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Kelly teaches creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly examines elements of The Matchmaker that make it function as a parody, as Wilder intended.
As an old show business adage puts it, tragedy is what happens to you, while comedy is what happens to someone else. This explains, in one sentence, the complex problem Thornton Wilder examines in the famous preface to his collection Three Plays. He discusses how, starting in the 1920s, he found himself growing increasingly bored with the theater, which he had loved all his life. The plays were competent enough, but they did not affect him on a personal level, the way that good art should. At length, Wilder traced the problem to the rise of the middle class in the nineteenth century. His explanation went like this: the middle class, then a new social phenomenon, did not want the sharp discomfort that art can cause when it makes one face reality and instead supported art that was soothing. One result was that writers began producing characters as broad types, which audiences could then distance themselves from, telling themselves that the concerns of the character on the stage were nothing like the ones they faced themselves. Another, related way to make drama soothing was to use the stage itself as a frame to separate "their" world from "ours"—the stage becomes, as Wilder puts it, a "box set."
At the end of his preface, Wilder applied this artistic theory to the book's three plays—Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker—and explained how each one represents his stand against soothing art. The misfit of the group is The Matchmaker, his romantic comedy that whips up complications and misunderstandings that come out all right for everyone in the end, as do the bloodless plays that Wilder said bored him. In the preface, he explained that he wrote the play as a parody of plays he saw in his youth, taking a sharp-witted German comedy of manners (Ein Jux es sich Machen, by Johann Nestroy) and flattening it to meet American standards. "One way to shake off the nonsense of the nineteenth-century staging," he explained, "is to make fun of it." The problem with theater was that people no longer came away from plays feeling, "This is the way things are." In The Matchmaker, he addressed art's relationship to reality by presenting a situation so contrived that audiences would have to be aware of its falsity.
The Matchmaker is meant to be such an extreme example of middle-class art that it forces those who experience it to notice how little it resembles true art. To accomplish this goal, Wilder had to distance the audience from the action and make them aware of the distance while at the same time creating a play that is so cold and impersonal as to be un-watchable.
The play is certainly made to be felt at a distance. The characters are meant to be understood at a theoretical level, but their problems are not felt, which is exactly the feeling Wilder described having plagued him about other plays that did not claim to be parodies. He uses several techniques to make audiences feel that "they" on stage are different than "us" beyond the footlights.
The most obvious distancing mechanism is the surly personality of the play's main character, Horace Vandergelder. Certainly, there are elements to his character that anyone can relate to, but just as certainly there are not people coming away from the theater telling themselves, "He's like me." He is a curmudgeon, a crank, and a tightwad, too money conscious to recognize true love and too stingy to let his employees have one evening off out of the week. He distrusts the young, but he also has no respect for the law. He parts with cash sparingly, a few dollars here and there, but he carries a huge amount in his purse, which he is surprisingly careless enough to lose. In short, he is a compilation of unpleasant human traits, which would make him a fine secondary character. As the lead, he serves to remind audiences of the extremist nature of comic characters. Putting Horace Vandergelder in the middle of the play is like focusing a movie camera so tightly on a sciencefiction monster that a zipper in the back of the suit eventually shows.
The play's other main character, Dolly Levi, is just as artificial, but in the other direction: she is too good, too knowing, to be from the world ordinary humans inhabit. Her chosen mission as a "woman who arranges things" comes with supernatural powers. She can tell the two young lovers to go to a certain restaurant at a certain time, and everything will come out all right for them. She can tell outrageous stories, such as the one about Vandergelder's clerk being an undercover millionaire, and have them accepted if not quite believed. The only way audiences can accept Dolly's abilities is by distancing the world onstage from their own and accepting that things happen there that could never happen here.
Wilder uses other theatrical conventions, or, rather, overuses them, to keep his comedy at arm's length. Inside the box set, people do not realize that a character wearing a woman's coat and a veil could be a man. They do not hear what is being said on the other side of a screen. They find men hiding in cupboards and under tables, and the proper response is to walk away in a jealous snit. These stage conventions make theatrical sense, because they allow the playwright to put different characters onstage and move them in and out without having to constantly change sets; and they are funny, too, drawing from the human capacity to be fooled. They are exactly what is to be expected from a comedy that means to be there just to make people laugh. At the same time that they chide the characters for their intellectual nearsightedness, though, they openly mock the play for having wandered so far from meaningfulness.
Whenever audiences come close to accepting the world onstage as its own separate place, with its own physical, psychological, and moral rules, Wilder reminds them, through the use of soliloquies, that the actors are present in a common reality after all. When it works, the objectified theater does so by presenting events for audiences to scrutinize like grasshoppers in a jar. The open area facing the audience is referred to as "the fourth wall," an invisible barrier between the two worlds. Soliloquies break that fourth wall. When characters step out into the footlights to talk to the audiences directly, the spell of watching a separate reality is broken. This technique comes up just a little short of having actors introduce themselves and announce that they know they are just people in makeup pretending to be other people who never existed. Audiences made aware of theater's artifice experience the feeling that Wilder describes in his preface, that modern theater has "shut the play off in a museum showcase."
Having determined Wilder's intention to satirize modern theater and examined some of the methods he used to do this, the question that then arises is how effective is he at making audiences reconsider comedies. The answer is almost certainly different for today's audiences than it was for those who saw the play in its first run. At that time, it was rare for a Broadway playwright to take an ironic look at his material, which is why Wilder seemed to feel that doing so was necessary. He wanted his audiences to become aware of what is happening to them when they are in the presence of a play, and to do that he had to draw attention to technique. Today, however, irony is done to death. Comedians give hammy exaggerations of what it is like to be a comedian; serious artists scrutinize advertising art; television shows are about people making television shows, with the interior show being the sort of static product that Wilder sought to lampoon. The Matchmaker satirized how modern culture flattens the realness of the theatrical experience, but modern culture has absorbed Wilder's satiric method and for the last forty years has been joyously satirizing itself. With so much irony going around, the earliest attempt looks primitive.
One more aspect to the weakening of The Matchmaker's satiric strength is that it was turned into the sort of consumer-friendly, "soothing" entertainment product that it was supposed to unmask, as the musical Hello, Dolly! Musicals in general are meant to entertain, not to provoke thought; musical adaptations usually end up cutting out any challenging ideas to make room for songs. Because the world of musical theater is, by its nature, farcical (audiences are not supposed to really think that a band just suddenly appeared and that everyone improvised lyrics and dance steps in unison), any satiric sense is lost.
Why should Hello, Dolly! influence how people interpret the ironic stance of The Matchmaker? It shouldn't, but it does. Hello, Dolly! was the more popular of the two, with a title song that has become a standard of pop music. When The Matchmaker is mentioned, you can count the seconds until someone mentions that it was the basis for Hello, Dolly!, with as much certainty as counting the seconds between a lightning flash and thunder. If the satiric element of The Matchmaker had been stronger, it could stand alone, as the nasty little piece that was declawed and made into a feel-good musical. But the satire is actually so quiet that it has to be explained, and so it is often missed.
The problem with satirizing pop art is that one is halfway into the pop art world already, and it is easy to be accepted by the mainstream. Songs by the Who and Janis Joplin, once emblems of the counter-culture, are catchy enough to use in car ads, if the lyrics are left out. "Born in the U.S.A.," an angry song about betrayal and disappointment, is found suitable background music for political rallies if no one listens to anything it says besides the title and refrain. And The Matchmaker, which Wilder meant as an examination of theatrical conventions, reads like just another comedy of manners today, because modern audiences are more accustomed to satire that is sharper and more obvious.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Matchmaker, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
This section contains 1,758 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)