Wilder’s uproarious farce about love and money, stars the irrepressible busybody, Dolly Gallagher Levi, who inspired the Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly! Through Dolly’s subtle machinations, several unlikely couples come together to find happiness in 19th-century New York.
by Stephen Rojcewicz, MD
The play, set in the 1880s, opens at the home of Horace Vandergelder (from the German das Geld, “money”), located above his successful hay, feed and provision store in Yonkers, New York. A widower, and immensely proud of being a half-millionaire, Horace is preparing for a trip to New York City. Having rejected the suit of an artist, Ambrose Kemper, who wants to marry his niece, Ermengarde, Horace has decided to send his niece away to frustrate any wedding plans. After Vandergelder leaves, Dolly Levi, a friend of his late wife, and utilized by Horace as a marriage-broker, enters. Dolly is sympathetic to the niece’s romance, and agrees to help Ermengarde and Ambrose. When Vandergelder returns, he tells Mrs. Levi that he now plans to marry the New York milliner Irene Molloy. In a scene incorporated almost word-for-word from Molière’s The Miser (L’Avare), Dolly convinces him that she has found him a perfect wife (purely imaginary), with the result that he agrees to delay his marriage proposal to Mrs. Molloy. Cornelius Hackl, the chief store clerk, and Barnaby Tucker, another clerk, decide to take advantage of Vandergelder’s absence by themselves going for an adventure in New York.
Act Two begins with Irene Molloy explaining to her assistant, Minnie Fay, that she will accept Horace’s proposal, although she does not love him, so that she can leave the hat business. Walking in the neighborhood, Cornelius and Barnaby suddenly see Horace and Dolly, and dash into the hat shop to hide. In a farcical scene, Horace discovers the presence of the hidden men, and, scandalized, tells Irene that he is ending their relationship. Cornelius falls in love with Irene. Since Dolly has said that the clerk is really a wealthy socialite, Irene insists that Cornelius and Barnaby take her and Minnie to dinner at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant.
In the Third Act, Horace arrives at the same restaurant, followed by Dolly with Horace’s niece, Ermengarde, and her boyfriend, Ambrose. Having noticed them, Horace arranges for a cab driver to intercept the young couple when they leave the restaurant and take them to the home of Flora, his relative. Irene, Minnie, Barnaby and Cornelius then enter, and are seated at a table next to Horace and Dolly, separated only by a screen. Irene orders expensive food and champagne, causing Cornelius to fret about paying the bill. Horace has accidentally dropped his wallet, which his servant finds and mistakenly gives to Cornelius. Although the clerk eventually tells Irene that he is not rich, Irene is supportive and tells him that they should just have a good time. Dolly tells Horace that his prospective bride has eloped with someone else. In a scene emphasizing eating and enjoyment, Dolly states that she herself would never marry Horace, thus planting the idea in his head. Cornelius and Barnaby, having discovered Horace’s presence, try to escape by disguising themselves with women’s coats and veils. Horace, however, recognizes and fires them. Ermengarde enters and faints, and is carried out by Ambrose. Dolly summarizes Horace’s losses, and broaches more directly the subject of marriage.
In the final act, all the characters arrive at the home of Flora van Huysen, Horace’s relative. Flora misidentifies the romantic couples, believing, for example, that Barnaby (dressed as a woman) is Horace’s niece, and that the real Ermengarde and Ambrose are somebody else, so that the farcical situation becomes even more chaotic. Eventually, true identities are revealed, and Flora persuades Horace to let his niece marry Ambrose. In a grand soliloquy, Dolly addresses her departed husband on her wish to rejoin the human race and to marry Horace in order spread his money around, creating happiness. Horace enters and proposes marriage to Dolly. Cornelius also decides to marry Irene. The play concludes with Barnaby speaking to the audience about the importance of having enough adventure in one’s life.
