Born in Bellows Falls, Vermont in 1949, Ernest Thompson first became interested in theater during his high school years. In college he acted and began writing plays, graduating from American University in 1971. Seven years later, after a variety of work in theater, Thompson scored his first, and still his greatest, success as the author of On Golden Pond. The play opened off-Broadway in 1978, subsequently moving to Broadway in 1979. Two years after that, in 1981, the play was turned into a successful Hollywood movie starring Katherine Hepburn and the father-daughter team of Henry and Jane Fonda. Thompson won an Oscar in 1982 for his adaptation of the play into a film script.
His second Broadway production, The West Side Waltz, opened in 1981, with Katherine Hepburn in the lead role.
Thompson has since written numerous film and television scripts.
In his “Introduction” to the acting edition of On Golden Pond, Thompson notes that the play, “has been produced in forty countries, in three Broadway houses and in theatres all across America. . . . I wrote and directed a musical version and a live television production starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.” And yet, he continues to tinker with the script: “after all that, I’m still trying to get it right.”
He goes on to say that, while writing the play as a young man of 28, he thought he was creating a “study in dysfunction, one family’s struggles with what we all struggle with—age, rage, regret, love withheld, love unspoken, disappointment and, ultimately, if we’re lucky, forgiveness, acceptance and renewal.” However, he has observed that many productions show, “a tendency . . . to make the play softer and sweeter than intended,” possibly because of its abundant humor and strong emotions. What he wants is for actors, “not to yield to the tenderness, but to keep the tension real, and, in the process, the stakes high.”
The play is named after its setting, a fact that should alert us to the importance of place in shaping the actions and emotions of the characters.
The plot unfolds in “the living room of a summer home on Golden Pond, in Maine. . . . The house was built in 1914 . . . and it has aged well.” It has none of the “sparkling” glamour of the homes pictured in House Beautiful—a magazine that focuses on interior decorating—but is instead, “rich and wrinkled and comfortable-looking.” Through the windows, “can be seen trees, and then a brightness because the sun is reflecting on the lake down below. If one looked far enough, one could see mountains in the distance. And that is all. Just a house on the lake in the woods.”
There are, of course, real locations like this house; but the stage directions also describe a mythical place, an American Eden. Consider the key terms that define this space: The Lake; The Woods; The Mountains; Maine—a list of words almost incantatory in its power, a litany evoking a dream of rustic perfection. And also a dream of stability and security: “Everything looks as though it’s been there forever, and while the room is cluttered it still looks like a nice place to curl up and take a nap.” And if you did that, you would be surrounded by a cloud of benign images, photographs of those who have lived in or visited this house, the genii loci, as the Romans called them: the spirits of the place. “Everywhere . . . [p]ictures of people, groups, families, children, animals, . . . the whole room a huge photo album, a huge book of memories.”
At first sight, it seems deeply ironic for the playwright to place his story of “dysfunction . . . age, rage, regret, love withheld, love unspoken, [and] disappointment” in the midst of such an idyllic place. Doing so emphasizes the contrast between the flawed and emotionally wounded characters and the nearly utopian atmosphere of the setting. But in the end the plot moves beyond “dysfunction” and into the land of “forgiveness, acceptance, and renewal,” as if the spiritual power of the house on the lake in the woods has cast a happy, transformative spell over its inhabitants. The pond is, after all, “golden,” named after an element long associated with prosperity, excellence, and the healing power of the sun.
The chronological setting is also important, moving as it does through the full cycle of the summer season. As the play begins, it is mid-May, with spring turning into summer, and black flies swarming in the woods. The house is still in its winter garments. Dust cloths cover the furniture, which is stacked every which-way, and the rugs are all rolled up. The next scene takes place in the middle of June, with the house now ship-shape for the summer, and with strawberries and mosquitoes in the open fields. Then comes mid-July and high summer, with fishing and swimming in the warmed-up lake. Then mid-August: more fishing and swimming, but the days are getting shorter and the nights cooler. And finally, mid-September, with the housed re-dressed for winter, the bugs all gone, and the long dark nights just around the corner. This succession of months, each with its own specific and recurrent features, reminds us of the enduring rhythms of nature. And against the background of this perpetual cycle we see human lives traveling their short and one-way roads. June will always return, but 80-year-old Professor Thayer and his 70-year-old wife, Ethel—the play’s main characters—won’t.
