Monday, August 3, 2015

War as Hell: What Price Glory? and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

Americans haven’t written many war plays, but I would say there are two great ones: What Price Glory? by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, from 1924, set in France during the First World War, and David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, about Vietnam, which was first produced while the war was still going on, in 1971. Both take an anti-war stance, but in almost every other way they are strikingly different; even as anti-war plays they’re distinct from each other. Still I don’t think it’s possible to think about what Rabe accomplishes in the angry, poetic Expressionist fable Pavlo Hummel without considering the groundwork Anderson and Stallings laid for the war play in What Price Glory?, which was tremendously successful on Broadway and spawned two movie versions as well as three sequels to the first (silent) one.

The fact that there were sequels to a film adaptation of a war play points to the unusual quality of What Price Glory?, which belongs to another genre as well, the hard-boiled comedy. Hard-boiled comedies were almost entirely creations of the theatre of the 1920s: The Front Page, Once in a Lifetime and the original (non-musical) Chicago are the best-known ones, though Robert Altman’s 1970 movie M*A*S*H is an example from a much later era. In fact, What Price Glory? clearly paved the way for M*A*S*H, which has a wartime setting (Korea). Hard-boiled comedies are cynical, satirical and anti-authoritarian, and their heroes are shrewd, quick-witted professionals who excel at their jobs and have a highly developed nose for bullshit, not to mention an instinctual intolerance for it. The heroes of Anderson and Stallings’s play are Captain Flagg and First Sergeant Quirt, career soldiers with a checkered history: they’re buddies and rivals who have fought over one woman or another in a series of military outposts, and in more than one war. Their present military ranks are as temporary as everything else about them: Quirt was once a captain, but Flagg reduced his pal's rank at some point over a woman.

They meet again in the French countryside (the American army has set up headquarters in a farmhouse) in the opening minutes of the play when Quirt is assigned as top sergeant in Flagg’s company and given the task of turning a bunch of raw, baby-faced recruits into soldiers (i.e., of hard-boiling them). Together again, Flagg and Quirt pick up where they left off, this time competing for the affections of a barkeep’s daughter named Charmaine, a camp follower without strong preferences about whom she sleeps with. Charmaine is the only female character in the play; its casual misogyny is part of its man’s-world point of view. Hard-boiled comedy is premised on the idea of an exclusive group with a natural disdain for anyone who doesn’t belong within it, and in this case – as in The Front Page, about Chicago reporters – the group is completely male, so women are outsiders. It would be more accurate, however, in this case to say that the men treat Charmaine carelessly rather than disdainfully; she serves a purpose, and she’s a prize worth fighting for, but in the end their loyalty is to their profession: they both walk out on her without a second thought when there’s a battle to be fought. “It’s a small world, Captain Flagg,” Quirt observes early in the play, “but the number of soldiers’ sluts is numerous.” The real love story is between Quirt and Flagg, who aren’t likely to see Charmaine again once they leave the town but will run into each other and fight by each other’s side until a bullet gets one of them. There can be sequels because both men survive the action of the play.

Rivals they may be, but Quirt and Flagg have a rock-bound respect for one another, and the playwrights adore them both. Lipinsky, the company clerk, describes Quirt to one of the other soldiers, Kiper, with fearful admiration. “Did you take a slant at the amphibian?” he asks Kiper, and then elaborates: “You meet a top with two glass eyes, a slit across his face for a mouth, and a piece out of his ear, and you might just as well heave out and lash up. That bird could curse the hide off a whole Senegalese regiment.” “Is he hard-boiled?” Kiper asks, and Lipinsky replies, “There’s only one place in the world they boil them as hard as that, and that’s the Tropic of Cancer.” Flagg, whose concern for his men is one of the qualities that marks him as a first-rate soldier, knows that he can entrust them to Quirt. Before he goes off on leave, he leaves instructions with the most senior of the men, Lieutenant Aldrich, to “give [Quirt] his head, and let him have anything he wants, and don’t forget he’s forgotten more about being a soldier than any of you college boys will ever know.”

Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970)

When I say that as heroes of a hard-boiled comedy the two protagonists are anti-authoritarian, I don’t mean that (like Trapper and Hawkeye in M*A*S*H) they flout the rules or undermine military authority. Flagg and Quirt are pros; they know how to play by the rules and survive (as long as anyone can when death waits around every corner). What they don’t have any respect for is the top brass, and neither does the play. The general we meet in act one explains to Flagg that he and his ilk will be behind them during the fighting because they’re too important to risk. “Hold down the losses,” he urges Flagg, but he’s more concerned with the propaganda the military is disseminating among the German soldiers. Anderson and Stallings satirize him, and through him the upper echelon of the military, though they do so subtly. The play takes place at the heart of the American army, among the grunts. “Captain” is the highest rank Flagg would ever aspire to, because – like Sergeant Warden in Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 movie From Here to Eternity – he’s a grunt to his bones. “I’ve been a bum, General, but I’m damned if I’d go on staff,” he remarks cheerfully, and you may think of Warden in Zinnemann’s movie, choking on the chance to take the officer’s exam because he just doesn’t like officers.

The opening scene of What Price Glory? plays like a vaudeville sketch, and the interplay between Flagg and Quirt is so raucous and entertaining that you don’t feel you’re in an anti-war play – the way you do, for instance, in the best of the British plays about the Great War, Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff, which can be heartbreaking in a good production. These men, true to the nature of a hard-boiled comic hero, think of the world they’re living in as a lousy place that has its compensations and offers the opportunity to thrive if you can keep your head and if you’re skillful at your job. “It’s a hell of a war, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” Flagg offers cheerily. Like Quirt, he thinks it would be better if war were fought only by men who know what they’re doing, but of course there’s a limited number of those, and the rigors of battle keep chewing them up, so they have to train earnest, terrified novices like Lewisohn, whose anxiety over losing his dog tag Flagg can read precisely. He instructs Kiper to “get him a new tag if they have to build a new factory in Hoboken to turn it out. The God-forsaken fool’s dying of grief away from his mother.” This line is spoken without mockery or even irony, and it’s a clue that Anderson and Stallings have more serious intentions. Most of those clues are put in Flagg’s mouth; another is his instruction to Quirt, “Make ‘em hard, but don’t break ‘em. Give ‘em eats and about eight hours of drill and guns a day. They’re mostly Bible Class boys, and God knows most of ‘em haven’t got long to live.”

Laurence Stallings and Raoul Walsh (who directed What Price Glory?)  

The play has a strange structure: the first and third acts are (mostly) a war comedy sandwiching the second act, which is set in a cellar while fighting is going on outside. At the climax of the act, Flagg hobbles on supporting Aldrich, who has been wounded, and Lieutenant Moore, his friend, rushes on a few moments later and recites this monologue:
Oh, God, Dave, but they got you. God, but they got you a beauty, the dirty swine. God DAMN them for keeping us up in this hellish town. Why can’t they send in some of the million men they’ve got back there and give us a chance? Men in my platoons are so hysterical every time I get a message from Flagg, they want to know if they’re being relieved. What can I tell them? They look at me like whipped dogs – as if I had just beaten them – and I’ve had enough of them this time. I’ve got to get them out, I tell you. They’ve had enough. Every night the same way. And since six o’clock there’s been a wounded sniper in the tree by that orchard angel crying “Kamerad! Kamerad!” Just like a big crippled whippoorwill. What price glory now? Why in God’s name can’t we all go home? Who gives a damn for this lousy, stinking little town but the poor French bastards who live here? God damn it! You talk about courage, and all night long you hear a man who’s bleeding to death on a tree calling you “Kamerad” and asking you to save him. God damn every son of a bitch in the world who isn’t here!
This is the thesis speech that explains the title, and tonally it’s so unlike anything in the first and third acts that at a first reading the play seems schizoid. I don’t think it is: Moore’s outburst is occasioned by battle fatigue that wears away at his professional calm, and in any case what he’s saying presents, in a balder form, the reality that Flagg and Quirt deal with whenever they interact with their men: “God knows most of ‘em haven’t got long to live.”

