The Play

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The Matchmaker tells the story of a rich widower, Horace Vandergelder, who employs the services of a matchmaker, Dolly Levi, to find him a wife. While he is in pursuit of his own happiness, Vandergelder does his best to thwart the happiness of others, including his two overworked clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, and his niece Ermengarde, who wants to marry Ambrose Kemper, a penniless artist. Act 1 takes place in Vandergelder’s living quarters above his general store in Yonkers. In the opening scene, Vandergelder informs Ambrose that he will never be allowed to marry Ermengarde. That done, Vandergelder proceeds to outline his plans for the day, plans that include a trip to New York City to visit Irene Molloy, a widowed milliner whom he is thinking of marrying. While he is getting ready to go out, he is visited by a shady character named Malachi Stack, who is looking for a job. On an impulse, Vandergelder hires the man and sends him ahead to New York to book a hotel room.

Meanwhile, Ambrose tries to persuade Ermengarde to elope with him, but she will not hear of it. Mrs. Levi interrupts the couple to counsel caution, reminding Ambrose that Ermengarde stands to inherit a fortune if she does not disobey her uncle. She also informs them that Vandergelder might soften toward their situation because he himself is planning to marry. She then reveals her philosophy of “profit and pleasure,” explaining that by arranging things for people she ekes out a living, but that her real pleasure is in making life more interesting. She says that she is like an artist who finds that nature is never completely satisfactory and must be corrected.

In the next scene the audience gets its first glimpse of Mrs. Levi and Vandergelder together. Although ostensibly she is operating as a matchmaker to find him a suitable bride, it is clear to the audience that she herself has her cap set for him and will probably use every trick at her disposal to catch him. In fact, in order to cool his ardor for Irene Molloy, Mrs. Levi invents a new love interest for him, “Ernestina Simple,” and promises to introduce them that evening at the Harmonia Gardens in New York. Meanwhile, Cornelius and Barnaby decide that it is high time to get out of Yonkers and have an adventure, so they light a fire under some canned goods until the cans explode, creating such a mess that the two clerks have no choice but to close the store and head for New York.

Act 2 takes place in Irene Molloy’s hat shop. As the curtain rises, Irene is lamenting to her assistant, Minnie Fay, that she longs for some excitement in her life. At that point Cornelius and Barnaby, who have been wandering around town, enter the shop to avoid being seen by Vandergelder, whom they have just seen with Mrs. Levi in the park. Pleased by the unexpected intrusion, Irene helps them hide when Vandergelder appears in the shop a few minutes later. From their hiding places, they overhear Irene boast to Vandergelder that she knows a certain Cornelius Hackl, a wealthy young man-about-town who dines regularly at the Harmonia Gardens—misinformation supplied by Cornelius in an effort to impress her. Even Mrs. Levi tries to protect the young men from discovery, but a sneeze betrays them; Vandergelder, suspecting the worst, storms out, vowing to turn his attentions to Ernestina Simple. Irene insists that Cornelius treat them all to an evening on the town, complete with a fancy meal at the Harmonia Gardens....

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Act 2 ends with the clerks agreeing that, although they have no idea how they are going to pay for the evening ahead, they are, indeed, in the middle of a real adventure.

Act 3 takes place at the Harmonia Gardens, where Vandergelder and Malachi Stack arrive together, followed by Mrs. Levi with Ermengarde and Ambrose in tow. The moment Mr. Vandergelder spots them, he orders Malachi to see to it that Ambrose and Ermengarde are taken to the home of a spinster friend, Miss Flora Van Huysen, with a note instructing her to detain them until he arrives. Meanwhile, Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene, and Minnie arrive and are seated within earshot but not within view of Vandergelder, because a screen separates the two parties. At one point Vandergelder is unaware that he has dropped a purse full of money, and Malachi retrieves it and gives it to Cornelius, who is then able to splurge. Mrs. Levi then tells Vandergelder that Ernestina Simple has run off with another man. Before he has a chance to protest, she lets him know that if he has any designs on herself instead, she has no intention of marrying him. While he blusters in bewilderment, she keeps insisting on her opposition to such an idea—an idea that she has now firmly planted in his mind.

