Study Guide

The Matchmaker

by Thornton Wilder

The Matchmaker Summary

Introduction

Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker is a farce in the old-fashioned sense. It uses such time-honored conventions as characters hidden under tables and in closets, men disguised as women, a complex conspiracy to bring young lovers together, and a happy ending in which three couples are united with plans to marry. The traditional aspects of the play should come as no surprise: Wilder himself was the first to acknowledge the sources that it was based upon. The character of Dolly Levi came from French playwright Molière’s comedy L’avare, or The Miser, from which Wilder lifted some scenes directly. A closer influence was Johann Nestroy’s Einen Jux will er sich Machen, performed in Vienna in 1842. Wilder referred to his play as a ‘‘free adaptation’’ of Nestroy’s, which itself was adapted from British playwright John Oxenham’s 1835 comedy A Day Well Spent. Wilder’s first adaptation was called The Merchant of Yonkers, which failed on Broadway in 1938, running for only twenty-eight performances. The Matchmaker was itself adapted as Hello, Dolly!, which began in 1963 and ran for years, ranking as one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals.

In all of these permutations, the basic plot has been the same as it is in The Matchmaker. In Wilder’s version, an irascible, penny-pinching store owner, Horace Vandergelder, refuses to let his niece marry the poor artist she loves, although he himself plans to remarry. Dolly Levi, the matchmaker of the title, pretends that she is helping Vandergelder find a suitable bride, but she actually schemes to marry him herself, and she works to help the young lovers gain his approval. Vandergelder’s beleaguered clerk, who is longing for excitement, also meets the woman of his dreams, although she happens to be the one Vandergelder intends to marry. In the end, everyone is happy and just a little smarter.

The Matchmaker Summary

Act 1
The Matchmaker is set in the 1880s and begins in the cluttered living room of Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy old widower living above his prosperous hay, feed, and provisions store in Yonkers, New York. His bags are packed, and he is being shaved by a barber. Ambrose Kemper, an artist, is trying to get Vandergelder to allow him to marry Vandergelder's niece, Ermengarde. Vandergelder does not approve because Ambrose does not make a steady income, and the old man is too practical to consider either love or the promise of future earnings as significant reasons to change his mind. Ambrose points out that Ermengarde is twenty-four and old enough to do what she wants. Vandergelder says that he is sending Ermengarde away to a secret place to prevent the wedding, but then his housekeeper, Gertrude, comes in and announces out loud the address where Ermengarde's luggage is being sent.

Vandergelder sends for his chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl, and explains to him that he is going away for a few days to be married. He says that he is promoting the thirty-three-year-old Cornelius to the position of chief clerk, even though, as Cornelius tells the junior clerk later, it is a position he has held for several years already.

When no other clerks are in the room, Malachi Stack enters with a letter of recommendation from a past associate. Vandergelder agrees to hire him and sends him away immediately to catch a train to New York City so that he can prepare for Vandergelder's arrival after his marriage.

Vandergelder is out of the room when Dolly Levi arrives. She is an old friend of his late wife, a matchmaker who is supposed to be finding a suitable wife for Vandergelder. She hears Ermengarde and Ambrose complaining that he is obstructing their wedding plans, and she agrees to help them, arranging to meet them at a restaurant in New York that night.

Vandergelder arrives and tells Mrs. Levi his plans to marry Irene Molloy. She makes up a story about a woman who is wealthy, socially connected, and interested in him, and so he agrees to put off proposing to Mrs. Molloy.

Left alone, Cornelius complains to the other clerk, Barnaby Tucker, that they never get time off to go out and experience life. He goes downstairs to the store and heats some cans of tomatoes until they explode, creating a foul smell that forces them to close the store, and they take off to New York, planning to have an adventure.

Act 2
In the hat shop that she owns, Irene Molloy tells her assistant, Minnie Fay, that she will marry Vandergelder if he asks, in order to get out of the hat business. She feels trapped by the reputation that milliners have, with her every move being watched by people who expect her to be a woman of low virtue. Minnie objects that Mrs. Molloy should not marry if she does not love Vandergelder.

They are in the back room when Cornelius and Barnaby come into the shop to hide, having seen Vandergelder on the street....

(The entire section is 1226 words.)