From the very start of his work on The Merchant of Yonkers in early 1937, Thornton Wilder wrote that he was indebted to other plays, specifically a comedy by Johann Nestroy, Einen Jux will er sich Machen (Vienna, 1842), which was in turn based upon an English original, A Day Well Spent (London, 1835) by John Oxenford. Oxenford’s comedy is a one-act light farce about clerks taking a surreptitious holiday. The Austrian Nestroy’s play expands Oxenford’s basic plot, adding music, songs and social commentary. Wilder made major changes to his sources,1 however, especially the introduction of Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker. After initial frustrations with the Fourth Act, Wilder experienced a breakthrough in March 1938, writing to his mother and his sister, “All my plots – count ’em – and idea-themes all come to a head at the right moment, with Mrs. Levi ruling the Roost.”2 The Merchant of Yonkers opened on Broadway in December 1938, while Our Town was still playing, with mostly disastrous reviews, and closed after only 39 performances, although it continued to be staged in other settings.
Almost twenty years later, following encouragement and specific recommendations by the actress Ruth Gordon and by director Tyrone Guthrie, Wilder transformed the play into The Matchmaker. The major changes are the new title, which emphasizes the role of Dolly Levi, and the addition of lines, especially a grand soliloquy, given to Dolly. The Matchmaker debuted in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 4, 1954, and was already an international success when it opened on Broadway on August 12, 1955. In 1964 Hello, Dolly!, a musical adaptation of The Matchmaker starring Carol Channing in the title role, premiered on Broadway, and ran for seven years. A film starring Barbra Streisand was released in 1969.
Through his studies, his teaching, and even his early acting experience at Oberlin College, Wilder was acquainted with Greek and Roman comedy, including the figure of the Parasite, the parasitus, someone who tries to sit next (para) to a host for a dinner (sitos). In his classical sources, the Parasite was a figure of ridicule, a schemer, a threatener or bringer of lawsuits, sometimes a marriage broker, always trying to get money in any way he can, and especially striving to obtain invitations to dinner. Dolly resembles the ancient parasite as featured in Wilder’s classical sources: the Greek Menander (circa 344 – 292 BCE); and the Latin plays of the Italian provincial Plautus (Aulularia, and Pot of Gold, 205-184 BCE) and of the North African Terence (Phormio, 161 BCE). Many of the stock personages in Phormio directly correspond to characters in The Merchant of Yonkers3: the rich old man, the young men looking for brides, and the parasitus, who finds her incarnation, or rather apotheosis, in Dolly Levi.
Wilder’s adaptation of his sources, and his revisions throughout the various incarnations of the play, display a common theme. He transforms despised characters, genres, and materials into life-giving forces. Wilder makes the figure of the ridiculed parasite into the individual who calls the others into a fuller life; Dolly is thus Wilder’s alter ego. The playwright transmutes the supposedly unsophisticated genre of low farce into the life-giving spirit of carnival,4 which, as Julia Kristeva has noted,5 is marked by structural dyads such as high/low, food/excrement, laughter/tears, etc. The author integrates middlebrow entertainment into enduring literature. Wilder himself emphasized in a 1956 interview in German with Robert Jungk in Das Neue Form6 that it is the active collaboration of the audience that marks the eras of great literature. The conclusion of The Matchmaker, and of Hello, Dolly!, creates, with imaginative collaboration by the audience, the atmosphere of carnival and wisdom for the audience to take home. Wilder upgrades the use of literary predecessors into a spirit of collaboration that recognizes the previous writers, the director, actors, actresses, and the audience as full collaborators in the work of art.
The epitome of all these changes occurs through another alchemical process, the transformation of a lowly material, manure, into a source of enrichment. The outstanding modification in The Matchmaker, as demonstrated in the expansion of Dolly’s monologue near the end of Act Four, can be understood as the spread of manure. In the 1938 Merchant of Yonkers, Dolly addresses her dead husband, then speaks about the appropriate value of money, and her wish to rejoin the human race. In the 1954 The Matchmaker, she adds the detail of an oak leaf falling out of a Bible as provoking the insight that she had become as dry as the dead leaf, and must start to live again. Near the very end of the new 1954 monologue, she continues, using a phrase modified from Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay, “Of Seditions and Troubles”7: “Money, I’ve always felt, money – pardon my expression – is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.” A version of this line about manure does occur in the 1938 The Merchant of Yonkers, not as part of Dolly’s grand soliloquy, but in a conversation where the quotation has minor importance and is not inherent to the plot development. As the manure simile spreads more widely, in the progression from The Merchant of Yonkers to The Matchmaker, and even further in Hello, Dolly!, richness of character unfolds and meaning expands, exemplifying the life-giving spirit of great works of art.
