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


Keeping It Short: Armchair BEA Day Three


Confession: I do not generally like novellas or short stories. If a story is worth telling, it seems to me it should go on for as long as possible — or at least for a good couple of hundred pages. I’m usually left unsatisfied by shorter works of fiction, and my favorite books tend to be on the long side. So for today’s Armchair BEA topic, which asks us to celebrate those small-scale narratives, I had to think hard to come up with a list of favorite shorts. But when I got started, I had a hard time stopping! It seems I do like short fiction, as long as there is enough of it.

The Light Princess and The Golden Key – George MacDonald
Two long fantasy stories by MacDonald, one a humorously profound tale about a princess who loses her gravity (in both senses), the other a dreamlike journey full of luminous images.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Not perhaps the strongest story about consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his indispensable companion, Dr. Watson, but it’s good to start at the beginning and learn how their partnership began, while being introduced to Holmes’s endlessly entertaining inductive methods. You can always skip the weird Mormon interlude in the middle.

E. Nesbit Fairy StoriesE. Nesbit 
This collection edited by Naomi Lewis includes most of Nesbit’s best original fairy tales, which comically mix modern elements into traditional forms.

Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – A.A. Milne
Please, avoid Disneyfied versions at all costs and read the originals aloud, preferably to a child. If you think of them as too twee and precious, you’ll be amazed at the craft of these perfect small narratives that can interest and amuse a five-year-old while slyly commenting on universal human foibles.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder
I posted about the beautiful Heritage Press edition of this brief novel here. Using Wilder’s favored mode of linked short narratives, it brings to life a whole world of distinctive characters, from aristocrats to peasants. Wilder sets his story in 18th century Peru, but his people, while convincingly of their place and time, are also universal in their struggles with the great questions of life, death, love, and fate.

Carry On,
Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
This collection of stories about the hapless Bertie Wooster and his brainiac valet, Jeeves,  contains some of their most hilarious escapades, and sets the stage for further developments in more stories and novels.

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this book captivated me at an early age with its alternately creepy, elegaic, poetic, and stark visions of a brilliantly imagined future in which we conquer Mars, and then it conquers us.

Travel Light – Naomi Mitchison
Daughter of a king but raised by bears, Halla makes her way from the forest to the great city of Byzantium with determination and a bit of magic, encountering dragons, valkyries, and the All-Father himself on the way. If it sounds odd, it is — but also oddly charming. This is a companion of sorts to a much longer book I also love, The Corn King and the Spring Queen.

84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff
A reader’s delight, 20 years of letters between an American who craves real books and the London bookshop that becomes her source. Some interesting details of the before-and-after story of the book and its 1971 publication are found in this article.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
A long-unfulfilled wish of the author’s finally came to fruition after her death with this collection of all the Armitage family stories. Written over the course of more than 50 years, these tales of magic invading ordinary life display Aiken’s distinctive blend of imagination and humor to its best advantage.


Beautiful Books: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

When I moved to New Hampshire a year ago, I found out that I was entering the land of Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s classic play was written in and based on the town of Peterborough, NH, 15 minutes away from my new home. My memories of the play are vague, mostly based on seeing that TV version with Paul Newman in high school, but Wilder also wrote one of my favorite works of fiction, Theophilus North. I determined to read all of six of his other novels to see what else might be gleaned from them.

Well, they certainly are a diverse bunch. Some are set abroad, in modern and ancient Rome (The Cabala and The Ides of March) and ancient Greece (The Woman of Andros). Others explore explicitly American themes, with one about a peripatetic salesman/preacher (Heaven’s My Destination), and another concerning a multigenerational mining family saga – slash – murder mystery (The Eighth Day). All are definitely worth reading, and reveal what The Paris Review once called “one of the toughest and most complicated minds in contemporary America.”


The one that touched me most, though, and immediately became another of my favorite books, was his very early The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I’m not alone–when it was first published, it was a huge bestseller and remains extremely popular. Wilder’s writing in this book is simply brilliant and should be studied by all aspiring writers of fiction. He has the ability to artfully turn a poetic phrase in a way that is always lucid and conversational, never pretentious or contrived. In a brief narrative (not much more than 100 pages), he manages to bring to life a whole world of distinctive characters, from aristocrats to peasants. He sets his story in 18th century Peru, but his people, while convincingly of their place and time, are also universal in their struggles with the great questions of life, death, love, and fate.

The Limited Editions Club and its mass-market arm, the Heritage Press, put out a lovely edition that brings the perfect marriage of form and content to Wilder’s words. I have the less-expensive Heritage Press version, which can easily be had for under $10. I find it a spectacular example of bookmaking for that price. The two-color binding, stamped in black and real gold leaf, is a striking and beautifully simple evocation of the characters’ journey to the fatal bridge. I love the font choices (Albertus and Plantin), which like Wilder’s writing are classic, eminently readable, and distinctive, and the typography is impeccable. The accompanying lithographs by Remy Charlot have a sculptural simplicity that also perfectly complements the text.

If you’re interested in beautiful writing and beautiful book design, I highly recommend you hunt down this edition. If you can’t find it, though, do read the Bridge in whatever form is available to you. It’s a lovely book.