The script tells us that the play, “takes place at The Pavilion, an old dance hall in Pine City. . . . The setting is suggested by a pair of benches. The time is the present.”
The key word here is “suggested.” The action occurs in a location created, not by lumber and hardware, but by the interaction of characters, by the architecture of relationships. In fact the playwright has stated unequivocally that the most successful productions of the play have been those with the least scenery.
And yet, paradoxically, despite his emphasis on scenic minimalism, the author has named the play for the building that hovers over the action, providing a canopy of memories. The pavilion-dance hall, a common feature of small-town Minnesota life, is a structure whose symbolic importance is underlined by that fact that it is scheduled to be demolished at the very moment the play ends—an act of destruction that suggests the fragility of the past. Like human life, the physical world of the play is evanescent, constituted by imagination and memory, beautiful but always vulnerable to destruction.
The event that calls the characters of The Pavilion together is another element of its setting. The action takes place during a class reunion—the twentieth—of a group of graduates of Pine Grove High School. Like the evanescence of the physical location, the social setting emphasizes the toll time takes on human things. But, as class reunions also do, it reminds us of the continuities of life. Surely the classic moment of any reunion is the flash of recognition. “Who’s that standing over there in the corner with the bald head and moustache? Wait a minute! It’s old So and So! My God, how he’s changed.” Yes, but in order for you to recognize old So-and-So he also has to have remained the same in some fundamental ways. Same voice, maybe, or same gestures, or same funny way of walking. And then, once you get beyond the superficial differences between then and now, the indisputable fact becomes apparent that So-and-So then and now are identical.
Thus, the social setting reminds us of how we change over time—but also how we remain the same. It shows how time, as the playwright observes above, is irreversible—but also how it never quite dissolves the durable material of the soul.
The action of The Pavilion takes place at a class reunion during a summer night in Pine Grove, Minnesota.
The central event of the plot is the meeting, after twenty years, of Kari and Peter, 37-year-old classmates who last saw each other twenty years earlier, at the time of their graduation from high school. As everyone in their class knows, Peter and Kari were lovers in their senior year. Kari became pregnant, and Peter, at his father’s urging, deserted her, leaving Pine Grove to attend college.
Abandoned and heart-broken, Kari had an abortion, and seemed doomed existence as an object of pity and social ostracism. However, Hans—whom we never meet—came along and rescued her from this fate with an offer of marriage. Their relationship soon proved loveless, though, and Kari found herself trapped in the proverbial life of “quiet desperation.” She has lived quietly in Pine Grove since graduation, working in the safe-deposit vault at the bank, childless, bitter at her betrayal by Peter, and resigned to her fate.
Peter, on the other hand, has never returned to Pine Grove until day of the reunion. Instead he has led an emotionally footloose life, engaging in “all these relationships,” though “not one of them has ever really worked out.” A psychological counselor, he is himself beset by psychological problems—guilt over his betrayal of Kari, remorse over the loss their child and the life they might have had together, profound dissatisfaction with his own aimlessness.
Before Peter and Kari meet on the evening of the reunion, we see them individually encountering old friends from the past, many of whom seem to expect some sort of reconciliation between the two, perhaps even the rekindling of their old passion. Thus, we find ourselves anticipating some sort of healing encounter, a flurry of the “hugs and understanding” rejected by Seinfeld, or a bath of cleansing tears ending in the happy reversal of past mistakes and the ravages of time.
But this is not the case, although, as the evening progresses, the estranged couple finally do meet and Peter sings Kari an old romantic song, invites her to revisit old times at a local bar, and declares that he still desperately loves her. But rather than melt in his arms, Kari is outraged by his blithe assumption that the consequences of his treachery can be so easily washed away. Instead, as the first act ends, she turns him in a torrent of anger and declares, “Because of you, the entire universe is ruined . . . forever.!”
Perhaps the second act will witness the healing of this breach? After all, having blamed the ruination of the cosmos on Peter—who then decides he might as well leave the party—Kari seems to relent, and, observing a shooting star, invites him to stay a bit longer in the hope of seeing another. This seems like a sure indication of better things ahead. After all, Perry Como once romantically advised us to, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket . . . Save it for a rainy day.”
But the falling star of act two fails to redeem the rainy days of the past. Despite Peter’s insistence that there must be mercy and forgiveness, that they can’t be “trapped in the net of what we’ve done forever,” Kari stands firm. She absolutely rejects the idea of redemption on demand. “For you and me to start over,” she says, “the entire universe would have to begin again.”
In his desperate desire for a clean slate, Peter takes this absurd idea seriously. He pleads with the Narrator—who, after all, has had the power to set the world of the play in motion—to come up with a fresh beginning for the cosmos. But the narrator can’t deliver. “I could start another universe,” he tells them, godlike, “but not this one again. Not these stars, not this world, not this Pavilion. . . . Time only goes in one direction.”
Convinced at last that history is final, Peter has no choice but to accept Kari’s refusal of an illusory fresh start. “I just want to let it go,” she says. “I want to let it go on.” By which she means, respectively, the past and her life. To which Peter can only respond, “I’m really sorry that, uh, we only get one life, and that I wasn’t better to you. . . . I’m gonna remember everything.”
And that’s the end. They share a final dance, part, and leave, saying goodbye for the last time as the Narrator, speaking in the voices of a dozen other guests at the party, performs a choral collage of leave-taking, ending with one anonymous speaker who says, “Of course my heart’s broken but all in all I’m very happy because life’s been good.”
