On Golden Pond

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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2006
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 23. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 22
Content Level: (Level 4)

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On Golden Pond
ERNEST THOMPSON
1978

INTRODUCTION

Themes of mortality, family relationships, marriage, and generations all play out at Norman and Ethel Thayer's small lake house in Maine beside Golden Pond. Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond has been embraced by theatergoers since its first off-Broadway run in 1978 and by moviegoers since its 1981 adaptation. The play's believable characters are engaging and flawed, and the curmudgeonly Norman Thayer achieves personal growth despite his advanced age and slow mental decline. The play has successfully played onscreen (adapted by Thompson himself) and stage, with a white cast and a black cast (in 2005's Broadway revival). By all accounts, the play seems to have universal appeal.

Thompson wrote On Golden Pond at the age of twenty-eight. While he had been able to support himself as a working actor, he had gone a year without landing any work. This dry spell allowed him to pursue his interest in writing. Although he cannot say exactly what inspired the play, he credits his boyhood summer lake trips to Maine with his family as a source of special memories. Through a series of lucky opportunities, On Golden Pond was produced off Broadway in 1978. It was published the following year by Dramatists Play Service. Within six months, the play was in production on Broadway and soon in theaters across the United States. It was Thompson's first play to be produced. The film version earned him an Academy Award and opened numerous career doors for the young playwright. Thompson continues to Page 226  |  Top of Article
Ernest Thompson

Ernest Thompson AP/Wide World Photos
write plays and television scripts as of 2005, but his reputation rests largely on the success of On Golden Pond.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

(Richard) Ernest Thompson was born on November 6, 1949, in Bellows Falls, Vermont. His parents were Theron, a college professor and administrator, and Esther, a teacher. Esther played the piano and the violin, instilling the importance of music in their home. Thompson spent his early childhood in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and his teenage years in Maryland. His family often visited a lake in Maine during the summers.

Thompson attended the University of Maryland (1967–1968), Colorado College (1969), and Catholic University (1970) and received his bachelor's degree in 1971 from American University. After graduating, Thompson worked as a stage and television actor before becoming a playwright in 1977. Over the course of his career, Thompson has worn various hats in the television and film industry. His television work included two years spent acting on the NBC daytime drama Somerset. Although Thompson enjoyed acting, his desire to write scripts emerged early in his career. When he approached the producers of the television series Emergency, he was told that his talents were better suited to acting than writing. But in 1977, Thompson had gone a year without finding acting work, and he turned his attention back to writing. While some of his writing caught the attention of the networks, it would be a year before real success came.

At the surprisingly young age of twenty-eight, Thompson wrote On Golden Pond. The off-Broadway Hudson Guild Theatre produced the play in September 1978. Only five months later, it went to Broadway's New Apollo Theatre. On Golden Pond was the first of Thompson's plays to be produced, and it has remained his best-known work. In 1979, it won the Broadway Drama Guild's Best Play Award. In 1980, Jane Fonda saw On Golden Pond performed in Los Angeles. Sure that she had finally found the right script to give her the chance to act with her father, Henry Fonda, she bought the film rights and hired Thompson to adapt it. Only a year later, the movie was released. Starring the Hollywood luminaries Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn, the movie garnered popular and critical praise. Thompson won a Golden Globe Award, a Writers Guild Award, and an Academy Award for his screen adaptation. Hepburn and Henry Fonda won the Best Actress and Best Actor Academy Awards, respectively. On Golden Pond was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. In 2001, a television version was made. Directed by Thompson, it starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Thompson received the first and what would be the only George Seton Grant for Playwrights, which enabled him to write The West Side Waltz: A Play in 3/4 Time. Hepburn starred in the 1981 Broadway production. Her appearance in this play came before the filming of On Golden Pond and marked the beginning of Thompson's relationship with her. Critics praised Hepburn's performance, though they were not as dazzled by the play as they had been by On Golden Pond. In 1995, Thompson went a step further when he wrote, directed, and acted in the film version of The West Side Waltz, an adaptation of his stage play. In 1983, an altogether different play, A Sense of Humor, was produced in Los Angeles, starring Jack Lemmon. The story is about a grocery store manager whose daughter has committed suicide. He tries to handle his anger and guilt with harsh jokes and a very dark sense of humor. The response from the audience was so negative that Thompson actually rewrote Page 227  |  Top of Articlesome passages so that the humor would be less offensive, dark, and shocking. But Thompson maintained that the spirit of the play was not negotiable; despite the controversy surrounding the play, he and Lemmon defended its importance.

In 1988, Thompson's screenplay Sweet Hearts Dance was produced and released, and he directed one of his own teleplays, 1969. Out of Time, a 2000 television movie, was cowritten and directed by Thompson. Between writing and directing, Thompson also took acting roles in such films as Star 80 (1983) and Next Stop Wonderland (1998). Thompson is strongly associated with On Golden Pond, despite his years of work in the industry. While he is proud of his other accomplishments, he still discusses his most famous plays in interviews and lectures. He continues to develop new ideas for plays and teleplays. In 2005, Thompson was residing in New Hampshire.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1, Scene 1

On Golden Pond opens in May with Norman and Ethel Thayer returning to their lake house in Maine. Norman is content to sit and read a book, but Ethel is busily moving furniture back in place, dusting, and generally getting the house ready for their summer stay. Through their conversations, the audience learns that they have been married a long time, love each other very much, and have different dispositions. They will be celebrating Norman's eightieth birthday, and he makes frequent jokes about his own mortality. Ethel is not amused, not so much because it upsets her as because she refuses to allow her husband to act like a victim.

Act 1, Scene 2

It is now June, and as she putters around the house, Ethel tries to give Norman updates about their neighbors. While she is very interested in the lives of her casual friends, Norman does not care enough to remember most of their names. He is more interested in reading the local wants ads in search of an easy part-time job. This seems to be more of a fun exercise for him than an actual job search. Later, Charlie stops by with the mail. He is a local man in his forties who has known the Thayers for many years. He asks about the Thayers' daughter, Chelsea, who is only a few years younger than he is. Their conversation reveals that he still harbors feelings for Chelsea.

In the mail, Ethel receives a letter from Chelsea, letting Ethel know that she will be visiting them for Norman's birthday. She will bring her new boyfriend, a dentist named Bill Ray. Norman responds with his usual sarcasm, but the audience can tell that there is a rift between him and his daughter.

Norman is also having bouts of memory loss, a reality he struggles to accept. Ethel sends him to pick strawberries, but when he returns early with an empty basket, he confesses that he did not know where the road was. It was a road nearby, and they had been to it numerous times over the years. His fears about his mental decline are exposed, and Ethel responds with compassion and reassurance.

Act 1, Scene 3

It is now July, and Chelsea arrives for her father's birthday. She brings her boyfriend and his thirteen-year-old son, Billy Ray. The unexpected arrival of the teenager delights Ethel, but Norman is initially unimpressed. After Billy has a tour of the house, Bill enters with the luggage and meets Ethel and Norman. Not interested in making Bill feel welcome, Norman gives him a chilly reception.

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • On Golden Pond, adapted as a film by Ernest Thompson and starring Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, was produced and distributed by Universal Pictures (1981)

Ethel, Chelsea, and Billy go for a quick canoe ride, and Billy asks Norman if it is acceptable for him to share a bed with Chelsea while they are there. Norman responds with sarcasm and makes the conversation even more difficult for Bill. When Bill asserts himself and tells Norman that he will not tolerate being treated that way, Norman warms up to him. He says he likes him and that it is okay for him to share a bed with Chelsea. Billy returns, excited about the canoe ride, and sends Bill down Page 228  |  Top of Articleto be with Ethel and Chelsea, who reportedly are skinny-dipping.