1Germer (1967), 137-146.
2Niven (2012), 458.
3Ziolkowski (1999), 549-560.
4Konas (1999), 455-470.
5Kristeva (1986), 34-61.
6Jungk (1956), 147-148.
7Bacon, Francis. “Of Seditions and Troubles.”
Bacon, Francis. “Of Seditions and Troubles.” In http://www.westegg.com/bacon/seditions.html. Original work published 1625.
Germer, Rudolf. “Thornton Wilders Bühnenstück ‘The Matchmaker’ und seine literarischen Vorbilder” [“Thornton Wilder’s Stage Play, ‘The Matchmaker,’ and its Models”]. Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien 12 (1967): 137-146.
Jungk, Robert. “Against the Tyrants of Imagination.” Das Neue Form (Darmstadt), 5 (9 February 1956): 147-148. Translated by Irmgard Wolfe. In Bryer, Jackson R., ed. Conversations with Thornton Wilder, Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, 62-63.
Konas, Gary. “A Walk on the Wilder Side with Dolly Levi,” in Martin Blank et al., eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1999, 455-470.
Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialogue and Novel.” Translated by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. In Kristeva, Julia, The Kristeva Reader. Edited by Toril Moi. New York; Columbia University Press, 1986, 34-61. Work originally published 1966.
Nestroy, Johann. Einen Jux will er sich machen: Posse mit Gesang in vier Aufzügen [He Will Go on a Spree: Farce with Singing, in Four Acts; the title has also been translated as A Rollicking Good Time], in Nestroy, Johann, Ausgewählte Werke [Selected Works], 363-454. Ed. by Hans Weigel. Wien: Mohn & Co, 1962. Originally published 1842. While an English translation has not been published, a literal French translation can be found in L’Homme Déchiré, suivi de Une Pinte de Bon Sang aux Dépens d’Autrui [The Man Torn Apart, followed by A Bloody Mess (literally, a Pint of Good Blood) at the Expense of Someone Else]. Rouen: Université de Rouen, 1985. Translated by Félix Kreissler.
Niven, Penelope. Thornton Wilder: A Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
Oxenford, John. A Day Well Spent: A Farce, in One Act. Cambridge, England: ProQuest LLC, 1997. First published, London: John Miller, 1836. First performance 1835.
Wilder, Thornton. The Matchmaker, in Three Plays: Our Town; The Skin of Our Teeth; The Matchmaker, with a Preface. New York: Harper & Row, 1957. First produced 1954.
Wilder, Thornton. The Merchant of Yonkers: A Farce in Four Acts. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939. First produced 1938.
Ziolkowski, John E. “Dolly Levi: A Modern Parasite? (Thornton Wilder and Terence).” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5 (Spring, 1999): 549-560.
by Amy Boratko
The Matchmaker, Its Versions and Its History
At first glance, The Matchmaker might inspire a feeling of déjà-vu. The cantankerous curmudgeon, the naïve ingénue, the brass and buxom heroine, the bumbling servant, and the sly servant conjure up feelings of nostalgia for other theatre experiences of the past. Have you seen Dolly Levi before? What about Horace Vandergelder? Chances are that you have. And that is exactly what Thornton Wilder intended with The Matchmaker. By invoking theatrical gestures from ancient Rome, Moliére’s France, and nineteenth century Europe, Wilder creates, in this piece, a collage honoring the art he loved.
The characters of The Matchmaker can trace their ancestral line all the way back to ancient Rome. Plautus’s Pot of Gold uses the stock character of the miser who hordes money, even to the detriment of his family. Euclio, the penny-pincher, finds a pot of gold to use for his daughter’s dowry, but he decides to hide the money for himself. His own stinginess and avarice lead to comic situations. While Euclio is much more simple and exaggerated than Horace Vandergelder, the characters share a love for money and living economically. The use of Plautus puts Wilder in good company, as Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is an adaptation of Plautus’s Menaechmi.
