Historical Context

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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 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.

Literary Style

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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...

(This entire section contains 576 words.)

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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 rascals" 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.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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.

Media Adaptations

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  • 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)

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide