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.