Act 3 continues in a farcical mode with all opportunities for confusion and concealment exploited. Toward the end of the act, Cornelius and Barnaby try to disguise themselves with items of clothing borrowed from Irene and Minnie in an attempt to deceive Vandergelder, but Cornelius is found out and fired. The act ends with Vandergelder having lost or alienated nearly everyone of any importance to him—a sad situation that Mrs. Levi makes clear to him in no uncertain terms.

The conflicts of act 3 are resolved happily in act 4, which takes place in the living room of Flora Van Huysen. It is clear from the start that Miss Van Huysen is no ally of Vandergelder and is only waiting for the chance to compensate for her own lost hopes by helping young lovers find happiness together. The act begins in confusion when Cornelius arrives with Barnaby, who is still dressed as a girl, and the two are mistaken for Ambrose and Ermengarde. Moments later, the real Ambrose and Ermengarde arrive, and in spite of the confusion of identities, Miss Van Huysen rushes to befriend them. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Levi and Vandergelder arrive. It is obvious that Mrs. Levi’s candor at the Harmonia Gardens has had its effect on Vandergelder’s attitude, for he forgives the young people, gives them his blessing, and then asks Mrs. Levi to marry him. She agrees, and the play ends with the promise of marriage not only between Vandergelder and Mrs. Levi but also between Ambrose and Ermengarde, Cornelius and Irene, and, one suspects, Barnaby and Minnie.

Dramatic Devices

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The Matchmaker is at once a parody of nineteenth century Viennese farces and a tribute to them. Thornton Wilder understood the appealing comic irony of scenes in which characters divided by a screen are unaware of each other’s presence or in which characters are unaware of others hiding in a nearby closet. The playwright used such familiar devices to make a fresh point. Stock devices—trap doors, concealed characters, mistaken identity—are used to advance the theme that it is only immersion in life, regardless of its foolishness, that brings joy. Those who sit back and watch—as most of the characters do at the beginning of the play—become cynical, detached, and unhappy.

Those who immerse themselves in life have little time to waste analyzing it, for they are too busy living it. Dolly Levi’s return to life is symbolized by her return to the Harmonia Gardens, a place of enormous vitality and excitement. All sorts of people dine there, and there is music and gaiety and dancing—a scene of almost frenzied activity when compared with the hothouse solitude of Miss Van Huysen’s house or Mrs. Levi’s lonely room near Trinity Church.

Another convention Wilder puts to good use is that of introducing several couples who, after overcoming many obstacles or putting up much resistance, end up in each other’s arms. In a play titled The Matchmaker, one expects the presence not only of a character eager to arrange matches but also of several couples either eager or reluctant to be matched. Wilder’s matchmaker is able to satisfy the needs of heart, head, and purse and, in the end, to upset convention but surprise no one by reserving the best arrangement for herself.

Finally, Wilder uses scene changes effectively to give the play the momentum it needs to make its point. Vandergelder’s feed and grain store in act 1 symbolizes the world of plod and profit, in contrast to the world of pleasure and abandon symbolized by the Harmonia Gardens of act 3. The millinery shop in act 2 is respectability in conflict with scandal, since it is assumed by the upright patrons that the proprietress is a fallen woman. In contrast to this is Miss Van Huysen’s home in act 4, the lonely retreat of an unhappy spinster. Because her home is also in contrast to the chaos that invades it, however, it provides the right atmosphere for Mrs. Levi’s magic to work. In this setting, all conflicts can be resolved, and Mrs. Levi can deliver her soliloquy about life and money free from the distractions of a crowd of diners.

Historical Context

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The Gilded Age The phrase ‘‘Gilded Age’’ comes from the title of an 1873 book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The book was an exposé of corruption in politics and business after the end of the Civil War in 1865, but the phrase is used today to describe the American situation throughout the last third of the century.