Al Pacino and James Spruill in 1972 Boston production of Pavlo Hummel. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Company of Boston)

There was no glory to be had in World War I. (It would be a lot tougher to write an anti-war script about World War II, which at least had indisputable villains. Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, with its screenplay by Robert Rodat, tries for a more naturalistic, disillusioned view of war, but since it also wants to preserve the notion that the Allies in the Second World War were working toward an ultimate salvation, it truly is schizoid.) But it would have been impossible to write a play like What Price Glory?, which is simultaneously anti-war and pro-military (like From Here to Eternity), about Vietnam. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is anti-war and even more virulently anti-military. In his other Vietnam plays, Streamers and Sticks and Bones, Rabe, like his fellow left-wing, anti-Vietnam playwrights, tries to take on the culture that he believes produced the war, but with what I think is a predictable lack of success. Streamers, which focuses on a small group of soldiers before they get sent to Asia, invents a scenario built on racial and sexual tensions that are meant in some way to symbolize the American mindset and are magnified during the battle experience, but the ideas are opaque. Sticks and Bones reimagines the all-American family from the TV sitcom Ozzie and Harriet as a poisonously racist community that boils over when the elder son, David, comes home from the war blind and with a Vietnamese girl friend. The idea of using a silly TV comedy to expose loathsome, deeply ingrained attitudes at its core is overblown, and the play feels inflated and melodramatic. But Pavlo Hummel is a powerful and complex war play. It’s worth noting that Rabe wrote one other great piece about Vietnam, the screenplay for Brian De Palma’s 1987 film Casualties of War, based on a horrifying true incident, the gang rape and murder of a Vietnamese village teenager by a U.S. reconnaissance unit; in my opinion, it’s far and away the best movie ever made about the Vietnam War.

Pavlo Hummel is a modernist work that challenges the audience in a number of ways. It begins with the death of the title character. He’s torn apart by a grenade lobbed at him in a Vietnamese brothel by another soldier, Sergeant Wall, whom Pavlo has insulted in an argument over a whore, Yen, but Rabe deliberately withholds the information that would make sense of what happens to Pavlo until the end of the play, so we begin in chaos, struggling to figure out what the hell we’re looking at. The whorehouse scene is the frame on which the rest of the play, a two-act flashback, hangs, and the dramatic conceit is that what we see is what Pavlo is thinking after he’s been attacked by Wall and before he dies. Moreover, the second most important character, a black soldier named Ardell, is an expressionist device, a figment of Pavlo’s imagination who guides him through his memory of his military experience, encouraging him and excoriating him and leading him to conclude that it’s worthless – “shit,” as Pavlo shouts over and over again, at Ardell’s urging, just before the lights go down at the end.

Pavlo is a sort of everyman figure, but a debased one: he’s unintelligent and uneducated, and he has never had a decent male role model. He has no idea who his father was; he was one of many men his mother slept with after the death of her husband. Pavlo’s half-brother Mickey, her legitimate son, is a blowhard who treats him with contempt under a thin veneer of jocularity. So Pavlo joins the army out of a naked hunger for fathers and brothers. The first act is set in a barracks in Georgia where he receives his eight-week basic training. After a scene with Mickey and one with their unhinged mother, the second act takes us to Vietnam, where he works as a medic and where, in some way or other, he puts to the test everything he learned in basic training.

Tisa Chang, Al Pacino, Anne Miyamoto and Don Blakely in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.

But basic training is a disaster for Pavlo, in every conceivable way. Though he’s searching for brothers, he incites the hatred of the other men, all but one of whom landed in the army because they were drafted and who are alienated by his gung-ho attitude. (Coming back to the barracks after a punishing five-mile march, they drop on their beds in agony and exhaustion while he does push-ups.) He wants to be liked but he has no idea how to go about it; he boasts and tells such whoppers that the other men stare at him in disbelief. (He’s a chronic liar but not a talented one.) And he steals money from them. The play doesn’t give him a specific motive, but it seems clear that he’s a lost soul with no notion of how to be a man in the world; his impulses are all the wrong ones because no one has ever modeled the right ones for him. He’s searching for a father, but his hero worship of the field sergeant, Tower, is na├»ve and embarrassing. He thinks that if he can do as many push-ups as Tower, then he can be a man like him – though Rabe is very careful to keep Tower mysterious, an emblem of a certain kind of military authority rather than a fully fleshed-out character. (We never learn anything about him beyond his macho presence and the lessons he imparts to the men.) When the other guys are finally fed up with Pavlo’s behavior and gang up on him, he’s baffled. “Didn’t I do enough push-ups?” he asks Ardell. “How many do you have to do, Ardell?”