The action unfolds in five scenes organized into two acts. Scenes 1 through 3 of Act I take us from mid-May to mid-July. Scenes 1 and 2 of Act II occur in August and September.
As the play opens, Norman Thayer, Jr.—an Ivy-League English professor emeritus—is trying to determine if the telephone in his summer house has survived the winter. As he banters with the telephone operator in Waterville, we see the first expressions of his character, which combines a teasing sense of humor with an almost histrionic orneriness. Two months shy of his eightieth birthday, he seems determined to play the role of witty curmudgeon to the hilt. As he wrangles with the operator, his wife of forty-eight years, Ethel, enters from outside, having been walking in the woods, admiring the burgeoning beauty of a Maine spring day—and coping with the black flies.
The two chat about their neighbors on the pond as they ready the house for the summer season, removing dust covers, unrolling carpets, and setting the furniture in order. Via their seemingly random talk, we learn about the Misses Appley and Tate, Charlie, the mailman, and their daughter, Chelsea, who—Norman is surprised to learn—is forty-two years old. His mild shock at learning his daughter’s age is the first hint we get of the emotional distance between them. Our sense that there are difficulties in their relationship deepens as Norman and Ethel discuss her high school swimming career:
NORMAN. Look. Here’s [a photo of] Chelsea on the swim team at school. She wasn’t exactly thin. . . . It’s no wonder she couldn’t do a back flip. No center of gravity.
That final, terse dismissal of the subject tells us that the conversation is approaching territory that Norman doesn’t want to enter. Chelsea’s failed attempt to please her father is the tip of an emotional iceberg that the play will explore much more fully as the plot unfolds.
Other touchy subjects that come up as Norman and Ethel settle into their summer house are old age and its close companion, death. Ethel tries to convince herself and her husband that, at 69 and 79, they are both still middle-aged. Norman will have none of it: “We’re not, you know. We’re not middle-aged. You’re old, and I’m ancient.” And when Norman fantasizes about ending his life by diving off the mantel and into the fireplace, Ethel reprimands him:
ETHEL. Your fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor. . . . Don’t you have anything else to think about?
No doubt Norman’s heart problems—which become more prominent as the plot develops— account for his fascination with death and for his general sense that the good things are “all behind” him now.
But Ethel rejects this pessimism. She rejoices in the happiness of the season and the cabin, emotions summed up by the appearance of a pair of loons on the pond: “Black and sleek. Lovely animals. . . . Oh, Norman, they’re nudging each other. They’re talking. . . . They’re kissing, is what they’re doing.” Clearly, the amorous birds symbolize her and her husband, still touchingly bonded after all these years:
ETHEL. Do you realize this is our forty-eighth summer together, Norman? Our forty-eighth summer on Golden Pond.
With this exchange, the first scene ends.
Scene 2 takes us to the middle of June. Ethel is out picking strawberries, while Norman scans the newspaper want-ads, allegedly looking for a job—a typical piece of curmudgeonly theatrics. Ethel insists that he get out and pick his own bucket of berries.
While he’s gone, Charlie the mailman shows up and tells a story about how his mother fell on her rear end while clearing brush for the town with the Ladies’ Auxiliary. Norman returns with an empty bucket, apparently having made no effort to pick strawberries. He joins Ethel and Charlie, who has brought a package for him—heart medication, as it turns out.
The conversation turns to Chelsea, who has sent her parents a letter informing them that she is planning to visit on the occasion of her father’s eightieth birthday in July. When Charlie, who had once hoped to marry Chelsea, asks Norman how his daughter is doing, Norman refers the question to Ethel: “Oh, I don’t know. You’d have to ask her mother”—another symptom of the father-daughter rift that began to surface during the preceding scene. We also learn that Chelsea never had children, and that she will be bringing her new boyfriend, a dentist, along for the visit. Charlie wonders what happened to Chelsea’s husband, and is told by Ethel that, “He didn’t work out.” We don’t learn very much more about this figure, but he does hover over the subsequent action, making occasional ghostly appearances as characters allude to or mention him.