Norman asks Billy questions about his interests, his posture, and his reading. He comes to like the spunky, outspoken boy and sends him to his room to read the first chapter of Swiss Family Robinson. Ethel returns, and Norman pretends to be surprised that she has clothes on. She tells him that Chelsea has asked her whether Billy can stay at the lake house for a month while she and Bill go to Europe. Ethel likes Bill and wants to give her daughter a chance at happiness, so she asks Norman to do this for Chelsea. Norman agrees with surprisingly little reluctance.

Act 2, Scene 1

It is August. Norman and Billy have become very close friends, and they are getting ready to go fishing, even though Ethel warns them that it looks as if it will rain. Billy invites her to come with them, but she declines the offer. As she looks over her knickknacks and sings and dances alone, Chelsea enters. Ethel is surprised to see her, thinking that she has returned early, but it actually is the day Billy is supposed to return home.

Alone with her mother, Chelsea begins to complain about her difficult childhood. She feels that she tried very hard to please Norman but could never be what he wanted her to be. She also feels that Ethel was not there to protect and defend her. Ethel has had enough and says so; she believes that Chelsea should stop complaining about the past and live her life as an adult now. Chelsea announces that she and Bill got married during their trip overseas, and Ethel is thrilled.

It is now raining, and Norman and Billy return from their fishing excursion. Billy is excited to see Chelsea, but Ethel sends him to take a warm shower before he can hear her news. Then Ethel leaves Chelsea and Norman alone, and Chelsea tells him that she wants them to have a normal father-daughter relationship. He is caught off-guard, but agrees that they can try. He asks whether that means she will visit more often, and when Chelsea says it does, he says that it will make Ethel happy. Norman goes to take a shower, and Charlie stops by to deliver the mail and see Chelsea. They reminisce with Ethel.

Act 2, Scene 2

Now that it is September, Ethel and Norman are preparing to go back home. They have repacked their things at the lake house and replaced the dust covers on all the furniture. The phone rings, and it is Chelsea. She talks to both of her parents, and they make tentative plans for another visit. Trying to carry a heavy box, Norman strains himself and feels as if he is having a heart attack. Ethel panics but finds his medicine; as she is trying to call a hospital, he begins to feel better. She tells him how scared she was to feel that she was actually losing him. Together, they go to bid farewell to Golden Pond.

CHARACTERS

Charlie Martin

Charlie is a local man who has known the Thayers most of his life. He is described as big and round with a weathered face from spending so much time on the lake, and he has been the mailman for many years. Only two years older than Chelsea, he has been harboring feelings for her since their youth. Charlie is helpful, sincere, and sociable, but he has never married. Charlie laughs a little too often and does not understand the subtlety of Norman's sarcasm, although he is drawn to Ethel's hospitality.

Bill Ray

Chelsea's fiancé, Bill Ray, is a dentist from California. He is father to thirteen-year-old Billy. Bill is an honest person who confronts issues in a straightforward way. When Norman tries to intimidate him, Bill stands up to him. This shows a great deal of maturity and self-confidence, and it wins Norman's approval and respect.

Billy Ray Jr.

Billy Ray is the thirteen-year-old son of Bill Ray. Billy is short, smart, and struck by the awkwardness that comes with his age. Like Norman, Billy masks his self-doubt by appearing confident and comfortable with himself. Billy is unusual in that he is not intimidated by Norman, as many people are. He is adaptable, open-minded, and expressive. As his friendship with Norman deepens, he becomes wiser and more sensitive. The friendship helps him mature, and it teaches him how to be a caregiver and a true friend.

Ethel Thayer

Ethel is Norman's sixty-nine-year-old wife. She is energetic, loving, and sociable. She is good at handling Norman's crankiness and fatalistic outlook, Page 229  |  Top of Articleand she challenges his negative behaviors and attitudes. She is also decisive and calm under pressure. When she thinks Norman is having a heart attack, she panics but finds and administers medicine to him. Ethel is also very compassionate with Norman's health problems and memory loss. Her nurturing attitude extends to the rest of her family and friends, and she likes to make their lake house feel like a home. Among her favorite things about the lake are the loons. She looks for them, listens to them, and watches what they do all summer.

Unlike Norman, Ethel is very interested in maintaining relationships with her neighbors and extends her warmth and welcoming to them. When Charlie first visits, she is delighted to see him and wants him to stay and have coffee, so they can talk about the other people on the lake and recall old memories. Ethel is nonjudgmental, good-natured, and encouraging.

Norman Thayer Jr.

Norman is an eighty-year-old retired college professor who is spending the summer with his wife at their lake house in Maine. He has many of the ailments common to people his age, including arthritis and palpitations, but his most pressing health issue is his slow mental decline. He is described as a white-haired man with glasses who dresses comfortably. Although Norman's pace has slowed, Thompson tells the reader that he retains his humor and boyishness. At the same time, he is distinguished and respectable. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude, his wife, Ethel, adores him and likes spending time with him. Norman enjoys solitary activities, such as reading and fishing. He is not a sociable person, and he has little interest in the lives of his neighbors. He has a sarcastic sense of humor, and he can be impatient, insensitive, and intolerant. Norman's tough exterior intimidates most people, so when someone stands up to him (like Bill) or answers sarcasm with sarcasm (like Billy), Norman shows respect.

Norman has a strained relationship with his adult daughter, Chelsea. According to Chelsea, the strain has come because she tried so hard to please him when she was a child and never felt that she met his expectations. Norman does not seem to understand this, and so he never apologizes or explains his parenting. As Norman spends the summer grappling with issues of aging and mortality, he makes a surprising friend in Billy, Chelsea's boyfriend's teenage son. Softened by this unlikely friendship, Norman is more open to the idea of trying to mend his relationship with his daughter.

Chelsea Thayer Wayne

Chelsea is the only child of Ethel and Norman. She is forty-two and divorced, and she has a strained relationship with her father. Chelsea is described as pretty, tan, and athletic-looking, but slightly heavy. She calls Ethel "Mommy," but calls Norman "Norman." At the request of her mother, she has come to the lake house to celebrate her father's birthday, but she has also brought her fiancé (whom she marries by the end of the play) and his teenage son. She wants her parents to watch the son for a month, but because she knows her parents so well, she brings up the subject to Ethel. In this way, the reader sees that despite her age, Chelsea still feels a bit like a little girl around her parents. She talks to her mother openly about her own resentment toward her father, and although she complains that Norman never really talks to her, she is reluctant to talk to him about matters of substance, too. Chelsea takes a great stride toward maturity when she tells her father outright that the two of them have been mad for long enough and that she wants a healthy father-daughter relationship with him.

THEMES

Facing Mortality

Early in the play, Norman starts making references to his own mortality in jokes and offhand comments. He talks about living on borrowed time and preparing to celebrate his last birthday. In one way, he seems to have a healthy attitude about his mortality, but, in another, his incessant joking makes one wonder whether he is trying too hard to maintain that facade. Cleaning the living room, Ethel finds that her old doll, Elmer, has fallen into the fireplace. Because it is a sentimental item for her, she is sad to find it in such a place, but Norman speculates that Elmer threw himself into the fireplace. He then says that when it is time for him to die, Ethel should prop him up on the mantel so that he can do what Elmer did. Ethel tries to get Norman to stop, but he is having too much fun making jokes about his mortality. Making jokes not only enables him to make light of a serious subject but also offers him the opportunity to push Ethel's buttons.

