By Heidi N. Madsen
Mention this play—most commonly associated with the movie adapted from the original script—by dramatist Ernest Thompson to the majority of people and their eyes may glaze over much like the amber waters of a silent pond in Maine. The very title, On Golden Pond, conjures images of docile nature and serene isolation; and yet, like most everything else, the spirit of the play lies beneath the often deceptively composed and tranquil surface. Although the script never reaches the tragic fathoms of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for example, similarly profound issues of a social and psychological nature are at the very heart of this play, with definite undercurrents at work, such as domestic strife and dysfunction; and the vulnerability of knowledge, of peace, and of life itself.
An early reviewer of the play from The New Yorker remarks on the “courage it must have taken for Mr. Thompson, in the 1970s, to write a play with so much affection in it” (quoted in On Golden Pond [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1979], back cover). On Golden Pond is not, however, as artistically naïve and overemotional as one might conclude from such a statement; in fact, the play is not so much effusive as it is essential, in that it deals with the most basic feature of humankind—the heart.
The flawed hero and villain, Norman Thayer, is turning eighty; and his aging heart is arrhythmic. He and his unfaltering wife Ethel, who is ten years his junior, have returned to their summer home on Golden Pond, in Maine just as they have done for many years past. The house itself is a narrative of their life together, with memorabilia, photographs, books, and bric-a-brac marking the interior, like the dog-eared pages of a worn and well-read book. Norman is having trouble remembering things—old faces in photographs, old trails in the forest around the pond. As a learned man and a former educator, he is reluctant to see facts and details muted into shadows. Once an imposing, respected figure, Norman is frightened and unaccustomed to frailty of either mind or body. In this organic setting on Golden Pond among all the natural phenomena and living things a man battles nature’s ebbs and flows. As Joyce Carol Oates says, “Confronted with the ungovernable processes of nature, many men—and not just the baffled, infuriated Lear—imagine that their ‘wits begin to turn’’ (“Is This the Promised End?” Contraries Essays [http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/southerr/lear.html], 13th paragraph). Ethel is Norman’s anchor, however, she is not blind to his faults: he is proud and willfully controversial, an “old poop,” really, but, for her at least, a lovable one.
Unlike her mother, Chelsea Thayer, the couple’s forty-two year old daughter, is deeply troubled by her father’s off-handed manner. As a woman, she carries the bitterness of her childhood and of what she perceives to be her father’s disapproval and disregard of her: that she was not a boy and was too fat to do back-flips off the pier into the pond. She has relationship and self-image issues, and she blames Norman.
Here, also, must Thompson seem brave, as the dynamic between father and daughter is not easily or even often analyzed in artistic media. Lagretta Tallent Lenker reminds us of two other dramatists, William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, who “depicted the foibles of . . . fathers and daughters attempting to get the balance of their relationship right” (Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare and Shaw [Greenwood Press, 2001], 49). These attempts, however, were often comical, and though Thompson’s play refuses to be what Nietzsche calls the “art-work of pessimism,” it also declines to treat the subject too lightly or even too optimistically—settling instead, at the play’s end, for nothing more (or less) than father and daughter to become friends.
Finally, son to Chelsea’s latest love interest is thirteen-year-old Billy. Left on Golden Pond for several days while his father and Chelsea go off to get married, Billy is able to escape his own feelings of abandonment and frustration and form a significant attachment to Norman in particular. Conceivably, they are for each other a vital source of reassurance, if not hope; and this may well be the subtle moral of On Golden Pond, as undoubtedly there is one to be had in such a sympathetic and well-intentioned play. Life can and should be enjoyed regardless of the inevitabilities of nature; after all, as the delightful Ethel solicits, “Why can’t you just pick berries and catch fish and read books, and enjoy this sweet, sweet time?” (Act 1, Scene 2 [New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1979], 68).