Norman assumes that Chelsea’s new boyfriend is Jewish because he is a dentist, a supposition which leads to an odd and intentionally provocative discussion of ethnicity in Maine. According to Norman “There are no native Jews in Maine. Just as there are no native Negroes here, or native Puerto Ricans.” Norman explains that these demographic “facts” constitute “some of the charms of [Charlie’s] habitat. Some of the reasons why we like it so well.” Whether these ethnic jibes—which keep popping up through the script—are evidence of bigotry on Norman’s part or just an element of his performance as a cantankerous WASP geezer remains unclear.
Charlie leaves, and Norman resumes his fantasy of getting a summer job, which prompts this exchange:
ETHEL. Whatever is the matter with you. . . . You’ve always loved being here on Golden Pond with nothing to do. Why is this summer any different?
These notes of fear and consolation bring Scene 2 to an end.
Scene 3 occurs in mid-July on a doubly notable day: Norman is celebrating his eightieth birthday, and Chelsea is returning to Golden Pond after an absence of eight years. But, as Norman notes tartly, she’s late in getting there. As the scene begins evening is approaching, and Norman appears “dressed quite nattily” in honor of the festivities. He observes that Ethel has hung a sign over the fireplace welcoming Chelsea home, and notes dryly, “I see my birthday wasn’t cause enough for a celebration.” When he wonders why her former husband was so timid, Ethel notes, “Every poor soul she’s brought home has been timid around you. You attack them so.” Norman denies this, and swears to be the perfect host this time around, overwhelming Chelsea and her boyfriend with his charm. He also notes that Chelsea has had no children, which means that, “We’re the last of the Thayers, you know. End of the line for a damn good name.” Norman’s longing for grandchildren will determine events later in the play.
The sound of a car announces that Chelsea has arrived. She enters, and the tension between her and her father is immediately apparent. She greets Ethel as “mommy,” and her father as “Norman,” registering sharply different degrees of intimacy toward each. “Fending off any emotion he may be feeling,” Norman responds to her birthday wishes, saying, “Look at this little fat girl, Ethel,” going directly for Chelsea’s sore spot, her weight having been what prevented her from being a successful diver.
The tension between them thus clearly established—however jauntily—Chelsea proceeds to spring a surprise on her parents: she has arrived not only with her boyfriend, Bill Ray, but with his thirteen-year-old son, Billy, who turns out to be flippant, awkward, eager, and bright. In his established manner, Norman immediately starts needling the boy, who responds with spirit. The two go off together to settle Billy into his room, and Chelsea asks Ethel about her father’s memory lapses. At this point Bill the dentist arrives, “a tad self-serious but with a good sense of humor when he remembers to use it.”
Norman and Billy return, and introductions follow, with Norman falling into his customary, mildly-insulting leg-pulling mode. When Ethel, Chelsea, and Billy go out to “greet the lake,” Bill stays behind to have a man-to-man talk with Norman, thus entering a briar patch of barbed witticisms and baffling non-sequiturs, all calculated to establish Norman’s dominance and Bill’s discomfort. But Norman may have met his match in the dentist. When Bill requests permission to share a bed with Chelsea during their stay, Norman responds in character:
NORMAN. Ethel and your son and I could all sleep out back and you could do it right here on the hearth. Like that idea? . . .
After a moment’s pause, Norman recognizes that Bill isn’t just another boyfriend ripe for intimidation. At that point, young Billy returns from the lake in a state of high excitement about having paddled a canoe. Norman invites the boy to go fishing, and directs him to go upstairs and begin reading the first chapter of Swiss Family Robinson. Which Billy promptly does, finding “something in Norman’s authority that [he] responds to, not unfavorably.” He even stops slouching at Norman’s command, further evidence of a developing bond between them.
As Billy disappears with his book, Ethel returns from the lake and makes a proposal to Norman: she wants them to keep Billy for a month while Chelsea and Bill travel in Europe. Surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly, given the scene that has just passed—Norman agrees, bringing the scene and Act I to a close.