PETER believes that the consequences of the past can be abolished by magical gestures. A bouquet of flowers, a night of reminiscence a familiar old bar, a slow dance, a romantic song, a declaration of love: these ritual tokens and actions, he is convinced, can open up the blocked channels of happiness, can confer the grace of renewal and emotional rebirth. He refuses to believe that the “whole world exists so that everyone gets just one chance.” And that’s because he has had his chance and blown it.
As he says about his youthful expectations,
[I thought] “[It’s] gonna be so wild, there’s gonna be so much coming at me from every direction, how will I ever keep up? . . . I sat down all ready to get my hair blown back by this explosion of millions of experiences that never came. And so the question becomes, what if you open your eyes after that and there’s suddenly just one person, and it turns out that in some sense your entire life is really all about what you’re gonna do about this one person and then what if you made a mistake? Are you telling me there’s only one chance?
As he discovers, that is exactly what Kari—and the universe—have to say.
His many unfulfilling sexual relationships seem to represent so many attempts to fill the hole he tore through his life by walking out on his pregnant girlfriend at the age of seventeen. But life isn’t like darning a sock: such a wound in the fabric of existence cannot be mended. Instead, his failure to accept the finality of what has happened has led him to a merely provisional existence. It is as if he were always saying to himself, “I’ll do this for the time being, until I can go back to senior year and start over.”
Peter may be one of those people who feel entitled to happiness, which in turn may be the cause of his grief. If, twenty years earlier, he had accepted the pain of the moment—the out-of-wedlock baby and all the ensuing complications—he would have had the life with Kari that now is only a hopeless fantasy. Instead, he took the easy way out, the route of short-term happiness, and wound up miserable.
KARI knows there is no starting over, no “for the time being.” Unlike Peter, who has flitted from one woman to another, she has stuck to her job and her husband, and intends to stick until the end. “The point is I don’t complain . . . I don’t make everybody else pay for [my] problems. They’re mine!”
Perhaps she nurses such an inconsolable sense of loss because it was she who went through the abortion that ended the life of their unborn child. No second chances there. “Because of you,” she says to Peter, “I’m an eternity away from everything under the sun, and my baby—instead of a baby, I have a shadow of a baby, and it stretches across my whole . . . goddamned . . . life.”
The shadow of death stretches across everyone’s life, but for Kari it seems particularly dark, and particularly real, bearing the fingers and toes of a child forever lost.
When Peter tries to defend his own unfocused and unrealized life by claiming that everyone is as confused as he, Kari rejects that assertion, and insists that, “A lot of people have it together.” But she has a hard time coming up with convincing examples from among the people at the reunion. Finally, she declares that she is the one who “has their s**t together.” And this is because, “I go to work every day, I go home, I go to work, I do my thing, I don’t complain.” So, in her view of herself, she bears her own problems alone, she pays her dues, and she doesn’t gripe. But does she really exact nothing from others as the price of her own quiet desperation?
What about her husband, the invisible Hans? With his mind always on golf, even during lovemaking (Kari: “What are you thinking about?”; Hans: “A really difficult hole.”) he seems like an unappealing character. But is this remoteness from his wife entirely his fault? “Hans was really sweet, and he rescued me,” Kari acknowledges, “and all he ever wanted from me in return was a [baby].” Not an unreasonable expectation for a husband to have of his wife. And yet, she says, “I wont’ give him one . . . but he’s too nice to leave me and I can’t change, it’s just . . . bad. It’s such an awful, bad home.”
If Peter imagines he has a right to happiness, Kari seems convinced that she has a duty to be wretched. It’s one thing to recognize that you can’t change the past: but what kind of wisdom is there in believing you can’t change the present, can’t alter yourself here and now? Wouldn’t a child with Hans help to lift the shadow of her dead baby from her life? She is as irrationally pessimistic as Peter is foolishly optimistic, and just as wedded to unhappiness.
THE NARRATOR serves both practical and artistic goals. On the practical side, by representing a myriad of guests at the reunion, he makes it possible for a small theater to afford a production of The Pavilion. In other words, he provides a town-full of characters at the cost of a single actor’s salary.
His artistic function is intimately related to the playwright’s view of human nature. According to Wright, “all humans are little lenses through which the unity of all things is looking at itself.” Each person, that is, is a piece of the world’s consciousness. By embodying so many different people, the Narrator becomes a kind of Universal Being, a super-self who speaks through the voices of many individuals.
There is also something of the Stage Manager from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town about the Narrator. Like Wilder’s creation, Wright’s narrator functions as an all-seeing eye surveying life in Pine Grove—an eye that seems at times to scan the world from omniscient heights. “This is the way the universe begins,” the Narrator tells us at the beginning of the play, and proceeds to lead us through the stages of creation, from its beginning moments, to the development of the “little pavilion” of human consciousness, down to the twentieth reunion of Pine Grove High. Thus, just as every individual is a lens filtering all of creation, so every moment in time, including this particular evening under this Pavilion in Minnesota, is a microcosm of the universe.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Are there things you have done in your life you wish you could cancel or undo?
2. Do you think it is possible to erase the past and start with a clean slate?
3. Do you think Kari should forgive Peter and take up with him again?
4. Do you think there is anything Peter could do to change Kari’s mind?
5. What is the significance of having the Pavilion itself destroyed at the end of the play?
6. Why do you think Kari’s marriage to Hans is such a failure?
7. Do you think Kari is being fair to Hans?
8. If Peter had not deserted Kari, what do you think would have happened to them?
9. What do you think is the meaning of the play’s last line, “Of course my heart’s broken, but all in all I’m very happy because life’s been good.”
10. How would you describe the Narrator? Just another character in the play? Or something else? If the latter, then what?