The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Gilded Age
The phrase ‘‘Gilded Age’’ comes from the title of an 1873 book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner....

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

A soliloquy is the speech a character gives directly to the audience, either when alone on the stage or else ignoring...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1880s: People going from Yonkers, which is adjacent to the Bronx, into Manhattan, which is also adjacent to the Bronx, most often take...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Find a character on television who reminds you of Horace Vandergelder. Explain what the two have in common and what you think each would do...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Matchmaker was made into a film by Paramount Pictures in 1958, starring Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi, Anthony Perkins as Cornelius,...

(The entire section is 78 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Wilder's most famous work of fiction is The Bridge of San Luis Rey, his 1927 best-selling novel about the collapse of a bridge in...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brown, John Mason, ‘‘America Speaks,’’ in Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in...

(The entire section is 334 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 102 words.)