Left alone in the house for a moment, Ethel turns meditative and begins to sing to herself the official song of Camp Koochakiyi, where both she and Chelsea spent many of their summers on Golden Pond. As she does, Chelsea enters, returned from Europe, just as planned, on the 15th of August. She seems upbeat, and Ethel observes that, “You’re in a huggy mood today.” She also tells Chelsea that Billy’s visit has been a great success, the boy being “the happiest thing that’s happened to Norman [in a long time]. I should have rented him a thirteen-year-old boy years ago.” Chelsea immediately sees this as a glance at her own inadequacy—her failure to be a son instead of a daughter. She looks at the picture of herself on the swim team, and remembers her athletic failures, how she “was just trying to please Norman. Because he’d been a diver, in the eighteen hundreds.” Bitterness leads to bitterness, at last provoking Ethel to respond in kind:
ETHEL. Here we go again. You had a miserable childhood. Your father was overbearing, your mother ignored you. What else is new? . . You’re a big girl now; aren’t you tired of it all? You have this unpleasant chip on your shoulder which is very unattractive. . . . [A]ll you can do is be disagreeable about your past. Life marches on, Chelsea.
At this point, the script gives the actor playing Ethel a choice: she can either slam the table, or, depending on her bravery, she can slap Chelsea. In any case, the moment is a climax, and marks a turning point in the scene. Awkwardly they move on to other subjects, namely Chelsea’s announcement that she and Bill were married in Brussels. Ethel assures her that Norman will be surprised, and probably pleased, since he wants her to be happy—which leads to another bitter retort from Chelsea. Ethel warns her that the time for reconciliation with her father is running out: “Norman is eighty years old. He has heart palpitations and a problem remembering things. When exactly do you expect this friendship to begin?
At this moment, Billy and Norman return from their fishing expedition, soaked by the rain just as the loons predicted. Mother and son greet one another cheerfully, and Ethel takes Billy off to warm up in a hot shower, leaving Norman and Chelsea alone on stage. This is probably her last chance to clear the air and try to become friends with her father.
CHELSEA. We’ve been mad at each other for too long.
She promises to visit more frequently, he tells her Ethel would like that, and she informs him of her marriage in Brussels. Norman responds seemingly without his customary irony: “Oh, Bill! That is nice.” Ethel calls him up to the shower, and he exits, promising to talk to Chelsea later, who seems pleased at the prospect.
Charlie pays an unexpected visit, and he and Chelsea reminisce about the past. He asks her why she married her first husband, and she tells him, “I was sorry for him.” He then evokes the days when he would sit in his boat just off shore from Camp Koochakiyi, on the lookout for a glimpse of Chelsea, and listening to the girls sing. This is the cue for Chelsea and Ethel to end the scene as it began, by singing the camp song—this time not as a solo by Ethel, but as a duet for mother and daughter.
The final scene brings us to September and the end of the summer season, with Norman and Ethel reversing their actions from Scene I: covering furniture with dustcloths, rolling up the carpets, packing boxes. As they work, the phone rings, bringing them a call from Bill in California. He and Ethel chat pleasantly; Chelsea comes on the line and invites her parents to visit. Ethel is willing, but Norman is reluctant, though he agrees half-heartedly to consider the invitation. He then asks to talk to Billy. They josh with each other about fishing, books, and Billy’s success with “the chicks.” As the conversation is about to end, Billy tells Norman to “hang loose, okay? Cause I kinda miss you, dude.” And Norman replies, “Well, I miss you too.” Then, out of nowhere, Norman tells Billy that he and Ethel are going to visit Los Angeles, in the winter—no doubt about it.
So Norman seems to have found his missing grandson, while Ethel rejoices in the fact that Chelsea and Bill are “going to make a go of it.” Everything seems set for a placid transition from Golden Pond to their winter house in Wilmington, followed by a happy visit to California, where Norman will confirm his reconciliation with his daughter and grow even closer to Billy.
