Critical Context

During his lifetime, Thornton Wilder was the object of much critical controversy. While critics such as Edmund Wilson praised him for his optimism, seeing in it an affirmation of the invincible human spirit, others deplored what they considered a lack of social consciousness. Although some dismiss Wilder as a literary lightweight, the undiminished popularity of his works and the apparent timelessness of his themes have prompted a reappraisal that has been largely favorable. Revivals of Our Town (pr., pb. 1938) have demonstrated that play’s continuing ability to capture something of the paradoxical American spirit, that curious combination of hope and melancholy.

Those who know little about Wilder often approach him expecting to find Walt Disney and are surprised to find that he is closer in spirit to Walt Whitman. The message that emerges from all of his works is that human happiness is a matter of cooperating with destiny. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Wilder first expressed his faith in the logic behind destiny, and his later novels such as The Ides of March (1948), The Eighth Day (1967), and Theophilus North (1973) all illustrate his belief that it is this faith that gives humankind the power to temper logic with humanity and thus create its own myths. The Skin of Our Teeth (pr., pb. 1942) is the most obvious example of Wilder’s mythmaking in dramatic form, but the presence of myth also explains the continuing appeal of both Our Town and The Matchmaker.

Because he broke with stage convention by using a virtually empty set in Our Town, Wilder made the play’s mythical qualities more apparent than they are in The Matchmaker, where they are obscured by the trappings of Viennese farce. Nevertheless, he manages to make it abundantly clear, through the use of soliloquies, that Mrs. Levi’s skill as a matchmaker stems from her understanding of the need for compromise between the logic of viewing the world as foolish and the wisdom of accepting its foolishness. Because of his experimentation with staging and structure, not to mention the enduring popularity of his unfashionable optimism, Thornton Wilder has had a profound influence on the modern American theater.