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,...
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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.
Gender Roles 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 whom she may or may not marry, and the way in which Ermengarde accepts his authority. At the same time that he is trying to control Ermengarde's love life, Vandergelder is also planning on marrying someone—he is not very concerned about whom—in order to get an efficient housekeeper. Keeping house is a task for women, he explains, but the women who do it for hire do not do it well. ‘‘In order to run a house well,’’ he tells the audience, ‘‘a woman must have the feeling she owns it. Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she's a householder.’’ Throughout the play, Vandergelder is presented as an example of prejudice and ignorance, so blind to reality that he cannot see how his clerks think of him or how Dolly Levi is manipulating him into marriage. His view of gender roles is therefore not necessarily one that audiences are expected to accept.
A more realistic view of gender roles is the one held by Irene Molloy. She owns her own business, a hat shop in New York, and so has financial independence. Still, she wants to get out of the hat business because of the stereotype that"all millineresses are suspected of being wicked women.’’ She is not able to go to public events because people will think that her behavior is improper for a lady. This knowledge of unwritten social conventions and of how people would punish her if she broke them is more telling of gender roles in this society than Vandergelder's skewed notions. Even so, the play probably gives its female characters more freedom than they would actually have enjoyed in the 1880s, reflecting more about the time when it was written than the time when it is set.
Money One of the keys to the social situation in The Matchmaker is the uneven way in which wealth is distributed among the characters. Vandergelder is clearly the wealthiest character, and how he spends money helps audiences gauge what he considers important. He usually pays fifteen cents for a haircut, but for the occasion of proposing to Mrs. Molloy he is willing to go up to fifty cents. (The barber, Joe Scanlon, will not accept more than three times his regular fee for something as improper as dying a man's hair.) The wages he pays his workers for ninety hours of work per week leave them with about three dollars each in their pockets. Yet Vandergelder is willing to pay the Cabman fifteen dollars to help him keep Ermengarde and Ambrose apart. He carries a purse that is stuffed full of twenty dollar bills, and he is only willing to consider the adventure of remarrying because he has half a million dollars in the bank.
The plot revolves around Vandergelder's insistence on holding onto his money. His objection to Ambrose is based solely on Ambrose's poor financial prospects and has nothing to do with the young man's character. Ermengarde, on the other hand, thinks nothing about money whatsoever. Dolly Levi represents a compromise between the two: though she says that she wants Vandergelder's fortune, her affection for him is clear. His theory is that money should not be spent, and hers is that it should. Once Vandergelder learns to trust Dolly, he lets his money go, and once he does that he can have open relationships with his niece and clerks.
Love Like many comedies, The Matchmaker takes advantage of the mysteries of love in order to put its characters into complex situations. Vandergelder may be cheap and rude, but it is when he denies having ever heard of such a thing as a broken heart that audiences know he will get his comeuppance, just as surely as they know that Ermengarde, who thinks of nothing but love, will be satisfied in the end. Vandergelder fools himself into thinking that he is interested in women for all sorts of reasons that are not love. He tells himself that he wants a housekeeper and falls for Dolly Levi's idealized portrait of a woman who is a great cook, wealthy, infatuated with him, and a third his age. In the end, though, he cannot keep himself from falling for Dolly, even though she is none of the things that he was looking for.
The play would end in the second act if Cornelius and B arnaby simply hid out at Mrs. Molloy' s hat shop for a while and then went away. What keeps them engaged in the action, and therefore involved with the main characters, is that Cornelius falls instantly, hopelessly in love with Mrs. Molloy. A realistic play would not have a character lose control of himself so quickly after their first meeting, but then, a realistic play is not trying to make audiences laugh. Without faith in love at first sight, the various plot threads of The Matchmaker would spin out in different directions. Without faith in a love that is more powerful than sound thinking, the play would leave Horace Vandergelder unpunished for his stinginess and his plotting, which would not make it a very satisfactory comedy at all.
Adventure When the play is over, and all of its extraordinary events are through, Dolly Levi has the youngest character tell the moral of the play to the audience. The speech that B arnaby gives talks about the need for adventure in life. In the most direct sense, this is the lesson that he and Cornelius have learned throughout the play: they were reluctant about leaving their posts as clerks at the store in Yonkers and end up happier for having interrupted their routine. In a broader sense, it is the lesson that nearly all of the characters learn. Vandergelder, certainly, starts the play thinking only of safe prospects and ends it happier because things that he would not have wanted have had their effect on him. Irene Molloy, who has been waiting for a rich man to take her from the job she hates, falls in love instead, which she apparently finds better. Minnie goes to the kind of restaurant that she would never have thought existed; Barnaby receives his first kiss; Ermengarde and Ambrose find a solution to the problems that kept them from getting married. All of these characters are better off at the end because they went through a frightening situation that was out of their control and were willing to enter into an adventure for its own sake.
The only character who does not really have an adventure is Dolly Levi. She is, as she explains to Ambrose early in the play, ‘‘a woman who arranges things.’’ Throughout the course of The Matchmaker, she is not someone who has adventures but someone who causes adventure to happen to others. She is, however, open to the unexpected; in her speech in act IV, she describes how she was shut away from life after her husband's death until one night when ‘‘I decided to rejoin the human race.’’ Because of Vandergelder's overbearing personality, the end of the play suggests that Dolly Levi's adventure is just beginning.