Themes and Meanings
The Matchmaker is a play about accepting life, about the choice one has to make between living apart from it or participating fully in it. As Mrs. Levi says at the end of act 4: “There comes a moment in everybody’s life when he must decide whether he’ll live among human beings or not—a fool among fools or a fool alone. As for me, I’ve decided to live among them.” It is Dolly Levi’s return to the world that is at the heart of the play. Although the origins of the play go back to the early nineteenth century, the character of Dolly Gallagher Levi did not appear until Thornton Wilder introduced her in The Matchmaker, a revision of his own comedy The Merchant of Yonkers (pr. 1938, pb. 1939). Wilder had based this play on a comedy by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, Einen Jux will er sich machen (pr. 1842), which was in turn based upon an English original, A Day Well Spent (pr. 1835) by John Oxenford. By adding the character of the matchmaking widow and shifting the focus of the play to her “return to life,” Wilder transformed a hackneyed farce based on mistaken identities and improbable plot twists into an affirmation of life in an age of doubt and confusion.
At first Dolly Levi’s part in the play seems almost incidental; she appears to be simply a comic character whose interfering is pleasantly annoying and whose pursuit of Vandergelder is fairly obvious. Later, in the hat shop scene, she reveals herself less as a manipulative businesswoman than as a woman with heart whose purpose is to nudge destiny toward happy resolutions. Only at the end of the play, when her schemes begin to work for the greater happiness of all concerned, does she emerge as a character with a statement to make. It is not until moments before the play ends that viewers learn of Dolly’s deceased husband, Ephraim, and of her deep feeling for him. After his death, her grief had turned her into a recluse, emotionally impoverished and only passively involved in the world. Through a revealing monologue in which she “talks” to Ephraim, the audience learns that she would retreat to her room in the evenings, drink a rum toddy, thank God that she was independent, and fall asleep a “perfectly contented woman.” After two years, she says, an oak leaf fell out of her Bible, a leaf she had placed there the day her husband asked her to marry him, “a perfectly good oak leaf—but without color and without life.” Suddenly she saw herself as that oak leaf—dried up, tearless, with nothing to look forward to. At that moment, she decided to “rejoin the human race.”
“Yes, we’re all fools,” she says, “and we’re all in danger of destroying the world with our folly. But the surest way to keep us out of harm is to give us the four or five human pleasures that are our right in the world,—and that takes a little money!” Money is Wilder’s other major theme in this play, and Mrs. Levi delivers his message this way: “The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous—and can shatter the world. And the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight—and that, also, can shatter the world.”
It is not Mrs. Levi who has the last word but Barnaby; she urges him, as the youngest person present, to make explicit to the audience the moral of the play. Barnaby, whose part has been relatively minor, now steps forth as the play’s spokesman and states in simple terms a truth and a blessing: that happiness resides in an equal balance between wishing one were at home when one is caught in the middle of an adventure and wishing one were having an adventure when one is stuck at home.
Wilder uses the different expectations that society has for males and females to twist the comic situation of The Matchmaker into a tighter knot than the events would otherwise permit. The first and most obvious example of this is the way in which Horace Vandergelder attempts to control his niece's life, dictating...
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