Moliére took up the fragment of Plautus’s comedy and adapted it to create his The Miser (L’Avare). Wilder looks all the way back to this adaptation to find material for The Matchmaker. In The Miser, Harpagon (the miser) employs Frosine to find him a wife. Frosine describes the poor, innocent Marianne in a comically exaggerated fashion. Wilder uses this scene, sometimes nearly word-for-word, in The Matchmaker. When Dolly Levi describes the fictional Ernesta Simple to Vandergelder, she must reach back to Frosine’s words and tactics. Though it is an age-old scam, Vandergelder still takes the bait.
More playwrights throughout years took up these same stock characters and plots and began to put their own individual twists on them. Wilder, well versed in eighteenth and nineteenth century European drama, sought to write a modern, American version of Johann Nestroy’s 1842 Einen Jux will er sich machen (He wants to have a lark). This Austrian “king of comedy” wrote the farce, trying to perfect John Oxenford’s 1835 A Day Well Spent. A one-act, rapid-fire British farce, A Day Well Spent took the classic pairing of a curmudgeon and his young, marriageable charge and added an interesting subplot. Oxenford introduces the characters of Bolt and Mizzle: the miser’s employees who shirk work to have a big city adventure.
Out of the Austrian and English plays grew Wilder’s 1938 The Merchant of Yonkers. German director and producer Max Reinhardt picked up the project. The collaboration was a dream-come-true for Wilder, who passionately followed Reinhardt’s work. Despite an all-star team assembled to work on the farce, The Merchant of Yonkers was a dismal failure in New York. The play ran for a scant 39 performances. Fifteen years later, another distinguished director, Tyrone Guthrie, expressed interested in Wilder’s dramatic writing. He wanted to remount The Merchant of Yonkers, but Wilder still felt the stigma of failure attached to his “ugly duckling” play. Instead of abandoning the project, Wilder reworked the play and created The Matchmaker. The new product was not a complete overhaul, but a careful and thorough revision of the original text. Because the talented Ruth Gordon was cast as Dolly Levi, Wilder retooled and expanded the matchmaker’s role to fit the talent of his lead actress.
The new collaboration was a success at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. And more praise followed a run at the Theatre Royal in London. The Matchmaker hoped to strike up a similar relationship on the American stage, but the Philadelphia premiere brought back haunting memories of the now-forgotten Merchant of Yonkers. The lukewarm reception was short-lived, and The Matchmaker found an audience in Boston and gained enough steam to propel it to a Broadway debut. The comedy opened in New York on August 12, 1955, and enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway. Translations of The Matchmaker flourished in Europe. In West Germany, distinguished actresses yearned to have their chance to take star-turns as Dolly Levi. Through The Matchmaker, Wilder seemed to find the adaptation he started in 1937.
This story still had a bit more life left-and a few more adaptations to go. Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman streamlined the number of characters, added songs and dance numbers, and created the Hello, Dolly! phenomenon. Carol Channing-very different from the petite Ruth Gordon-originated the title role in 1964. Winning ten Tony Awards, the musical matched-or even surpassed-the commercial success of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. It also spawned the film version (another adaptation) starring Barbara Streisand. The financial awards from Hello, Dolly! allowed the aging Wilder to live comfortably for the rest of his life. Unlike Nestroy or Oxenford, Wilder reaped the benefits of adapting and adaptations.
Though more playwrights will continue to expand upon all of Wilder’s works and these characters and plots handed down throughout the centuries, each playwright’s adaptation is significant in the mark it makes on tradition. Each playwright not only uses the source material for his own purposes, but he or she creates something entirely new and different. Almost all of Shakespeare’s works are adaptations, and, perhaps, Wilder was trying to be a Shakespeare of his day.
