A Play Well Spent: The Matchmaker

Thornton Wilder, The Matchmaker (1954)

Ruth Gordon, the original Dolly

A while ago I made a project of reading all of Thornton Wilder’s novels, but I didn’t include the multifaceted author’s renowned plays. While two of his famous trio of dramas — Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth — were drummed into me back in high school, I’d never seen or read The Matchmaker, until now.

It’s a play with quite a history, it turns out. I knew that it was the basis of the hit musical Hello Dolly! (which I also have never seen), but I hadn’t known that it was itself built on at least three other layers of dramatic history. Wilder based it on his own earlier flop The Merchant of Yonkers, which was based on the Austrian farce Einen Jux will er sich Machen, based in turn on John Oxenford’s Victorian one-act A Day Well Spent. To complicate things further, Tom Stoppard used the same story for his own play On the Razzle. And all of these draw on even deeper antecedents, the stock comic characters of the miserly old man, the thwarted young lovers, the buffoonish servants, which have lived on stage since ancient times.

History aside, what makes The Matchmaker retain its appeal for readers and audiences today? What is its particular draw? The factor that Wilder added to his originals, including his own earlier version, was the character of the matchmaker herself, Dolly Levi. To the silly, slapstick comedy of two country bumpkins out on the town in defiance of their employer, she brings an element of benign generosity, as she truly wants everyone to find joy in life: “I want New York to be more like Vienna and less like a collection of nervous and tired ants.” And if she herself has set her sights on the wealthy merchant Horace Vandergelder (who thinks she’s arranging a marriage for him with a younger woman), we can be sure that he’ll find himself the happier for it.

Dolly, too, has a source in ancient drama: the parasite,  someone who is always trying to wangle dinner invitations and other perks from the wealthy (para=next to, sitos=dinner). But Wilder has transformed this figure of ridicule into a spirit of life, who calls us to free ourselves from bonds of convention and habit. It’s a wonderful role for an actress who, like Dolly, has reached the age of wisdom.

In reading the play, I could enjoy its snappy dialogue, with lines like Dolly’s “Money, I’ve always felt, money — pardon my expression — is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.” I could also appreciate its masterly construction around familiar comic situations (including suitors hiding in closets, mislaid moneybags, and mistaken identities). But I longed to see it in performance, to put flesh on what otherwise remains a mere skeleton on the page. I would love to have seen Ruth Gordon as Dolly — her publicity photos make her look elfish and enchanting. Barring that, we do have a film version that was made in 1958 with one of the original cast (Robert Morse as Barnaby).

Shirley Booth in the film

Alas, while the film lifts scenes and dialogues verbatim from the play, it changes its emphasis and characterization to emphasize Dolly’s parasitism and make her less attractive. Whereas the play starts out with curmudgeonly Vandergelder and introduces Dolly, the transformative element, later, the film un-subtly adds an opening scene in which Dolly is trying on a wedding ring, announcing her intention to marry Vandergelder, and calling herself a matchmaker (which she never does in the play). The subplot about the young lovers is eliminated entirely, which also reduces her role as a facilitator of happiness and causes other scenes to be invented and changed around in an unconvincing way.

The way the characters speak in monologues to the audience, a carryover from the play, highlights the difference between live theater and film. In the theater, such a device when used well increases the human connection between the actors and the audience, embracing them all within a common space. In a film, it marks and emphasizes the artificiality of the screen, giving a slight sense of embarrassment.

It’s not a bad movie, but I didn’t feel it captured what was special about The Matchmaker. The magical circle created by live theater, when actors and audience are part of a unique creation in the moment, is simply not possible with film — and that’s exactly what Wilder was so sensitive to with his plays. I’ll still be hoping to see this one on stage some day.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Play
Classics Club List #23


2 thoughts on “A Play Well Spent: The Matchmaker

  1. Wow, it was fascinating to read the history of this play – so complex! I didn’t know Hello Dolly was based on a Wilder play too – how wonderful, I feel like re-watching the film now! 🙂 It’s too bad the film version of the play did not capture the original very well.


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