But he does absorb a few lessons. In one scene, a corporal invites him randomly to play pool and gasses on about Vietnam. In the midst of a dehumanizing rap about the Vietnamese people, he tells a story about a squad leader who blew away a farmer and his little girl that ends, “[M]an you could see the bullets walkin’. It was something.” Our response to the story is shock and horror; Pavlo’s is puzzlement – and then, when the corporal explains that the child’s terrified tears clued in the squad leader that they both had satchel charges under their clothes, “enough TNT to blow up this whole damn state,” while we’re thinking about the poor little girl turned into an armaments mule by her own father, Pavlo’s puzzlement turns to awe at the squad leader’s radar. “Just to see and to move; just to move,” Pavlo murmurs to himself; this is his new mantra – this is the soldier he now wants to be. So in act two he shoots a villager because he thinks he knows what that squad leader knew, though when he crows to Ardell about it, Ardell insists that Pavlo had no idea whether the man he murdered had dynamite under his clothes.

Michael J. Fox and Thuy Thu Le in Casualties of War

Rabe makes Pavlo such a pathetically diminished figure so that he can show the effect of “basic training” – the title is both symbolic and ironic – on a young man who’s essentially a tabula rasa, ignorant, unformed. He arrives without a moral compass (the lies, the stealing) and the army doesn’t give him one, so though he goes through a rite of passage, his coming of age isn’t a moral one. In Casualties of War Rabe distinguishes carefully among the men in the squad, only one of whom – the protagonist, Eriksson – refuses to participate in the rape and murder of the girl, Oanh, and then fights for justice for her after she’s dead. The others are at various points along the spectrum of perpetrators: one is an idiot and a follower, another version of Pavlo; one is a good soldier warped by battle fatigue and the death of his best friend in a Viet Cong ambush; one is a decent young man who lacks the courage to take a stand; and one, Clark, is a sociopath who finds himself right at home in this world. Casualties of War is a companion piece to Pavlo Hummel that takes another tactic in exploring the moral consequences of this particular war. The army turns Pavlo into a callous, insensitive soldier – I would say into a kind of monster, except that Rabe makes us sympathetic to him straight through to the end. (Clark in Casualties of War is a monster, and he’s the one character in the movie who can’t be called a casualty because unlike Pavlo he comes fully formed. Pavlo is a casualty of war.) The scene just before he gets killed, which we see played out in full at the end of the drama, is horrifying. He goes to the brothel to have sex with Yen, and, finding Sergeant Wall with her, he trots out his new-found macho bravado and, in the course of ordering Wall out so he can take his place, he describes all the ways in which he plans to use Yen, in graphic language. Naturally, Pavlo Hummel is full of profane language – it’s a war play written, unlike What Price Glory?, in a totally uncensored era – but the way Pavlo uses these words is brutal and nauseating, even to an audience that wouldn’t ordinary flinch at hearing the word “fuck” spoken on stage. I directed this play in graduate school and I watched audiences of college students and faculty flinch every night when the actor who played Pavlo read this speech.

Tower’s stated purpose in training his men is to protect them so they won’t get killed in Vietnam; that’s the more obvious meaning of the play’s title. But of course he can accomplish no such thing, and Pavlo, like a young soldier named Parham (whose gruesome death at the hands of Viet Cong we witness) and Ryan, Pavlo’s fellow medic, dies. So what does his “basic training” achieve? It turns a lost young man into a lug and then he gets killed anyway. (And in the most ignominious way – not even in battle, but in a jealous fight with another G.I.) Ardell, Pavlo’s guide and teacher – his real one, unlike Tower and the corporal – is the voice of reason, even though his rhetorical approach is tricky: he tends to lead Pavlo along, encouraging him to think he’s cool and then whipping around and pulling the rug out from under his assumptions. He’s also the voice that channels tropes we recognize from other famous anti-war works that Rabe employs as touchstones, ways of reminding us what kind of play we’re in. In the second act Ardell castigates Pavlo for not demanding his right to be sent home after he’s been wounded more than once; he challenges Pavlo’s macho stance (that the shrapnel he gets hit by isn’t any worse than bee stings, for example) by teaching him that if we get shot or stabbed or blown up, “we tear . . . we rip apart.” Readers of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 will recognize this revelation as the secret of the bombardier that Yossarian replays in his head, in fragments, throughout the novel. A few moments later, Ardell yells at Pavlo to say what he saw when the Vietnamese farmer he killed was underneath him. Pavlo shies away from the answer until Ardell spells it out: “When you shot into his head you hit into your own head, fool!” The origin of this idea is the famous scene in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front where the young German protagonist finds himself in a trench with a French soldier who is no different from himself.