Ethel endures Norman's morbid comments, but she tries to get him to stop. If she were really upset by them, however, her reaction would be intense and emotional. Instead, her tone is more like a reprimand. When, in the second scene of act 1, he says, Page 230  |  Top of Article"I'm on borrowed time as it is," she replies, "Would you please take your cheery personality and get out of here?" And at the end of his Elmer rant, she tells him, "Your fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor." She is reacting more to his flippant attitude than to the reality that she will have to go on without him. She knows that he is older than she is and that his health is beginning to decline, so she is aware that she will be a widow at some point in the future. But she will not indulge Norman's self-pity masked as humor. She also does not like him to interrupt a nice moment with the suggestion that their time at Golden Pond may be drawing to a close. At the end of the first scene, she says, "Our forty-eighth summer on Golden Pond," to which he responds, "Probably be our last." She tells him, "Oh, shut up." This exchange has a slightly more serious tone, because Norman is only half-kidding. Given his declining health, he thinks it may be their last summer in the house. Her response is directed at the part of him that is kidding, as well as to the part that is not.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • After reading the play, watch the 1981 movie adaptation of On Golden Pond. Was the director's vision of the play the same as yours, or did you picture some of the scenes and characters differently? As you watch the film, think about how different a stage production is from a movie. Make note of these differences and the ways in which you think they alter the presentation of the story. For example, a theater script does not call for close-ups, but a movie director can use them. How does this affect the actors' expressions and, in turn, the audience's experience? What about other issues, such as lighting, sets, and the presence (or absence) of a live audience? Write a review of the movie focusing on the fact that it is a stage adaptation. Compare the movie to the script you have read and decide whether you think it works well as a movie.
  • Alzheimer's disease and other forms of mental decline are devastating for sufferers and their families. Research Alzheimer's disease to find out about common experiences of people in the beginning stages of the disease and the types of available support for families of sufferers. Prepare a presentation for your class that will encourage awareness, compassion, and discussion.
  • Many people find lake homes to be relaxing getaways. What is it about this particular setting that is both calming and rejuvenating? Write a poem or essay expressing your thoughts on this subject.
  • What do you think the Thayers were doing the summer after the events of On Golden Pond? Write a plot summary of a sequel, along with one scene from any part of your play.
  • Throughout the play, Ethel is fascinated by the loons on the lake. What purpose do the loons serve in the play? Do they reveal something about Ethel's character? Lead a group discussion about Ethel's personality and perspective, including a consideration of the loons. Introduce passages from the play in your discussion. Encourage the people in your group to think of other literary characters to whom particular animals have special meaning.
  • The relationship between Norman and Billy suggests that younger generations not only accept but also fully embrace the older generation. What do you think American society's attitude is toward the elderly? More specifically, what do you think teenagers' attitudes are? Facilitate a discussion among your peers on this topic.

Generation Gap

Thompson first introduces the theme of the generation gap in the conversation between Bill and Norman about the sleeping arrangements. Bill is a straightforward man who asks Norman whether he Page 231  |  Top of Articleand Chelsea can sleep in the same bed while they are staying at the lake house. When Norman seems somewhat confused and asks whether Bill is referring to a moral issue, Bill responds, "Well, it's just that we're of different generations." To Bill, the moral issue stems from the generational issue, and he assumes that there is a difference in their thinking. As he soon learns, however, Norman does not object to his daughter's sleeping with her boyfriend at the lake house. The generation gap was only perceived by Bill, but he quickly discovers that there is no gap. The gap that exists between Norman and Chelsea is a result of their particular relationship, not generational issues.

The most obvious illustration of the generation gap is in the friendship between Billy and Norman. Here, Thompson's approach is to show that the idea of a generation gap is false, at least among these characters. An eighty-year-old man whose mind is slipping has nothing in common with a bright, feisty thirteen-year-old, and yet in On Golden Pond, these two are best friends. Not only do they find that they enjoy each other's company, but they also begin to take on each other's characteristics. The second act opens with Norman livelier than he has been: the screen door is fixed, and he is getting his equipment to go fishing, even though at the beginning of the play, he had told Ethel that he was not sure if he would do any fishing this year. Billy is then heard using Norman's expressions while wearing one of his hats. He is as anxious to go fishing as Norman is. This unlikely pair has formed a bond that demonstrates that there actually is no generation gap.

Marriage

In depicting the relationship between Norman and Ethel, Thompson makes it very clear that they are still completely in love after almost fifty years. Their interactions are realistic enough for the reader to understand that they have certainly had difficulties, but their marriage has been strong enough to withstand their trials. Norman and Ethel are two very different people. Where she is gregarious, he is standoffish; where she is energetic, he is still; and where she wants everyone to be happy, he is more concerned about his own happiness. Ironically, it is because of their differences that they have a strong marriage. They counterbalance each other and create stability.

As Norman's memory continues to decline, Ethel provides much-needed reassurance and security for him. His future must frighten her terribly, but she remains positive and compassionate toward her husband. Thompson provides a very poignant picture of marriage in the way Ethel and Norman interact in these circumstances. Readers and audiences have the comfort of knowing that whatever happens to Norman, he will be cared for by his loving and devoted wife.

STYLE

The Lake House as Setting

Thompson keeps all the action of the play in the setting of the lake house. Every scene is played out in the same set of rooms, with the only changes showing in what is packed or unpacked, based on what time of the summer it is. Setting the play in a place that is so familiar and comfortable for Norman and Ethel communicates a sense of who they are and what their history is. Their house by Golden Pond has been a home to them for decades, and it reflects their personalities and their life together. Everything of importance that happens in the play—Chelsea's return to their lives, Billy's introduction to the family, Chelsea's attempt to make amends with her father, and all of the interactions between Ethel and Norman—happens in the setting that is most comfortable for them.

The Lake House as Symbol

Thompson uses the lake house as a symbol of Ethel and Norman's aging. The house was built in 1914, and Thompson's stage directions say that "it has aged well." The house has the character and patina of an old, well-loved house, just as the Thayers are advanced in years but are still doing well. Their marriage has lasted close to fifty years, and they are healthy enough to make another annual trip to the lake. At the same time, they are showing signs of age. Norman walks slowly and suffers from a variety of ailments.

The aging couple feels completely at home at the lake house. Toward the end of the first scene of the play, Ethel gazes out the window and says, "It's so good to be home, isn't it?" This remark lends insight into the way the couple feels about the house. They have presumably left their regular home to come to the lake for the summer, but her comment indicates that it is actually the lake house that feels like home to them. Ethel and Norman feel a special kinship with the house and recognize the parallels between it and themselves. Norman makes an interesting comment in the first scene, when Ethel complains about the mouse tracks in the kitchen. She does not like the thought of the "little Page 232  |  Top of Articlerascals" settling into their house, but Norman replies, "It's nice to think there was life here. Keeps the house company, it doesn't get lonely."

Chelsea responds to the house in an emotional way, too. When she arrives at the house, she surveys it and concludes that it looks the same. Norman responds, "The old house is exactly the same. Just older. Like its inhabitants." Later, in the first scene of act 2, Chelsea comments on the house again, but this time she acknowledges the emotional presence of the house. After reflecting on how frustrating it was for her to grow up trying to please Norman, she says, "This house seems to set me off…. I act like a big person everywhere else. I do. I'm in charge of Los Angeles. I guess I've never grown up on Golden Pond…. There's just something about coming back here that makes me feel like a little fat girl." Chelsea does not have the same warm, homey feelings about the house, but she somehow equates it to her parents, or at least to Norman. That her first comment about the house was that it looked the same indicates that, in her mind, nothing about Norman changes over the years.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1970s: Although the medical community can recognize and diagnose Alzheimer's disease, treatment options are very limited and do not yet include medications. Patients and families are encouraged to seek support as doctors monitor the disease's progression.

    Today: Since 1993, doctors have been able to add medication to their treatment plans for Alzheimer's patients. While the disease is still not reversible, the constantly improving medications make it possible to slow down the mental degeneration.
  • 1970s: The traditional family structure is challenged by increasing divorce rates and acceptance of couples living together. During the 1970s, premarital sex becomes more common, and more women are making the decision not to have children.