Economically, the era was notable for the rise of industry. The population was in the process of shifting from rural to urban, and the growth of cities provided the workforce to create larger production facilities. Railroads expanded across the country— the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah, in 1869—making it possible to move materials for production and to ship manufactured products nearly anywhere on the continent. From 1870 to 1900, the use of bituminous coal, which powered industry, rose tenfold, and the use of rolled iron and steel increased to twelve times what it had been. The country’s gross national product multiplied six times over in those years. Out of this situation arose the businessmen who made giant fortunes from this economic growth, usually by controlling an entire industry, as John D. Rockefeller controlled the oil industry, Andrew Carnegie controlled steel, and J.P. Morgan controlled banking. At the same time that a few individuals were amassing incredible fortunes, there was terrible poverty and illness among the common laborers who worked in the factories.

Although The Matchmaker takes place among shops and not factories, the economic situation of the times can still be seen in the disparity between the characters’ finances. Horace Vandergelder, a store owner, comes off as a miserly tyrant who carries stacks of twenty dollar bills in his wallet, while his clerks, who are forced to work from six in the morning to nine at night six days a week, have to scrounge for train money. And while class differences will always be present, this play portrays the restaurant as being a particularly unsafe place for those of the lower classes. By contemporary standards, Vandergelder is a heartless, petty tyrant, and the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is too snobby, but the 1880s were a time of extreme wealth and poverty.

Nostalgia The time when The Matchmaker was produced was a particularly trying time in American history. After the tumultuous decades of the 1930s, which saw the worst economic depression in the nation’s history, and the 1940s, which were defined by the second world war, the 1950s were peaceful and prosperous. Still, even as external conflict was lacking, there were social forces that served as continuous reminders of life in the modern world.

One defining characteristic was the awareness of the potential for nuclear destruction. World War II ended after the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb ever used on August 5, 1945, killing almost 130,000 people with one blast. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. In the 1950s, people were aware of the devastation of the bombs and uncertain of the ability of politicians to refrain from using them. People at that time practiced disaster drills to prepare for nuclear attacks. Homeowners built bomb shelters and stocked them with food, preparing for the time, that could come any day, when civilization would be wiped away in an instant.

The other defining element of the 1950s was the Cold War. During World War II, the Soviet Union and America were allies in the fight against German aggression. After the war, though, their different political ideologies led them to be fierce competitors. The Soviet Union pursued a policy of spreading communism around the globe, leading to an American foreign policy based on containing communism. There were hearings, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, aimed at identifying communists who had infiltrated the U.S. government and the entertainment industry in order to spread communist ideas. (McCarthy was later censured by the Senate, and his name has come to be associated with systematized fear mongering.) The United States became involved in wars in South Korea and Vietnam with the goal of stopping the growth of communism in those places.

In a time of constant worry about sudden annihilation, of suspicion that treacherous spies were trying to overthrow the government from within and to control American minds, The Matchmaker offered reassuring, light entertainment. It was set in a time in the nation’s history when there were no great disturbances, no war or imminent danger. Racial issues are not approached in the play, and genders are equal, with a female-owned shop in New York balancing a male-owned shop in Yonkers. Unlike comedies with contemporary settings, the historical setting of The Matchmaker allowed audiences to forget the problems of the day and to bask in the warm feeling of nostalgia for a simpler time.

Literary Style

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Soliloquy A soliloquy is the speech a character gives directly to the audience, either when alone on the stage or else ignoring the other characters, who cannot hear it. Wilder has several characters give soliloquies in The Matchmaker. In the first act, after everyone else has gone and left him alone, Vandergelder talks at length about why he wants to be married now. These are personal thoughts that he would not share with any of the other characters; he may explain his theory of marriage as a way to get a decent housekeeper, but the idea that he is willing to take a chance is too personal, and sharing it would leave him too vulnerable. He ends his soliloquy by acknowledging that he is talking to an audience, telling them, ‘‘Think it over.’’