But then, as Norman struggles with a heavy boxful of china, he suddenly falls to the floor, clutching his chest. Norman’s summer-long obsession with death seems about to culminate with its arrival. In a panic Ethel searches for his medications and tries unsuccessfully to telephone the hospital. She finds the pills, administers the dose, and Norman recovers. But as they sit trying to absorb what just happened, Ethel admits that this moment was the first time she has felt the presence of death. Trying to banish the thought, she looks forward to next summer’s reading, berry-picking, and Monopoly-playing, with Billy in residence “for as long as he likes,” fishing with Norman. “I’ll make cookies and life will go on, won’t it?” Norman’s response is noncommittal: “I hope so.” As the play ends, Norman and Ethel head down to the lake for a last look. “Well,” Ethel says, “let’s go down. . . . Hello, Golden Pond. We’ve come to say goodbye.”
Much of the world’s drama is built around contrasting pairs of characters: Prince Hal and Falstaff; Othello and Iago; Nora and Torvald; Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, Laurel and Hardy, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, the Frasier Crane and his father, Martin. The list could be continued indefinitely, and it would certainly include Norman and Ethel in their summer house on Golden Pond..
In some of these pairs, the characters are adversaries—like Othello and Iago--while in others they complement one another, each a foil to his or her counterpart. Norman and Ethel fall into the latter category.
As a retired English professor, Norman is accustomed to performing before classrooms full of impressionable and mostly docile students. And he is also skilled at handling words—playing on double meanings, accidental resemblances, over- and understatement, sly ironies. Performance and verbal gamesmanship are thus at the core of his character and account for much of what he does on stage. He constantly trips people up with unexpected questions or loopy transitions from topic to topic, steering the conversation like a bus driver trying to throw his passengers off balance. In the process he amuses himself at the expense of others, while keeping almost everyone at emotional arm’s length.
We can see this kind of behavior at the beginning of the crucial father-daughter encounter initiated by Chelsea, who at this point wants very much to mend the breech between herself and Norman. As he stands drenched from the rain storm that ended his fishing trip, he makes a stab at small talk with his daughter:
NORMAN. Did you hear what the stupid Yankees did?
This is typical of Norman. By intentionally misunderstanding Chelsea’s motives at this moment he tries to transform the situation from a sincere attempt at reconciliation into a scene from a farce—the greedy heir sucking up to the rich old relative. Norman is playing his usual game of showing off his wit while hiding his feelings, in the process creating emotional stalemate.
What made him this way? Consider his age and probable life experiences. An eighty-year-old Norman in 1978, the year the play was first produced, would have been born in 1898. He would have begun his teaching career around 1926, the middle of the roaring ‘twenties, when many members of his generation—Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, for example—were living the expat life in Paris. The Teaching of English in an American University before World War II was a profession in which conservative, Anglo-Saxon professors were a dominant presence among the senior faculty. Would Norman have felt completely at ease among such colleagues?
At this point, we recall that Ethel says of Billy that he is the happiest thing that has happened to Norman since Roosevelt. So we must assume that Norman was a New Deal liberal at age 34, when Roosevelt was elected. That year—1932—would also have been about the time Norman was standing for tenure in his department—tenure being a lifetime, unbreakable employment contract awarded to college and university faculty members, ostensibly on the basis of their achievements as teachers and scholars. However, the fact that other, non-professional considerations might play a role in the awarding of tenure wasn’t—and still isn’t—unheard of. Considerations like a faculty member’s political beliefs. Thus, we can imagine Norman, an ardent supporter of Roosevelt, taking care to keep his political feelings disguised from his conservative senior colleagues, the people evaluating him for tenure. This could well lead to a strategy of ironic self-concealment and evasiveness in matters of personal feeling or belief, and a general desire to control any social situation by keeping possible adversaries—like the senior members of his department—at arm’s length. Possibly Norman carried that pattern of behavior into his family life, and when he began to see his adolescent daughter as a source of difficulty or a threat to his happiness, he began treating her like a distrusted colleague.