    Today: Divorce rates remain high (over 50 percent), and the decision to live together is very common among couples who date seriously. Premarital sex is also common and is starting at younger ages than ever before. Many women still feel comfortable choosing not to become mothers, though more women now decide to become mothers later in life.
  • 1970s: As a result of the large number of college professors hired in the 1960s and early 1970s, college faculties are relatively young. In fact, in 1977, the median age of college professors is forty. Until 1978's Age Discrimination in Employment Act raises the age of mandatory retirement to seventy (from sixty-five), college professors tend to retire in their early to mid-sixties. Retiring at this point in their lives gives professors many more healthy, productive years to pursue personal interests, traveling, guest speaking engagements, and second careers.

    Today: College professors are, on average, older than they were in the 1970s. In 1996, the median age of college professors is forty-eight. Over the course of the 1990s, the percentage of professors who are fifty-five or older rises from 24 percent to 32 percent. This aging of college faculties is due in part to the fact that in 1993, the mandatory retirement age for college professors was eliminated.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

New York Newspaper Strike of 1978

In 1978, a prolonged newspaper strike meant there were no issues of the New York Times, Post, or Daily News being published. Theater producers Page 233  |  Top of Article
Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in the 1981 film version of On Golden Pond

Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in the 1981 film version of On Golden Pond Universal/The Kobal Collection
turned to television and other media to promote their plays, but reviews of those plays were not available. As a result, theatergoers had no way of reading new reviews and had to rely on chance and word of mouth to find good productions. It was during this time that On Golden Pond opened off Broadway and began building its base of support from theater enthusiasts. The strike ended in early October, and by then Thompson's play already had a solid reputation. Whether the reviews would have helped or hindered its success will never be known. Regardless, On Golden Pond did well and was soon moved to a theater on Broadway, where it continued to enjoy success.

Broadway in the 1970s

Many of the nonmusical plays in the 1970s reflected the cynicism of the era, which made On Golden Pond unique. In an era so dominated by youth culture and music, musicals seemed to characterize theatrical expression. Broadway in the 1970s saw various styles of musicals vie for the attention of theatergoers. There was the new brand of musical called the rock opera, which included shows such as Jesus Christ, Superstar, Godspell, and The Me Nobody Knows. Other shows, such as Grease and The Wiz, proved that rock music was a popular element in modern musicals. Broadway also saw the rise of concept musicals. A concept musical is a musical based on an idea or theme (such as love, finding a job, or dying) rather than being driven by a plot. While concept musicals often have story lines, they are secondary to the presentation of the main idea. Such musicals included productions like A Little Night Music, Pippin, A Chorus Line, and Bob Fosse's sexy dance masterpiece, Chicago. In the midst of these new approaches to the Broadway musical were revivals of traditional musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Man of La Mancha, My Fair Lady, and The King and I.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

In the "Author's Note" to the Dramatists Play Service edition of On Golden Pond, Thompson recalls an early performance of the play that was attended Page 234  |  Top of Articleby the acclaimed American playwright Tennessee Williams. Thompson says that Williams loved the play but hated to see the characters go, adding, "Let them stay the winter." While there is little critical commentary on the script of On Golden Pond, theater critics often comment on it in their reviews of productions of the play. The play has remained a critics' favorite, even though it was written in the 1970s. Reviewers find that the characters are believable and likeable and that the themes are both worthwhile and relevant. In the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Kay Kipling writes, "Familiarity is what makes Ernest Thompson's play work," adding that "the dramatic situation—an aging couple faces mortality—[is] familiar to just about all of us on a personal level."

Reviewers often praise Thompson's use of humor and sensitivity in the play. In the New York Amsterdam News, Linda Armstrong deems On Golden Pond a "very funny and sometimes moving play." She describes it as "a play about what all people can go through when they become old," adding that "it deals with the love that lasts over decades between a couple." Armstrong praises Thompson for writing "a piece that is filled with human frailty as well as laughter. Norman becomes a very sympathetic character." She concludes her review by declaring the play "a flawless piece of theater" with a "fabulous script." One reviewer, Paul Harris of Variety, recalls the impressive cast members who have acted in On Golden Pond over the years. Harris notes, "Ernest Thompson's touching On Golden Pond has always been a perfect vehicle for star turns."

A few reviewers over the years have noted flaws in the play. Daily Variety's Joel Hirschhorn, for example, remarks, "Some of the staging by Ernest Thompson is almost bizarre," citing the scene in which Norman falls to the floor with chest pains, and Ethel does not first call a doctor. Recalling the entire scene, Hirschhorn writes, "The events flash by with no logic." In Back Stage, Julius Novick criticizes the play's lack of action or emotional depth. He comments, "Instead of plot, Ernest Thompson's sentimental comedy offers a beloved way of summertime life and the pathos of old age encroaching on it. Nostalgia flourishes and cuteness abounds."

CRITICISM

Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature and is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores the tense relationship between Norman and his daughter, Chelsea, in On Golden Pond.

Thompson's play On Golden Pond portrays various kinds of family relationships, some healthy and some not. Norman and Ethel Thayer have been married for almost fifty years, and their marriage represents enduring love and respect. Their daughter, Chelsea, gets married in the course of the play, and her union represents the hope of a new marriage. Norman's relationship to Chelsea's new stepson is both friendly and grandfatherly. All of these relationships are generally healthy and satisfying, but Norman's relationship with Chelsea is an altogether different story. This is the only relationship in On Golden Pond that is hurtful and destructive.

From the first words they say about each other in the play, Norman and Chelsea communicate that their relationship is fraught with tension. Norman barely acknowledges Chelsea's pictures on the mantel in the lake home by Golden Pond, and the few comments he makes are negative. In the first act, he notices a picture and says, "Here's Chelsea on the swim team at school. She wasn't exactly thin." Ethel reminds him that Chelsea joined the team only to please him. Norman's tendency is to find something to criticize about Chelsea, rather than to see a picture of his daughter doing something for the sole purpose of winning his approval. When Chelsea arrives for a visit at the lake house, she calls Ethel "Mommy," and she calls Norman "Norman." When Bill, Chelsea's boyfriend, asks Norman about it, he merely states enigmatically that there are reasons for it. Chelsea's attitude toward Norman is courteous but devoid of emotion, at least in his presence. The reader will notice that Ethel quietly defends Chelsea and Norman to each other and that she obviously wishes that they would make amends. Chelsea is guilty of putting Ethel in the middle of her conflict with her father, as when she asks her mother privately about leaving Billy at the lake house for a month. This kind of behavior shows the audience that Chelsea is not willing to address her father directly about potentially volatile subjects, much less about the root of their problem.

In her conversation with her mother in the first scene of act 2, Chelsea reveals the source of her problems with her father. As a child and a teenager, Chelsea always felt that she did not measure up to her father's expectations. She chased after his approval by joining the diving team and going fishing Page 235  |  Top of Articlewith him, but her heart was in neither activity. The sting of his criticism has not healed after all these years. As she puts it, "He always makes me feel like I've got my shoes on the wrong feet." She also tells Ethel that being at the lake house still makes her feel like "a little fat girl." Chelsea feels as if she is so far removed from what her father wanted that she wonders if he really wanted a son. When she returns from Europe to pick up Billy and finds him out fishing with Norman, she remarks, "Billy reminds me of myself out there, way back when. Except I think he makes a better son than I did."

Chelsea and Norman are very similar in their passive-aggressive way of dealing with their broken relationship. They both make snide remarks and act uninterested. Even when Chelsea vents her anger about Norman's overbearing parenting style and her mother's failure to do anything about it, she does so in front of Ethel, not Norman. This scene reveals, however, how angry Chelsea still is about her childhood. Norman appears to be apathetic or, at most, inconvenienced, but his feelings lack the passion that Chelsea's outburst expresses. When she finally talks to him, she tells him that she is sorry, adding, "We've been mad at each other for too long." He is slightly confused, stating that he just thought they did not like each other. Again, their experiences of the relationship are completely different, which makes reconciliation even more difficult.

Thompson could have used a flashback technique to show the audience exactly what Norman was like when Chelsea was a child, but he seems to have known that it would not be necessary. Although the audience can assume that Chelsea's memories are colored by her emotional pain, the audience can also suppose that the younger Norman was probably at least as insensitive and sarcastic as the older Norman is. The objective truth about who was wrong, and how wrong he or she was, is irrelevant. The relationship between Norman and Chelsea is defined by their hurt, anger, and indifference toward each other.

The unlikely friendship between Norman and Billy, Bill's son, has a great deal of relevance to the difficult relationship between Norman and Chelsea. It reveals that Norman is capable of change, even though he is not a man who embraces it, as evidenced by his well-worn hats, familiar books, and tendency toward routine. So when Billy arrives unannounced, he is not pleased at the prospect of hosting a teenager. When Billy shows that he can handle, as well as return, Norman's sarcasm and irreverent attitude, he wins Norman over. Norman senses in this thirteen-year-old boy, of all people, a kindred spirit. He warms up to Billy in short order, and, when given the chance to have him stay at the lake house for a whole month, he agrees without hesitation. From what is known about Norman, his agreeable attitude is unexpected. His decision is the turning point in the play.

Norman's willingness to watch Billy for a month while Chelsea and Bill go to Europe is fascinating. That Ethel wants to have the boy stay with them is no surprise at all, but Norman is a different story. Because he is not emotionally demonstrative or expressive, one is compelled to consider why he is so willing to embrace this major change in his summer plans. There are three possibilities. First, Norman, like Ethel, may genuinely want to help Chelsea. This is her chance to go to Europe with the man she loves and to pursue long-term happiness. As it happens, she and Bill get married in Europe. Perhaps Norman wants to do something to help Chelsea and support her chance for stability and happiness, but, because of their relationship, he feels that he can make only an indirect gesture. If that is the case, then agreeing to host Billy at the lake house accomplishes it. The second possibility is that Norman really likes the boy and feels that spending time with him will not be a burden at all. Billy is bright, receptive, and spunky. This means that he will probably be teachable and enliven the lake house during his stay. Norman may recognize a second chance to do a better job with a child than he did with Chelsea. Second chances are rare and unexpected; in Norman's fatalistic state of mind, it is too valuable to let pass.

Billy tells Ethel that sometimes when he and Norman are fishing, Norman calls him by Chelsea's name. Ethel explains that Billy probably just reminds Norman of Chelsea, but there is more that she is not telling him. On one hand, Norman is Page 236  |  Top of Articlelosing his memory and becoming easily confused. On the other, he may be trying to do a better job of being a father to Chelsea through Billy. In a sense, Norman is proving to himself that he now knows how to be a better father, even though it is too late to take Chelsea fishing. It may be healing for him to feel as if he is being a good father to Chelsea.

The third possibility is that Norman wants to draw Chelsea closer to him by being a grandfather to Billy. After the frank discussion with Chelsea's boyfriend, Norman could reasonably assume that Bill is going to marry his daughter. That would make Chelsea a mother for the first time in her life, at the age of forty-two. And it would make Norman a grandfather at last, at the age of eighty. The play takes place during the summer that Norman worries may be his last (or at least the last one with all his faculties), so being a grandfather to Billy for himself and for the sake of Chelsea would be a gratifying experience.

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  • Harvey and Myrna Katz Frommer's It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way (2004) offers an extensive oral history of Broadway. The Frommers include interviews and musings by actors, producers, writers, composers, set designers, and critics, to name a few. Their combined experiences give a unique understanding of the history of Broadway.
  • Professor Roger Hall teaches playwriting and captures his lessons in Writing Your First Play (1998). Hall covers the basics of characterization, plot development, setting, and other important elements, along with examples and writing exercises for students new to the process.
  • Pete Hamill's 1998 novel Snow in August tells the story of a friendship between an eleven-year-old Catholic boy and an elderly rabbi who is new to the United States. The rabbi learns to speak English and love baseball, and the boy learns to deal with his difficulties with greater maturity and insight.
  • Edited by David Savran, In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights (1999) presents the reader with interviews of some of the foremost playwrights of the American stage. Savran inquires about their inspirations, their processes, and their techniques for writing great plays. Although Thompson is not included here, among the playwrights featured are David Mamet, Stephen Sondheim, and August Wilson.
  • Thompson's The West Side Waltz: A Play in 3/4 Time (1981) is his second-best-known play, after On Golden Pond. It is about an aging piano teacher who mentors a young actress, only to find that she might be better off reconnecting with an old friend.

Another way in which Billy's friendship with Norman is relevant to Chelsea's relationship with Norman is that it brings about their reconciliation. After all, Chelsea has to come back to the lake house to get Billy, and it is during this visit that she finally tells Norman that she wants the relationship to be better. Her motivation for trying to make amends with her father, however, is less clear. She seems a bit more mature when she returns from Europe, presumably because her relationship with Bill requires more maturity from her. She has found love with Bill, and she has also found a family. At the age of forty-two, it is time for her Page 237  |  Top of Articleto learn what it is to be a parent. This realization, along with the realization that Norman has already forged a grandfatherly bond with Billy, leads her to make an effort to repair her relationship with Norman. Clearly, she is still angry (as evidenced by her tirade in front of her mother), but she has come to the end of that part of her life when she can justify her anger with blame. She realizes that living far away from her parents will no longer be a good enough reason not to see her father. She has a stepson who needs a family and likes hers.

The reconciliation scene is a bit awkward, but then so are the characters. Chelsea struggles to express herself to her father in a way that will enable him to see her point of view, but he is emotionally detached, as he always has been. She characterizes their relationship in one way, and he characterizes it in another. It is important to note that the reason Chelsea's offer of reconciliation is accepted by Norman is that she does not attack him with her anger and put him on the defensive. Instead, she adopts his calm disposition (probably unknowingly) in her approach, making him more receptive to what she has to say. Given the years of tension, the brevity of this scene is a bit surprising and even unsatisfying. But it is consistent with Norman's way of doing things, and so it is believable. He and Chelsea are not sure what their new relationship will mean to them, but they know it will be friendlier. Thompson shows that Norman and Chelsea struggle a bit to become accustomed to the new arrangement; when she calls at the end of the summer, her conversation with her mother comes much easier to her than the one with her father. Still, they are working to overcome the awkwardness in the interest of the relationship.

The problem of strained relationships between parents and their adult children is very common, and Thompson's handling of it is believable and hopeful. Norman and Chelsea are alike in many ways, and they do love each other, but the years of destructive patterns have weathered away their motivation to treat each other better. This play is about coming to terms with change—aging, mental deterioration, marriage, the possibility of saying goodbye, and entering into a family. Both Norman and Chelsea face change, and these changes make them willing to find each other's humanity and see whether they can discover a loving father-daughter relationship in the process. Thompson gives a message of encouragement that it is never too late to make a significant relationship right.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on On Golden Pond, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a PhD in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he discusses the changes made to the play in the 1981 movie version.

Since its first appearance as a play on Broadway in 1978, On Golden Pond has been made into a film, a television show, and a musical as well as being revived on Broadway, with some dialogue rewritten, in 2005. In a review of the revival in Variety, Thompson was quoted as saying that none of these versions were very different from each other. While this is certainly true in terms of the major themes and characters, readers of the play (or those fortunate enough to be able to see a live theater performance) might note a few significant differences between the play and the 1981 movie version starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda. Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for the film, used the opportunity to sharpen the dramatic conflicts and resolutions to meet the expectations of a mass audience accustomed to the conventions of Hollywood.