Cornelius gives a soliloquy in act II, when he and Barnaby are supposed to be hiding. His speech explains how wonderful he feels, having fallen in love. These are ideas that Barnaby has shown himself unable to understand, and Cornelius certainly could not tell them to anyone else.

In act III, Malachi tells the audience his theory about the need to have one vice but no more than one. His ideas are relevant to the play in general, but, again, they would not fit into the dramatic scene because they represent things that Malachi, a relative newcomer, would not explain to anyone else there.

Dolly Levi's soliloquy in the final act is addressed to the memory of her dead husband rather than to the audience. Since the subject is remarriage, she would naturally think of him, but as a dramatic technique this is handled in the same way as the other soliloquies.

Barnaby's speech at the end takes off from the earlier soliloquies. In them, characters talked to the audience, but they never acknowledged the audience to one another. In the play's final moments, though, Mrs. Levi drops the pretense that usually separates players from audiences, acting like a mutual friend who is introducing Barnaby to the audience and vice versa.

Subplot If this play's main plot is the strange courtship between Horace Vandergelder and Dolly Levi, then the other two romances would have to be considered subplots. Either one could be removed without substantially changing the whole play. Ermengarde and Ambrose do give Vandergelder a chance to show off his intolerance and autocratic nature in the beginning, but that could have been handled in any number of other ways. For most of the play, the young lovers are gone, signifying their relative unimportance. On the other hand, the blossoming romance between Cornelius Hackl and Irene Molloy takes up most of acts II and III, at times becoming more important than Vandergelder's story, Still, all that this romance really adds to the plot is that it removes Mrs. Molloy from the pool of available wives and gives Cornelius a chance to expound upon how good it is to take a chance.

Another way to look at it, however, is that these are not subplots at all. They are only subplots if the story of Vandergelder and Mrs. Levi is considered the one main plot. The Matchmaker is not necessarily their story, though. It is a story about love, and as such each of the three variations on the theme of love is as important as the others, regardless of how colorful the characters are or how much time they spend onstage.

DenouementDenouement is a French word that means ‘‘the unraveling.’’ In literature, it is used to describe the action that happens after the story has reached its climax. In The Matchmaker, the final few pages clearly are there to tie up loose ends. The play does not end with action but with Barnaby coming in from the kitchen bringing news. Before that comes Vandergelder' s proposal to Mrs. Levy, but even that seems to be a necessary but minor afterthought: from the fact that he calls Dolly ‘‘wonderful woman’’ and lets her keep his purse, audiences can tell that he has already changed his character. Even Dolly Levi' s speech to her dead husband does not represent any advance in the plot but just a clarification of the principles she has been following all along.

A good case can be made for the idea that the climax of the play occurs when Vandergelder's pretensions are finally put to rest at the end of act III. Mrs. Levi explains very clearly that he has lost everything: his niece, his bride, his clerks, and even his money. This seems to have no effect on Vandergelder, as he still refuses to marry her, but the next time he shows up on stage he is humbled. He allows Mrs. Van Huysen and Mrs. Levi to give him orders and behaves civilly at their request. Once Horace Vandergelder allows others to tell him what to do, the rest of the play is just a matter of clearing away leftover plot elements.

Compare and Contrast

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1880s: People going from Yonkers, which is adjacent to the Bronx, into Manhattan, which is also adjacent to the Bronx, most often take a train or ride a horse. (In the play, Vandergelder’s shop sells horse supplies.)

1954: The trip from Yonkers to Manhattan is often made by automobile.

Today: Because of traffic congestion and a shortage of in-town parking, the trip from Yonkers to Manhattan is often made by train.

1880s: The American economy is prospering during the Industrial Revolution.

1954: The American economy is secure, but many in the audience for this play remember the Great Depression (1929 through 1941) clearly.

Today: America has just experienced a period of unprecedented economic growth due to the technology revolution.