But it’s no longer 1978. The playwright tells us in his notes that he wants various references in the script updated to suit the moment of each new production. In other words, he wants the play acted as if the time were the present. The present is now 2012, and eighty-year-old Norman is now a man born in 1932, whose teaching career began about 1960, and who experienced the transformation of the university from the placid intellectual oasis of the 1950s into the battleground of radical politics, sexual liberation, and counter-cultural hubbub that it became by 1970. In this scenario, we can imagine Norman beginning his career as a conventional academic liberal who becomes increasingly alienated by the passionate absurdities of many campus radicals. How would he react? He certainly wouldn’t answer passion with passion; instead, we can suppose that he would have responded to his beaded, hirsute, flower-wearing students with exactly the kind of condescending irony and curmudgeonly rejection that he displays in the play.
In this scenario, forty-two-year-old Chelsea would have been born in 1970, and would have entered adolescence in the early ‘80s, when the mores and tastes of the late ‘60s had seeped from the campus into virtually every corner of American life. We can imagine a teen-aged Chelsea listening to music that Norman loathed, taking sexual risks that appalled him, and spouting opinions that reminded him of the bumptious students he had spent his career quietly mocking. Now she was turning into one of them, and he, perhaps reflexively, might have treated her accordingly.
Why does Norman take so affectionately to Billy? Perhaps it’s because Billy is a younger version of himself. Ethel calls Billy a “joker” at one point in the script, which means, perhaps, that he understands Norman’s shtick. As kids used to say while exchanging insults: “It takes one to know one.” The fact that Billy “gets” him—as Ethel does, and as Chelsea never could—means that Norman really has found a kind of son: an unrelated apple that has fallen right under his tree. They enjoy teasing each other—exchanging jokes, affectionate insults, and puns, with neither of them taking offense, and neither feeling rejection or, in Thompson’s words, “love withheld.”
Ethel, unlike her husband, actively seeks out human contact, bringing back from her walk in the woods news about Charlie, about the Misses Appley and Tate, and about a new couple renting a nearby cottage who have invited her and Norman to dinner. She tells Norman that his “fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor,” and instead of thinking morbid thoughts, she looks forward to a summer full of seasonal pleasures, and takes joy in the mating behavior of the loons on the lake. Where Charlie is glass-half-full—or, rather, nearly-empty—kind of guy, Ethel sees the world as a cup brimming with rich possibilities. And by identifying herself and Norman as middle-aged, she places herself in the thick of life, not on its terminal edge.
In all these ways, she is Norman’s opposite, and yet the dialogue shows no obvious tension or animosity between them. However, bearing in mind the playwright’s injunction to beware tenderness and to keep the stakes high, we could certainly imagine the actress playing Ethel expressing occasional impatience and irritation at Norman through gesture, body-language, or other non-verbal means. But even so, we must ask what it is in her nature that finds Norman’s contrarian personality attractive after forty-eight years of marriage.
We might begin with the summer house itself, built by her family and passed on to her as a daughter’s inheritance. Growing up she could immerse herself in the spiritual tranquility of what Chelsea mockingly calls, “the perfect house on the perfect lake.” As a girl, she also spent many summers at Camp Koochakiyi, absorbing the peacefulness and beauty of the pond and the woods. Such an environment has produced a woman who embodies its central features: harmony, balance, and peace.
And as a result, Norman’s irony and detachment fail to faze her. We can see this in Scene 1 as they recall Chelsea’s mediocre career on the swim team:
ETHEL. She only did it for you anyway. She only wanted to please you.
With his monosyllabic response to Ethel’s comment on her daughter’s motives, Norman tries to steer the conversation away from the fraught subject of his relationship with Chelsea. But Ethel persists, envisioning a visit from their daughter to Golden Pond. This time, Norman explicitly changes the subject by suggesting a game of Parcheesi. Ethel accepts that Norman has evaded her attempts to discuss Chelsea, and brushes off the Parcheesi game, but with no explicit expression of irritation. Instead, she directs her energy into cleaning windows, as if mere contact with house can cast a calming spell over her.
