The Matchmaker Essays and Criticism
by Thornton Wilder

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The Matchmaker as a Parody

(Drama for Students)

As an old show business adage puts it, tragedy is what happens to you, while comedy is what happens to someone else. This explains, in one sentence, the complex problem Thornton Wilder examines in the famous preface to his collection Three Plays. He discusses how, starting in the 1920s, he found himself growing increasingly bored with the theater, which he had loved all his life. The plays were competent enough, but they did not affect him on a personal level, the way that good art should. At length, Wilder traced the problem to the rise of the middle class in the nineteenth century. His explanation went like this: the middle class, then a new social phenomenon, did not want the sharp discomfort that art can cause when it makes one face reality and instead supported art that was soothing. One result was that writers began producing characters as broad types, which audiences could then distance themselves from, telling themselves that the concerns of the character on the stage were nothing like the ones they faced themselves. Another, related way to make drama soothing was to use the stage itself as a frame to separate ‘‘their’’ world from ‘‘ours’’—the stage becomes, as Wilder puts it, a ‘‘box set.’’

At the end of his preface, Wilder applied this artistic theory to the book’s three plays—Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker—and explained how each one represents his stand against soothing art. The misfit of the group is The Matchmaker, his romantic comedy that whips up complications and misunderstandings that come out all right for everyone in the end, as do the bloodless plays that Wilder said bored him. In the preface, he explained that he wrote the play as a parody of plays he saw in his youth, taking a sharp-witted German comedy of manners (Ein Jux es sich Machen, by Johann Nestroy) and flattening it to meet American standards. ‘‘One way to shake off the nonsense of the nineteenth-century staging,’’ he explained, ‘‘is to make fun of it.’’ The problem with theater was that people no longer came away from plays feeling, ‘‘This is the way things are.’’ In The Matchmaker, he addressed art’s relationship to reality by presenting a situation so contrived that audiences would have to be aware of its falsity.

The Matchmaker is meant to be such an extreme example of middle-class art that it forces those who experience it to notice how little it resembles true art. To accomplish this goal, Wilder had to distance the audience from the action and make them aware of the distance while at the same time creating a play that is so cold and impersonal as to be unwatchable.

The play is certainly made to be felt at a distance. The characters are meant to be understood at a theoretical level, but their problems are not felt, which is exactly the feeling Wilder described having plagued him about other plays that did not claim to be parodies. He uses several techniques to make audiences feel that ‘‘they’’ on stage are different than ‘‘us’’ beyond the footlights.

The most obvious distancing mechanism is the surly personality of the play’s main character, Horace Vandergelder. Certainly, there are elements to his character that anyone can relate to, but just as certainly there are not people coming away from the theater telling themselves, ‘‘He’s like me.’’ He is a curmudgeon, a crank, and a tightwad, too money conscious to recognize true love and too stingy to let his employees have one evening off out of the week. He distrusts the young, but he also has no respect for the law. He parts with cash sparingly, a few dollars here and there, but he carries a huge amount in his purse, which he is surprisingly careless enough to lose. In short, he is a compilation of unpleasant human traits, which would make him a fine secondary character. As the lead, he serves to remind audiences of the extremist nature of comic characters. Putting Horace Vandergelder in the middle of the...

(The entire section is 3,214 words.)