1880s: Energy production is a growing industry. Gasoline and oil are just starting to be in demand for combustion engines, and the newly-invented electric light bulb creates the need for power lines to spread electricity from municipal generators into homes.

1954: The first nuclear power station starts up in the Soviet Union. In the United States, Bell Laboratories creates a solar cell to convert sunlight into energy.

Today: Most of the world is still committed to using non-renewable fossil fuels, which are in greater demand than ever due to the growing demand for electricity and gasoline.

1880s: Millinery shops are common in all cities, because women do not think of going with their heads uncovered.

1954: Hats are still popular but are considered optional.

Today: It is rare to see either a woman or a man wearing a formal hat.

Media Adaptations

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The Matchmaker was made into a film by Paramount Pictures in 1958, starring Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi, Anthony Perkins as Cornelius, and Shirley MacLaine as Irene Molloy. John Michael Hayes wrote the adaptation, which was directed by Joseph Anthony.

In 1963, this play was adapted as a Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly!, with a book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Carol Channing played Dolly, in a career-defining performance. Hello, Dolly! ran on Broadway for 2,844 performances.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Brown, John Mason, ‘‘America Speaks,’’ in Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in Performance, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1938, pp. 133–93.

Bryer, Jackson R., ‘‘Thornton Wilder at 100: His Achievement and His Legacy,’’ in Thornton Wilder: New Essays, edited by Martin Blank, Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer, and David Garrett Izzo, Locust Hill Press, 1999, pp. 3–20.

Burbank, Rex, Thornton Wilder, Twayne Publishers, 1961, pp. 100–01.

Gold, Michael, ‘‘Notes of the Month,’’ in New Masses, April 1930, pp. 3–5.

Wilder, Thornton, ‘‘Preface,’’ in Three Plays, Harper & Row, 1957, pp. viii–xiv.

Further Reading Cowley, Malcolm, ‘‘Thornton Wilder: Time Abolished,’’ in New England Writers and Writing, University Press of New England, 1996, pp. 232–43. This brief essay gives readers a concise overview of Wilder’s life from one of the most respected literary critics of his time.

Haberman, Donald, ‘‘Appendix,’’ in The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study, Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 127–136. At the end of his analysis of Wilder’s work, Haberman includes a three-column, side-by-side comparison of a section from Molière’s L’Avare and Wilder’s rewriting of it.

Lifton, Paul, ‘‘‘The Sign of Kierkegaard’: Existential Aspects of Wilder’s Theatre,’’ in Vast Encyclopedia: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 122–67. Certainly one of the most scholarly treatments of this farce, Lifton’s study finds the philosophical basis for the actions of Irene Molloy and Dolly Levi, placing them in the context of Wilder’s plays in general.

McClatchy, J. D., ‘‘Wilder and the Marvels of the Heart,’’ in the New York Times Book Review, April 15, 1997, p. 1. This article looks with great appreciation at Wilder’s comic instincts, relating biographical facts that shaped his easygoing style and attitude.

Walsh, Claudette, Thornton Wilder: A Reference Guide, 1926–1990, G. K. Hall & Co., 1993. This 450-page bibliography refers readers to thousands of publications about Wilder.

Wilder, Amos Niven, ‘‘A Brother’s Perspective,’’ in Readings on Thornton Wilder, Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 145–53. Wilder’s brother Amos, himself a respected literary figure, has a unique summary of the author and his work.


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Sources for Further Study

Blank, Martin. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill, 1999.

Burbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne, 1978.

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Dekoster, Katie, ed. Thornton Wilder. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998.

Grebanier, Bernard. Thornton Wilder. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.

Lifton, Paul. Vast Encyclopedia: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Schroeder, Patricia R. “Thornton Wilder: Disparate Moments and Repetitive Patterns.” In The Presence of the Past in Modern American Drama. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Wilder, Thornton. Conversations with Thornton Wilder. Edited by Jackson Bryer. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide