies. But he is never able to define himself in his own terms. I love that image of the men looking to the North Star to find their own place, their own direction. Ardell asks Hummel if he’s ever seen the North Star in his life and Hummel can only say, “I seen a lot of people pointin’.”