On Golden Pond – Summary

On Golden Pond is a play by Ernest Thompson.  It was first performed on Broadway in 1979 and ran for 126 performances. It then took a summer break before reopening at a smaller theater for an additional 256 performances.  In 1981, On Golden Pond was adapted into a motion picture starring Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn.  A 2006 live television movie was produced by CBS starring Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews.

The play is, at its heart, a family drama exploring issues faced by three generations of the Thayer family.  Act 1 opens with Norman and Ethel Thayer, an older retired couple, arriving at their summer house near a lake called Golden Pond.  The couple spends every summer at the lake house. Although they usually go there alone, this year they will be joined by their daughter, Chelsea.

While they get settled into their home, Norman and Ethel inspect the summer house and find it in need of repairs.  There are hints that Norman is having memory problems, such as trouble remembering names and places that he should know.  The mailman drops off a letter from Chelsea and stops to reminisce about how he and Chelsea used to date.  He also remarks that it is a shame that Chelsea is getting older and never had any children.

Ethel reads the letter, which says that Chelsea is planning to come visit, along with her boyfriend Bill, so they can all celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday. Norman is confused as to why Chelsea has a boyfriend, until Ethel reminds him that she and her husband recently divorced.

When Chelsea arrives, her parents are surprised to find that she has a teenage boy with her.  She has neglected to tell her parents about her boyfriend’s son, Billy.  Chelsea says that she and BiIl are planning to vacation through Europe for the rest of the summer, and she asks her parents if Billy can stay with them.  Though Norman and Ethel are not looking forward to having a teenager who they cannot relate to in the house, they reluctantly agree to look after Billy.

During her stay with her parents, Chelsea reacquaints herself with the lake and surrounding woods. Her boyfriend attempts to make a good impression on Norman, but Norman’s relentless teasing offends him and causes him to become angry.  However, when left alone with Billy, Norman is more comfortable.  He invites Billy to go fishing and tells him to read the book Swiss Family Robinson.

Act 2 takes place a month later. Billy is still staying with Norman and Ethel, and as the scene opens, he and Norman are sneaking out of the house to go fishing.  Ethel catches the two of them and tells Norman that she doesn’t want them to go fishing again since they have too many fish and she doesn’t know what to do with all of them.  However, she relents when she discovers that Billy is excited about the trip and sends him out with a sack lunch.

While they are out, Chelsea arrives, having just returned from her European trip.  She is alone, since Bill went directly back to California; however, she says that they had a great time together.  She also tells Ethel that she and Bill got married while overseas, a development which excites her mother.

Norman and Billy return, and Ethel sends Billy upstairs to take a bath.  Norman and Chelsea are left alone, and Chelsea forces her father to have a difficult conversation with her about their past.  She apologizes for not coming to Norman’s retirement dinner and for allowing a rift to develop between them.  She tells Norman that she is married now, and promises to visit more often.

In the final scene of the play, Chelsea and Billy have left for California.  Norman and Ethel are packing up the summer home to leave or the season.  They discuss going to visit Chelsea in California, and Norman picks out fishing supplies that he plans to give Billy as a present.  Chelsea calls the house.  Norman is reluctant tot talk to his daughter, but is excited when she puts Billy on the line.

Norman picks up the last box to pack, but as he lifts it he begins having chest pains.  Ethel rushes to give him medication, but it does not seem to work.  She then attempts to call an ambulance, but the operator is slow to answer, Fortunately, Norman recovers on his own.  Ethel confesses that she is afraid of his impending death.  The two share a dance in the empty house, and Ethel says that their daughter has moved away, and they are truly alone.

The open ending makes On Golden Pond an effective meditation on aging.  The last scene serves to underline one of the major themes of the work:  Though Norman and Ethel are no longer as close to their daughter as they once were, Chelsea has brought Billy into their lives and given them new opportunities to connect with their grandson.