She loses her composure twice: once when Chelsea calls her father an “old son of a bitch,” and again when Norman collapses from severe palpitations. Attacks on Norman, by his daughter or his own failing heart, provoke her because, as she tells Chelsea, “That old son of a bitch happens to be my husband.” That word “husband,” standing on an etymological foundation meaning “keeper of the house,” resonates powerfully in Ethel’s mind. The house may have belonged to her family, but now Norman is its co-keeper. He and she own it together, and it owns them. They are joined in it and through it. Nobody ever quotes Scripture in this play, but hovering in the consciousness of this old WASP family would be the Gospel of St. Mark (10, 6-9):
[F]rom the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. 7For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Norman and Ethel certainly started off as “twain,” a pair of separate and distinctly contrasting individuals, and in matters of temperament they have remained “twain” in many ways. But forty-eight years of marriage have also made them “one flesh,” with Ethel having absorbed Norman’s peculiarities the way a tree accepts a graft. Which reminds us of Ovid’s tale of Philemon and Baucis, who “had married young . . . [and] grown old together / In the same cottage.” As a reward for their hospitality to visitors—gods in disguise—they were given the gift of inseparability, and transformed into “two trees close together. . . . the union / Of oak and linden in one” (Humphries translation, pp 200-204). Notice, the trees are different species—twain—but in Ovid’s story, they grow together as perpetual companions. Philemon and Baucis transcend death through metamorphosis. Ethel and Norman can’t count on that sort of miracle, but thanks to forty-eight years of marriage they have morphed into an inseparable pair.
Chelsea claims that Norman has made her feel like a person of no value, an understandable response to a constant stream of ironic put-downs. But except for Norman’s expressions of disappointment in her athletic abilities, we don’t learn the specific ways she has been made to feel this worthlessness. However, we can draw some inferences from what the script does tell us about her life thus far.
She has been married and divorced, she is childless, she has brought a string of timid boyfriends home to be further intimidated by her father, and she is just “settling down” at age forty-two. So, unlike her parents, she has led an emotionally messy life, marked by failed relationships. That sort of instability would surely have provoked Norman’s disapproval, though he would have expressed it through barbed understatement rather than in fits of angry chastisement. In an effort to escape his quiet censure, she has moved as far away from the world of Golden Pond as possible: Los Angeles. She has avoided Norman’s company for eight years, and while she calls Ethel “mommy,” she calls her father “Norman,” as if he were an acquaintance rather than a parent.
Is her anger at Norman justified by his behavior, or does she use her father’s emotional evasiveness as a convenient excuse for the failures and disappointments of her own life? Probably a bit of both. But it is notable that she reaches out to Norman in search of reconciliation after entering into her “adult marriage” to Bill and after becoming his son’s stepmother. Now that she has put her emotional house in order, she has no further need of someone to blame for problems that are disappearing.
Ethel remarks several times in the script that Norman is obsessed by death, that in fact he has “been talking about dying” ever since they first met. Now that he is turning eighty and has a bad heart, death stands immediately before him, no longer some philosophical or literary abstraction. In fact, in the final scene death comes terrifyingly close—near enough for Ethel to feel its presence for the first time.
In one of the great poems in the English language, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”—a poem Professor Thayer would have certainly known—we find a definitive expression of the carpe diem theme, one of the standard tropes of classical literature. Carpe diem means “seize the day,” that is, don’t put off until tomorrow the joy you can experience now, don’t let the opportunity for happiness pass you by. Marvell writes to his beloved, “Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady were no crime.” They could wait for endless tomorrows to consummate their passion. The tomorrows, however, are far from endless:
But at my back I always hear
Marvell’s poem is about sexual love, but the principle of carpe diem applies to any of life’s evanescent possibilities. On Golden Pond is a carpe diem play. As Ethel and Norman face death—the “deserts of vast eternity”—they realize that the time to heal the wounds in their lives is now or never. The “winged chariot” is about to overtake them, and before it does they have work to do with Chelsea and with Billy that can no longer be put off. Work that, perhaps, has already been put off too long. As Norman’s collapse vividly demonstrates, next season on Golden Pond is by no means a sure thing. Nor is the winter visit to California. The Camp Koochakiyi song, another carpe diem poem sung twice in the play, makes the same point: “Our minds are clear and our hearts are strong / We are dancing here, but we won’t be long.”
The play leaves us grateful that Norman has started to mend his relationship with Chelsea, but also wondering if he has begun the job too late to finish it.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.