Translating a play into a movie is not as simple a task as it might at first appear. A film appeals more to the eye than to the ear, so the visual element in a movie is as important as the spoken word, and often even more so, whereas in a play, language dominates. There are a number of scenes (or sequences, to use the language of film) in the movie version of On Golden Pond that exploit the visual opportunities of the medium, such as when young Billy Ray, in a purely visual scene, goes out on his own and joyfully drives the Thayers's boat in large circles and figure eights all over the lake; or the action sequence that takes place in Purgatory Cove, which was created especially for the movie; or Chelsea's backflip from the diving board near the end, which adds a visual dimension, not present in the play, to her reconciliation with her father. Another visual symbol is the second shot in the movie's opening sequence, which shows in long shot (a shot taken from a considerable distance) the sun setting over Golden Pond, the water shimmering in the golden light. This is a perfect metaphor for the relationship between Norman and Ethel Thayer, which has stood firm for a long day of forty-eight years and is now, because of Norman's age and ill health, probably approaching its end. A similar shot of a sunset on Golden Pond returns at the end of the film, just as the credits begin to roll. It effectively frames the film as a tale of human lives in the "sunset" years. It is a touching, if sometimes sentimental story, which shows that even near Page 238  |  Top of Articlethe end of life, there are still possibilities for growth and change and the healing of old hurts. It is never too late.

The character who is most in need of change is also the one who appears to be the least inclined to make the effort that change requires. This, of course, is Norman. The opening scene of both play and film brings out the contrast between Norman and Ethel in this respect. Ethel is fully alive, open to the beauty of nature on Golden Pond, and still able to make new friends. She may be in her late sixties, but she has lost none of her zest for life. Norman, the old curmudgeon, is locked into his small, rigid world, verbally sparring with Ethel while frequently giving expression to his morbid thoughts about approaching death. Many of his comments in this respect are meant to be facetious, a way to keep his fears at bay. Still, to the devoted Ethel, they are not funny, although she understands her husband well and either ignores his provocations or gives as good as she gets.

In the play, much of the dialogue in the first scene conveys memories and reminiscences—Charlie as a boy; Elmer, the doll that Ethel has had since she was four—that express how long the Thayers have been together and how much of their lives is in the past. In the film, this dialogue is cut, the director Mike Rydall opting instead for a couple of telling shots of Norman peering at photographs, the first of which is of himself as a younger man. (Beside it is a newspaper clipping dated 1966, with the headline "Professor Thayer Retires.") The second is of himself and Ethel when they were much younger. It seems that the past stretches back as far as memory can reach, but the future beckons hardly at all. Although, in many ways, On Golden Pond is a light, sentimental play and film, the shadow of approaching death hangs over it.

This theme is presented even more strikingly in the film than in the play. The film adds a scene in which Norman and Ethel refuel their boat, and one of the teenagers at the gas station makes fun of Norman's old age. Norman berates them both in a poignant outburst that conveys the infirmities and indignities of age: "You think it's funny being old? My whole goddam body's fallin' apart. Sometimes I can't even go to the bathroom when I want to." The film also shows directly the frightening incident that the play can only describe—when Ethel sends Norman out to the woods to pick strawberries, and he quickly becomes disoriented and has to come home. Quick cuts and rapidly shifting camera angles suggest his confusion and fear. At one point, a low angle shot looks up at a big tree with a gnarled pattern that resembles a face. The effect is menacing and even spooky, and the whole sequence reduces the gruff, combative Norman to a frightened and frail old man.

Old age may be advancing rapidly, but Norman has unfinished business to take care of before he dies. Unfortunately, he does not realize this until the issue is forced upon him. The issue, of course, is his failed relationship with Chelsea and the anger and frustration that she feels on account of it. In the film, Chelsea expresses her anger at her father in a far more direct, overt manner—if only to her mother—than she does in the play, and Norman is also supplied with a reason to be angry with her, which he does not have in the play.

In the screen version, the moment when Chelsea arrives and awkwardly hugs Norman is a telling one. In the play, the stage directions state that Norman "hesitates only the briefest instant" before hugging Chelsea, but Henry Fonda's Norman actually flinches as Chelsea goes to kiss him, pulling his head back before recovering himself and responding to her. This is clearly a man who is deeply uncomfortable with receiving affection from his daughter, perhaps from anyone except his wife. He then alienates Chelsea immediately with his comment about "this little fat girl." He does not mean it unkindly, but Chelsea (Jane Fonda in the movie) is not fat, and she is humiliated by this thoughtless reference to her younger self. It is as if the relationship between them has frozen in time. Although she is now forty-two years old, her father still makes her feel like a child, and an unwanted child at that, since the clear implication is Page 239  |  Top of Articlethat Norman would have preferred to have had a son rather than a daughter.

Given the emotional impasse between them, it is not surprising that Chelsea seldom visits her parents, and it is this that supplies Norman with his resentment toward his daughter. The filmmakers obviously thought that Norman should have a grievance against Chelsea to match hers against him, so lines not in the play are added to the movie dialogue. "I'm frankly surprised Chelsea could find the way," Norman says sarcastically, after Bill Ray comments on how pleased he is that Chelsea has brought him and Billy to Golden Pond. Just in case anyone in the audience misses the point, Norman then quizzes Bill Ray about whether he visits his own parents. None of this dialogue is in the play. For her part, when Chelsea talks to Ethel, she explodes in anger and resentment, several times using profanities to describe her father, none of which occurs in the play. She goes so far that Ethel is forced to slap her face and rebuke her, and this also takes place only in the screen version.

The effect of all these changes in the film version is to sharpen the tensions all round, the purpose being to set up more effectively the final emotional reconciliation. In real life, of course, such longstanding blocks and resentments in family relationships are hard to overcome, but in a Hollywood movie, usually all it takes is some straight talking and a hug or two for everything to be magically transformed. And so it is with Norman and Chelsea. Chelsea tells him that it is time that they had a real father-daughter relationship; she finally manages the backflip that she could not do to please him as a child; he says what she had always wanted to hear, that it does not matter whether she can do the backflip; and, in a final embrace, she calls him Dad rather than Norman. The reconciliation between father and daughter is therefore more smooth and complete (if more sentimental and less convincing) in the film than in the play. In the play, Chelsea and Norman do make progress but remain somewhat wary of each other, and the more oblique dialogue leaves much to the interpretation of director and actors.

Another theme that is expanded on the screen, when compared with the stage, is the relationship between Norman and Billy. This is largely because film gives the opportunity to show their fishing expeditions on the lake directly, whereas onstage they can only be described. The theme is hardly an original one. Young people reinvigorate tired old hearts in works as diverse as the British novelist George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861), in which an old miser finds new purpose in life when he adopts an orphaned two-year-old girl, and the movie Second-hand Lions (2003), starring Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, in which a fourteen-year-old boy stays for the summer on the Texas farm of his two eccentric great-uncles and duly softens them up with his youthful innocence. This is close to what happens in On Golden Pond, as Norman, for a short while, gets the son he always secretly wanted, and Billy, an initially disgruntled and sometimes rude young teenager who is angry at being left behind by his parents when they go to Europe, grows affectionate toward the cantankerous old man who becomes his fishing companion. Billy's comment "I'll miss you," made after Norman says that he will not be around much longer, typifies the sentimental way in which the film develops the relationship. (That line is not in the play.)

If, on occasion, the film provides enough Hollywood-style syrup to fill up Golden Pond, it also has its moments, as the play does, of insight, wisdom, and genuine feeling. Indeed, it would be hard not to be moved by the final shot, of Ethel and Norman standing still on the shores of Golden Pond, saying goodbye to it, perhaps for the last time, as the camera pulls back and up, making them smaller and smaller and revealing more and more of the natural world to which, as human beings whose stay on earth can only be brief, they will soon return.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on On Golden Pond, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he argues that On Golden Pond is an actors' play.

Whenever Norman Thayer, the eighty-year-old protagonist of On Golden Pond, speaks, he camouflages the expression of his thoughts and feelings using clever and evasive verbal tricks and riffs of language. These contrivances allow him simultaneously to express and to avoid confronting unpleasant realities, such as his disquiet at aging or his anxiety about death. Likewise, he can avoid making direct contact with other people, like his daughter—which he finds embarrassing. These verbalizations serve to distance him from his real emotions and to permit him to stand aloof and apparently unaffected, as if with an academic detachment—he is a retired college English professor—above and outside everything, offering wry commentary.