A Note on Farce
The Matchmaker belongs in a selective club of comedy: the farce. It’s filled with mistaken identities, secret rendezvous obscured by screens and hidden behind doors, separated lovers, exciting twists and turns, and a light, bantering tone à la Oscar Wilde. Unlike some of the more realistic stories on today’s sitcoms, the situations in a farce seem farfetched. In Clark Kent fashion, a single piece of clothing (a pair of glasses, a woman’s scarf around a man’s shoulders) disguises identity. But, in all this improbable zaniness, according to Wilder, the root of this type of comedy is not silliness; the farce is based on deeply imbedded logic and order. For Wilder, “the pleasures of farce, like those of a detective story, are those of development, pattern, and logic.” Though the farce looks like a wild, chaotic romp, Wilder built The Matchmaker on a firm, grounded foundation. Despite appearances, Wilder has his farce under control.
Hello, Again…and Again!
A Wilder Adaptation Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart adapted The Matchmaker into the 1964 Broadway success Hello, Dolly! This transformation from play to musical is part of a long series of adaptations, spanning two centuries and two continents. Wilder, well versed in eighteenth and nineteenth century European drama, sought to write a modern, American version of Johann Nestroy’s 1842 Einen Jux will er sich machen “A Roaring Good Time.” This Austrian “king of comedy” wrote the farce, trying to perfect John Oxenford’s 1835 A Day Well Spent. A one-act, rapid-fire British farce, A Day Well Spent took the classic pairing of a curmudgeon and his young, marriageable charge and added an interesting subplot. Oxenford introduces the characters of Bolt and Mizzle, the miser’s employees who shirk work to have a big city adventure.
Out of the Austrian and English plays grew Wilder’s 1938 The Merchant of Yonkers. German director and producer Max Reinhardt picked up the project. The collaboration was a dream come true for Wilder, who passionately followed Reinhardt’s work. Despite an all-star team assembled to work on the farce, The Merchant of Yonkers was a dismal failure in New York. The play ran for a scant 39 performances.
Fifteen years later, another distinguished director, Tyrone Guthrie, expressed interested in Wilder’s dramatic writing. He wanted to remount The Merchant of Yonkers, but Wilder still felt the stigma of failure attached to his “ugly duckling” play. Instead of abandoning the project, Wilder reworked the play and created The Matchmaker. The new product was not a complete overhaul, but a careful and thorough revision of the original text. Because the talented Ruth Gordon was cast as Dolly Levi, Wilder retooled and expanded the matchmaker’s role to fit the talent of his lead actress.
The new collaboration was a success at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. And more praise followed a run at the Theatre Royal in London. The Matchmaker hoped to strike up a similar relationship on the American stage, but the Philadelphia premiere brought back haunting memories of the now-forgotten Merchant of Yonkers. The lukewarm reception was short-lived, and The Matchmaker found an audience in Boston and gained enough steam to propel it to a Broadway debut.
The comedy opened in New York on August 12, 1955, and enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway. Translations of The Matchmaker flourished in Europe. In West Germany, distinguished actresses yearned to have their chance to take star-turns as Dolly Levi. Through The Matchmaker, Wilder seemed to find the adaptation he started in 1937. This story still had a bit more life left— and a few more adaptations to go. Stewart and Herman streamlined the number of characters, added songs and dance numbers, and created the Hello, Dolly! phenomenon. Carol Channing—very different from the petite Ruth Gordon—originated the title role in 1964. Winning ten Tony Awards, the musical matched—or even surpassed—the commercial success of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. It also spawned the film version (another adaptation) starring Barbra Streisand. The financial rewards from Hello, Dolly! allowed the aging Wilder to live comfortably for the rest of his life. Unlike Nestroy or Oxenford, Wilder reaped the benefits of adapting and adaptations.
These materials appear with the kind permission of Ford’s Theatre and are drawn from the program of their production of The Matchmaker. The commentary is by Amy Boratko, who served as dramatic historian for the production and who has added additional materials for this website presentation. We give our thanks to the staff at Ford’s and, in particular, to Ms. Boratko for her contribution.
For further discussions of The Matchmaker, please visit the Bibliography.
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