By Kelli Allred
While Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) is not America’s greatest playwright, he was “a revolutionary writer who experimented boldly with literary forms and themes, from the beginning to the end of his long career (Tappan Wilder, “Acknowledgements,” Our Town: A Play in Three Acts [Harper Collins Publishers: New York, 1986], pp 277). Wilder’s three greatest contributions to American theatre continue to entertain and enlighten audiences in the twenty-first century: Our Town (1938), The Skin of their Teeth (1942), and The Matchmaker (1954).
Thornton Wilder wrote The Matchmaker at a time when farce was not really popular among audiences in America. However, the resurgence of farce in American theaters since 1990 makes this a perfect choice for the 2007 season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The Festival has produced a number of farces, both classical and contemporary, in recent years: Tartuffe and The Imaginary Invalid (Moliere), The Foreigner (Larry Shue), Noises Off! (Michael Frayn), The Servant of Two Masters (Carlos Goldoni), Blithe Spirit (Noel Coward), and Room Service (John Murray and Allen Boretz).
A Note on Farce
The Matchmaker belongs in this select style of comedy—the farce. Farce is a type of comedy written for the stage which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely and extravagant situations, employing disguise and mistaken identity, and offering verbal humor in varying degrees of sophistication, which may include puns and sexual innuendo. In farce the plot’s fast pace usually increases toward the end of the play, often involving an elaborate chase scene. Broad physical humor and deliberate absurdity or nonsense often characterize farce.
Unlike some of the more realistic stories on today's sitcoms, the situations in a farce seem farfetched. The Matchmaker is 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. According to Thornton Wilder, the root of farce is not silliness; rather, farce is based on deeply imbedded logic and order. He says that "the pleasures of farce, like those of a detective story, are those of development, pattern, and logic” (Amy Boratko, “The Matchmaker,” The Thornton Wilder Society, 2004, http:// www.tcnj.edu/~wilder/works/frame.html). Though the farce looks like a wild, chaotic romp, Wilder built The Matchmaker on a firm, well-controlled foundation.
Wilder opens the play with a scene that could have been borrowed from Moliere’s classic comedy, The Miser, wherein the rich elderly man is set up to be duped by his hired help. In The Matchmaker, farce becomes a vehicle for moral courage and social independence among the play’s characters. According to arts theorist Eric Bentley, farce is one way serious individuals can get relief from the daily grind, “however slight or trivial, provided it is harmless. . . . The most pleasurable relief is to be found in the arts” (as cited in Hewitt, 328).
The characters in The Matchmaker are also seeking pleasure in spite of the strict social mores of 1890s New York. They use aggression against established values of their day. Cornelius Hackl and Irene Malloy, along with their sidekicks Barnaby and Minnie Fay, use tremendous energy as they dare to break out of the constricting roles imposed on them by society. At the same time they strive for the elements missing in their lives: change, adventure, and excitement (Emil Hurtik and Robert Yarber, An Introduction to Drama and Criticism [Waltham, MA: Xerox Publishing, 1971], 327–333).
Ambrose Kemper is determined to marry Ermengard, the over-protected niece of Horace Vandergelder. And Kemper is not a Jewish enough name for Ambrose to make a good match for Ermengarde. Although Horace needs a bashert (good Jewish mate) for his niece, he engages the matchmaking services of shadken (romance facilitator) Dolly Levi for himself once he decides to remarry. Indeed, Horace, too, is seeking to break away from the status quo and toward his own adventure, change, and excitement. Dolly accuses Horace of rejoining the human race (Gerald Bordman, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle [Oxford University Press: New York, 1986], 632–634).
The Merchant of Yonkers
The Matchmaker is an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation. The play’s original source was entitled “A Day Well Spent,” written by Englishman John Oxenford. This was a lively, one-act British farce that paired a curmudgeon and his young, marriageable ward and added an interesting subplot. In 1842 an Austrian playwright adapted Oxenford’s play into Einen Jux will er sich machen or A Roaring Good Time. Wilder set out to write a contemporary version of the latter in 1938, calling it The Merchant of Yonkers. Although he paired with director/producer Max Reinhardt to produce it, the play’s New York run lasted only 39 performances (Boratko).
Tyron Guthrie’s interest in remounting The Merchant of Yonkers inspired Wilder to carefully revise the play, adapting it for the talented Ruth Gordon, who had been cast as Dolly Levi. The play was renamed The Matchmaker and traveled to Scotland, where it enjoyed success at the Edinburgh Festival followed by a run at London’s Theatre Royal. The Matchmaker opened in New York on 12 August 1955, more to the playwright’s satisfaction and the public’s liking than its earlier adaptation (Donald Margulies, “Foreward,” Our Town: A Play in Three Acts [Harper Collins Publishers: New York, 1986], 277). Hollywood adapted the play into a film version of The Matchmaker in 1958.
Americans were still mourning the November 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy when Broadway producer David Merrick went ahead with the opening of Hello, Dolly! In January 1964, the musical adaptation of Wilder’s The Matchmaker enjoyed a long run, and its title song, composed by Jerry Herman, became the most popular melody to come out of Broadway in many seasons. Winning ten Tony Awards, the musical version of The Matchmaker surpassed the commercial success of Wilder’s other two classics, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth (Gerald Bordman, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle [Oxford University Press: New York, 1986], 632–634). The financial rewards from Hello, Dolly! allowed “the aging Wilder to live comfortably until his death in December 1975,” at the age of 78 (Boratko).
Since the 1990s, farce has become a staple of American theater. Last year the Utah Shakespeare Festival produced Room Service, a farce from the 1930s, which audiences hailed a success. Thornton Wilder remains a formidable presence in American theatre today, due to the ongoing popularity of his three major works.
Timeline of Thornton Wilder's Career
1897—Born April 1897 in Wisconsin
1915—Attends Oberlin College to study Greek and Roman classics
1919—Leaves school for eight months to enlist and serve in the Coast Artillery Corps in WWI
1920—Yale School of Drama publishes his first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound
1928—Wins Pulitzer Prize for Fiction at age thirty for his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
1938—Wins second Pulitzer Prize at age forty for Our Town; writes The Merchant of Yonkers
1943—Wins third Pulitzer Prize for The Skin of Our Teeth
1944—Enlists and serves in the U.S. Air Force during WWII at the age of forty-seven
1954—The Matchmaker premieres at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival; opens on Broadway
1958—Film version of The Matchmaker released
1963—Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
1964—Musical Hello, Dolly! opens on Broadway and wins ten Tony Awards
1975—Dies in December at his Connecticut home, at age seventy-eight