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The behavior is so characteristic of him that it is impossible to know whether it is deliberate—that he is aware he is doing it and aware of the feelings he is camouflaging—or whether it has become so ingrained in him that he is unaware of it or of the feelings he is avoiding. Is it so deeply his manner that, in fact, one identity has usurped another and his "real" meanings are hidden from even himself? Perhaps they have actually been obliterated so thoroughly that they exist beneath the surface of the self he seems to be, like unburied ghosts condemned to wander disembodied among the living. The actor playing Norman must be able to convey two simultaneously interconnected and alienated personalities moving, as it were, in opposite directions. One is expressed and seen, and the other is repressed and invisible. The antecedent, submerged personality or self, however, suffuses everything about him and covers him like a shadow or an aura.

It is just this tension between what is expressed and what is withheld, yet suggested in Norman Thayer's character and the profound challenge it presents to the actor playing him that give On Golden Pond a subdued emotional force and make it an actors' play. A similar challenge, indeed, confronts the actress playing Ethel Thayer, Norman's wife of forty-six years. She must portray a woman who sees the man beneath the man Norman presents to the world and even, frequently, to her. She must portray a strongly independent woman who is beset, even irritated, by the frustration of his flinty and distracted character but who has a deep, abiding, and even submissive love for him, just because she can understand the language he speaks and, in a sense, translate it. She must convey Ethel's ability to see what is admirable in Norman when he appears foolish and what is generous about him when he appears cranky. The words that Norman and Ethel speak must serve to express things that are not being said but which are palpably present. The dramatic tension that gives On Golden Pond vibrancy depends on the actors' subtle portrayal of the characters much more than on the plot, for there is really very little plot. Without virtuoso performances by charismatic actors who can command a stage and hold an audience, what plot there is can come across as relatively hackneyed, sentimental, and even manipulative.

Much of the "action" of On Golden Pond is concerned with conveying the local color of rural Maine and, more significantly, establishing Norman and Ethel as endearing characters, despite everything, characters with whom the audience is supposed to bond. If the audience does not become fond of their environment and enchanted by these characters and is not indeed seduced by them, what little plot there is will go by, leaving no impression. So Norman is shown in his bumbling interactions with the telephone, the want ads in the newspaper, a rack of hats, and a broken screen door. He is made to deliver gently bigoted observations about the neighbors and wry comments about the past and the landscape. He is given a verbal dexterity that shows that while he may be forgetful, he is still intellectually sharp. Ethel's ongoing battle with spiders, blackflies, and mosquitoes takes up a fair share of her dialogue, as do her reminiscences about her childhood on the pond, her "conversations" with the loons that live there, and her affection for her childhood doll. If the actors can establish a convincing relationship with each other and a rapport with the audience, then the three elements that constitute the plot—Norman's failed relationship with his daughter, his April-December friendship with his daughter's thirteen-year-old stepson-to-be, and his confrontation with his own approaching death—will resonate with the audience. It will cause a catch in the throat, a tear in the eye, and a melancholy smile.

Despite its reliance on characters, On Golden Pond is not a deeply psychological play. It simply presents what is. Norman, for example, is ill at ease with his forty-two-year-old daughter, Chelsea, it seems certain, because she is not male. Joie de vivre is restored to his life because young Billy Ray, who spends the summer with him, is a boy and can, therefore, be the son Chelsea never was. Chelsea is angry with her father and has made only infrequent visits to the family, because she has never been cherished as a girl or a woman and, consequently, as a person. She has been kept at a distance by her disappointed father, whose only topic Page 241  |  Top of Article
James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in a 2005 production of On Golden Pond

James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in a 2005 production of On Golden Pond Photo by Scott Suchman
of conversation with her has always been baseball, as if he were ignoring the fact that she is not male. As an adult, she has kept herself at a distance, infrequently visiting her parents.

Very little in the script seems to motivate Chelsea and Norman's reconciliation toward the end of On Golden Pond, except her sense, encouraged by her mother, that if she does not make peace with her father now, there will not be much time left in his life for her to do so. Perhaps her own aging and the need to be "normal" are also factors. Her meeting Bill Ray, the decent, successful, straightforward dentist with the son who brightens her father's summer and brings verve to his life, may also have given her the strength to give up needing her father's approval and to let go of the anger that has resulted from getting so little of it.

Their reconciliation, consequently, is much more the result of Chelsea's capitulation to the reality of her need to love her father and her accepting that she wishes him to love her than it is of a dramatically developed, mutual realization of each other or a recognition on his part that she is a person. To make contact with him, she apologizes to her father, "I just wanted to say … that I'm sorry." His response—"Fine. No problem."—seems to show no more interest in her than he has ever shown. But she persists, "Don't you want to know what I'm sorry about?" He ventures, "I suppose so." And she tells him, "I'm sorry that our communication has been so bad…. That I've been walking around with a chip on my shoulder." He says only, "Oh." When she continues, apologizing for not attending his retirement dinner, he only talks about what a funny speech he gave.

She persists in searching for some traction: "I think it would be a good idea if we tried … to have the kind of relationship we're supposed to have." He asks, "What kind of relationship are we supposed to have?" "Like a father and a daughter," she replies. "We've been mad at each other for too long." He answers in a telling fashion, "I didn't realize we were mad. I thought we just didn't like Page 242  |  Top of Articleeach other." The audience may infer from this exchange that she was "mad" at him because he did not like her. In view of the close and mutually gratifying relationship Norman has forged with Billy, the reason for his dislike of Chelsea seems quite simply to be because, being a daughter, she frustrated his wish for a son. Despite her father's apparently cool response, she forges ahead. "I want to be your friend," she says. Rather than yielding verbally, he retorts with what seems like a passive reproach: "Does this mean you're going to come around more often?" She says yes, and he responds, still remaining distant, at least on the surface, "It would mean a lot to your mother," overtly saying nothing about himself. She answers, "Okay," and the stage direction reads "They look at each other a moment, nothing more to say." She picks up the dialogue where he left off before her intervention, "Now you want to tell me about the Yankees?"

In print, Norman comes off as rather cold and unsympathetic in this exchange and Chelsea as perhaps more generous than she ought to be. Many in the audience might think that she has a valid grievance, rather than a chip on her shoulder. But the written text itself is only scaffolding, something like a musical score that must be brought to life through the interpretation of performers. The meaning and intensity of the confrontation depend on how the actors play it and what they bring to it. Norman's dialogue is hardly Shakespearean, but all of what Norman says can be delivered by an actor in such a way as to suggest everything that he might feel but is unable to say. What comes across on the page as dry, detached, and cold may be used onstage to show desperate struggle, inner turmoil, the conflict between love and embarrassment, and quiet self-conquest. Thus, when Chelsea finally tells Norman that she has married Bill, his elaborate but familiar ritual of teasing, evasion, and punning can signify a real connection with her rather than withdrawal. The one word, "Yes," he directs at her, in response to Ethel's rhetorical, "Isn't that wonderful?" in the midst of his usual verbal high jinks, can be fraught with an immensity of acceptance. The revelation that the actor playing Norman can bring to the scene is that the reason Norman longed for a son, rather than a daughter, was not that he valued a boy more but that he was unable to tolerate the emotion having and loving a daughter might provoke in him. He was too embarrassed by his love for her to express it or even to permit it. The strength of his evasion, then, can serve to indicate, in inverse ratio, the strength of his love, a love too strong for him to express, a current too powerful for the wire. Even his expressions of love for Ethel, after all, are often tinged with protective irony.