You get the sense that Rabe is working through these familiar (though still potent) anti-war tropes on his way to a truly original set of images. There are three of these, and they come together in the scene I just quoted. The first is Tower’s oft-repeated lesson about the importance of locating the North Star:
I’m gonna tell you now what you do when you lost and it black, black night. The North Star show you true north accurate all year round. You gonna see the Big Dipper and two stars on the end called the pointer and they where the water would come on outa that dipper if it had water in it, and straight out from there is this big damn star, and that the North Star, and once you know north you ain’t lost no more!
Pavlo swallows this lesson whole just as he swallows everything else Tower teaches him, but in Ardell’s view it’s a useless one; what Tower should have been teaching him was that he’s “a walkin’ talkin’ scar,” a target for objects that rip him apart. “That man up there a fool, Jim,” Ardell lectures Pavlo. “You ever seen any North Star in your life?” Pavlo’s answer is startling: “I seen a lot of people pointin’.” That’s Pavlo, the follower, taking for granted that what Tower (and others) feed him must be the truth. The second image appears in a scene where Pavlo, on duty in an army hospital, tends to Sergeant Brisbey, who was wounded by a land mine and lost three of his limbs and his genitals. Now he lives in a hospital bed, begging Pavlo (or anyone) to help him kill himself, and he talks about the explorer Magellan, “sailin’ round the world.”
So one day he wants to know how far under him to the bottom of the ocean. So he drops over all the rope he’s got. Two hundred feet. It hangs down into the sea that must go down and down beyond its end for miles and tons of water. He’s up there in the sun. He’s got this little piece of rope danglin’ from his fingers. 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?
The question that eluded Magellan obsesses Brisbey, whose own fate is a nightmare beyond anything he might have imagined. The third is Pavlo’s childhood memory of diving into the Hudson River:
I . . . stood . . . lookin’ . . . down . . . at that black, black Hudson River . . . There was stars in it . . . I’m a twelve-year-old kid . . . I remember . . . I went out toward them . . . diving
. . . They’d said there was no current, but I was twisted in all that water, fighting to get up . . . all my air burning out, couldn’t get no more . . . and I was going down, fighting to get down. I was all confused, you see, fighting to get down, thinking it was up. I hit sand. I pounded. I pounded the bottom. I thought the bottom was the top. No air.
Linked imagistically to the Magellan speech and thematically to both it and the North Star speech, this moment articulates the idea that Pavlo, disoriented by the lessons of basic training, heads straight to the bottom, to doom and oblivion (and moral turpitude) when he thinks that he’s finally found the top – identity, manhood, self-actualization, all the things that have eluded him throughout the play.

Playwright David Rabe. (Photo by Thomas A. Brown)

Pavlo Hummel is a tragedy; What Price Glory? strides the line between tragedy and comedy – which makes it, perhaps, a fairer representation of the experience of war, just as Shakespeare’s Henry V is the most comprehensive of all war plays because it incorporates both the anguish and the glory of battle. But as different as these two plays are, I think that they converse with each other over half a century. The anti-war sentiment of the second act of What Price Glory? conveys a similar disenchantment and hopelessness to that of the second act of Pavlo Hummel; the hard-boiled style and tone of the earlier play prepare us for the cynicism of the later one, and for the naturalistic roughness and jaggedness of the language. Gifted as he is, Rabe is too single-minded to include any humor (and I think that’s true of Casualties of War, too: there is a little humor, early on, but De Palma and the actors supply it). The main break between the two plays, I believe, is that the earlier play suggests a moral compass in the face of war’s assault and unforgiving nature, in the form of the two veteran soldiers’ tender care for their men. Rabe is a moralist; he offers protests to compensate for the moral void he perceives in Pavlo’s basic training. He doesn’t have to do that in Casualties of War because – hewing to the facts of the real case (the source material is a 1969 New Yorker article by Daniel Lang) – he already has a character, the hero, Eriksson, with an unassailable moral center. Perhaps Rabe’s insistence on placing himself in the moral heart of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel makes the play, for all its power, feel more rigged to me than What Price Glory?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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