One further challenge is given to the actor playing Norman. His characteristic evasiveness and witty digressive tangents, his professorial absent-mindedness, might no longer be only what they seem but instead indications of an incipient senility and the approach of death. Death does pay a warning visit in the last scene of the play, when Norman suffers a minor heart attack. The combination of the real awareness of mortality, contact with Billy, and reconciliation with his daughter creates in him a renewed desire for life, which he expresses with his familiar ironic reserve. But through Norman's characteristic understatement, cynicism, and detachment, the actor playing him can clearly signify his connection with life and his family, instead of evasion. Indeed, Ethel's closing words of the play—"Hello, Golden Pond. We've come to say goodbye."—are moving because they encapsulate in one utterance the melancholy awareness at the core of the play, which Norman, too, has come to realize and accept, that greeting and parting are inextricably implicated in each other.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on On Golden Pond, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Linda Armstrong

In the following review of a 2005 production of On Golden Pond, Armstrong calls the play "a flawless piece of theater," and praises Thompson for creating "a piece that is filled with human frailty as well as laughter."

On Golden Pond is a very funny and sometimes moving play. James Earl Jones is delightful, rude, amusing and vulnerable in the lead role of Norman Thayer. Leslie Uggams is spirited, funny and charming as his wife and co-star, Ethel.

These characters staying at their summer lakeside home on Golden Pond have a vacation that everyone who sees this production will remember. On Golden Pond is really a play about what all people can go through when they become old, no matter their ethnic background. It deals with the love that lasts over decades between a couple, but also shows the ornery side of a person who is being affected by growing old—losing his memories and losing his train of thought. Norman is turning 80 and can't remember which people are in various pictures displayed in their lakeside home. This is Page 243  |  Top of Articlealso a story about the strained relationship that can happen between a father and daughter.

Although there are a few emotional scenes in this magnificent production, most of the play is filled with humor. Norman has a quick, often sarcastic or rude reply to anything he hears, and Ethel doesn't shy away from letting him know he's an "old poop." Norman, however, tends to be the source of humor, with his saucy comments. In one scene his daughter Chelsea (powerfully performed by Linda Powell) comes to the family's home with Bill (well done by Peter Francis James), her fiancé, and his 13-year-old son, Billy (marvelously played by Alexander Mitchell). When the boy meets Norman he tells him he's old. Norman says, "You should meet my father." When Billy asks if his father is still alive, Norman replies with a straight face, "No, but you should meet him."

Anyone who comes in contact with Norman is fair game. When Bill is left alone to talk with Norman and asks if it's o.k. to sleep with Chelsea while they spend the week with them, Norman puts him through the ringer. Then he tells him, "I would be delighted to have you abusing my daughter—upstairs. Do you want to violate her in the same bedroom I did Ethel?"

Playwright Ernest Thompson, who also wrote the original movie and past Broadway stage version of this play, has created a piece that is filled with human frailty as well as laughter. Norman becomes a very sympathetic character, in a scene in which Ethel asks him to pick some strawberries. She names the location and when he comes back within moments with an empty basket, she is livid. As she questions him, he has to painfully admit that he didn't know how to find the place where the strawberries were. When he walked away from the house, nothing looked familiar. He had to run home to see her pretty face and to reassure himself that he was himself. As Norman shares his fears, Ethel is moved to comfort him. She holds him and promises to show him where the strawberries are and pick them.

In this scene, as well as others in the production, Uggams and Jones simply shined.

Uggams has such a warm and loving presence on the stage, and Jones is a gem.

Thompson also presents Norman as someone who had a difficult relationship with his daughter when she was growing up. Chelsea could never please him and has grown to dislike and resent him. Anytime they are together they go at each other. Powell is captivating as Chelsea. She is vulnerable to her father's mean-spirited comments and easily able to fire back. Powell clearly demonstrates the deep emotions that this character goes through, from being hurt and feeling inadequate to being angry and then allowing herself to be vulnerable and extend the olive branch to begin mending their relationship.

On Golden Pond is a flawless piece of theater, from the phenomenal acting performances of the cast to the fabulous script by Thompson and the precious direction by Leonard Foglia.

This incredible production is playing at the Cort Theater, where I had the pleasure of attending the opening night. The theater was full of celebrities, including Tony Award winners Lillias White, Audra McDonald, and Brian Stokes Mitchell; singer Dionne Warwick; and former Mayor David Dinkins.

"This is an event. Anytime you see a great play with great actors, it's always a plus," said dancer/choreographer/actor Maurice Hines.

Referring to Uggams and Jones, actor/writer/composer Lee Summers said, "They are theatrical royalty. No finer actors of any color could have been chosen for this production." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Linda Powell's father, also attended opening night with her mother and sister.

Commenting on Linda's performance, Powell said, "It's always a delight to watch her on stage. We saw the show in Washington. It's just so polished. When she's on stage, I'm more nervous than she is."

Source: Linda Armstrong, "On Golden Pond Shimmers with Spectacular Performances," in New York Amsterdam News, Vol. 96, No. 16, April 14, 2005, pp. 22-23.

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Kevin Kelly

The following interview finds Thompson amid the buzz of his Oscar win for On Golden Pond. He shares with Kelly background on his beginnings as a playwright and discusses some of his newer works.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

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Source: Kevin Kelly, "The Importance of Being Ernest," in Boston Globe, April 11, 1982, p. 1.

SOURCES

Armstrong, Linda, "On Golden Pond Shimmers with Spectacular Performances," in the New York Amsterdam News, Vol. 96, No. 16, April 14, 2005, pp. 22-23.

Harris, Paul, Review of On Golden Pond, in Variety, Vol. 396, No. 8, October 11, 2004, p. 68.

Hirschhorn, Joel, Review of On Golden Pond, in Daily Variety, Vol. 271, No. 44, May 1, 2001, p. 12.

Hofler, Robert, "Return to 'Pond,'" in Variety, Vol. 398, No. 7, April 4, 2005, p. 79.

Kipling, Kay, "A Pleasant Reverie Awaits On Golden Pond," in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 23, 2000, Section E, p. 2.

Novick, Julius, Review of On Golden Pond, in Back Stage, Vol. 46, No. 16, April 21, 2005, p. 48.

On Golden Pond, Universal Pictures, 1981.

Thompson, Ernest, On Golden Pond, Dramatists Play Service, 1979, pp. 3, 5, 13, 15, 18, 20-21, 35, 43, 58, 60, 62.

――――――――, On Golden Pond, Dodd, Mead, 1979, p. 79.

FURTHER READING

Bigsby, C. W. E., ed., Modern American Drama, 1945–2000, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

This book provides comments and insights from America's best-loved modern playwrights, including Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee, and Arthur Miller. Plays, biographies, and essays make this an important volume for anyone wanting to understand the breadth and importance of modern drama.

Mamet, David, Three Uses for the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, Vintage, 2000.

David Mamet, one of the foremost playwrights of the contemporary stage, offers three essays about the centrality of drama to human nature. He discusses the theory of drama and gives experienced insights into the craft of writing plays.

Nielsen, Linda, Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship You Always Wanted with Your Dad, McGraw-Hill, 2004.

This how-to book provides daughters with the support, awareness, and encouragement they need to reach out to their fathers and build stronger, healthier relationships. She reviews the importance of the father-daughter relationship, along with a review of the common conflicts.

O'Reilly, Evelyn M., Decoding the Cultural Stereotypes about Aging: New Perspectives on Aging Talk and Aging Issues, Garland Publishing, 1997.

O'Reilly presents the results of her study about the aging process and the place of the elderly in American culture. Considering aging issues from the perspective of the elderly, she explores issues such as language, conflict, and social engagement.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"On Golden Pond." Drama for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 23, Gale, 2006, pp. 225-246. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3420700022%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D558748cc. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420700022

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  • American Northeast
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  • Anger
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  • Drama
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  • Europe
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  • Facing Mortality
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  • Fate and Chance
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  • Film
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