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Critical Essay #2
In the following essay excerpt, Burbank provides a thematic overview of The Matchmaker, finding it belongs to Wilder's pre-World War II phase, rather than the later period in which it achieved hit status.
The Merchant of Yonkers was a plea for a freer stage and a freer and fuller participation in life. Its first performance was at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on December 12, 1938, a little less than eleven months after the first production of Our Town at Princeton, New Jersey. On December 28, 1938, it opened in New York, where it had a short run of twenty-eight performances. It lay unused until Wilder revised it slightly, changed the title to The Matchmaker, and brought it out again in August, 1954, in Edinburgh. From Edinburgh it went to London, where it began a successful run the following November 4. In October, 1955, it was brought to Philadelphia, where it also succeeded; and when taken to New York, it engaged a run long enough to win "hit" status.
The Matchmaker doesn't differ materially from The Merchant of Yonkers; and it belongs, therefore, with the work of this earlier period of Wilder's career rather than with that after World War II. As Harold Clurman pointed out in his review of The Matchmaker, the failure of the earlier version and the success of the latter were probably owing to the difference in directors. The Merchant was directed by Max Reinhardt, for whom Wilder wrote it; and it failed, probably, because of what Clurman called the director's "unfamiliarity with American theatre custom." The Matchmaker was directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who by common critical consent kept the action moving at the rapid pace it requires.
Wilder took much of the material for this play from Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich Machen (Vienna, 1842). He calls it a "free adaptation" of Nestroy's play, which was in turn based upon A Day Well Spent (London, 1835) by John Oxenham. "One way to shake off the nonsense of the nineteenth-century staging is to make fun of it," he wrote in the preface to Three Plays. "This play parodies the stock-company plays that I used to see at Ye Liberty Theatre, Oakland, California, when I was a boy." Much of its humor arises from the use of such old comic stage devices as mistaken identity, quick leaps for hiding places under tables, characters dressed in clothes of the opposite sex, and people caught in folding screens. It features stock characters and absurd situations that develop into a conventional complicated plot. It has a "villain," for instance, in the merchant Vandergelder, who tries to prevent the marriage of a young couple—his niece Ermengarde and the impecunious young artist Ambrose Kemper.
The action takes place in Yonkers during the 1880's and involves the efforts of the principal characters, whose enjoyment of life is in one way or another dependent upon Vandergelder, to "participate" in life. In addition to Ermengarde and Ambrose, the main characters include Vandergelder's two clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, who go to New York in search of "adventure," and Dolly Levi, the "Matchmaker," who pretends to make a match for Vandergelder with a young, attractive woman (Irene Molloy) but actually makes it for herself. Vandergelder's "sensible" behavior and values are the obstacles in each instance to their free enjoyment of life, and the plot consists in the attempts of these people to combat his life-denying conventionality. His most formidable antagonist is Dolly Levi, who is the arranger, the artist of life who follows no doctrine except that of the full enjoyment of it and opposition to the conventional theories of "success" held by Vandergelder to whom work and money are life's highest values. She frankly and simply wants to marry him for his money, but her ideas about wealth are in direct opposition to his. She is determined to put Vandergelder's coins into circulation so they can free others from habit, convention, and isolation—for the enjoyment of life. She explains her economic philosophy to Ambrose: "Money should circulate like rainwater. It should be flowing down among the people, through dressmakers and restaurants and cabmen, setting up a little business here, and furnishing a good time there."
When she has conquered Vandergelder, his unconditional surrender contains assurances that his money will be spent instead of saved. Vandergelder is "sound" from the standpoint of conventional social values; for he has saved, worked hard, and been cautious. He is the stolid, pompous "self-made" man who equates the acquisition of riches and the exploitation of others with virtue and "good sense." The clever Dolly turns the platitudes he lives by to her own uses in such delicious bits of dialogue as the following:
VANDERGELDER: Mrs. Molloy, I've got some
advice to give you about your business.
MRS. LEVI: Oh, advice from Mr. Vandergelder! The
whole city should hear this.
VANDERGELDER: In the first place, the aim of
business is to make a profit.
MRS.MOLLOY: Is that so?
MRS. LEVI: I never heard it put so clearly before. Did
you hear It?
VANDERGELDER: You pay those girls of yours too
much. You pay them as much as men. Girls like that
enjoy their work. Wages, Mrs. Molloy, are paid to
make people who do work they don't enjoy
MRS. LEVI: Mr. Vandergelder thinks so ably. And
that's exactly the way his business is run up in
Enjoyment of life requires nurturing of a vice as well as the virtues. The ne'er-do-well Malachi expresses this bit of philosophy: "There are some people who say you shouldn't have any weaknesses at all—no vices. But if a man has no vices, he's in great danger of making vices out of his virtues, and there's a spectacle. We've all seen them: men who were monsters of philanthropy and women who were dragons of purity. We've seen people who told the truth, though the Heavens fall—and the Heavens fell. No, no—nurse one vice in your bosom. Give it the attention it deserves and let your virtues spring up modestly around it."
The clerks Cornelius and Barnaby are also in rebellion against Vandergelder and what he stands for. Yearning for excitement and resolving to go to New York for an "adventure," they blow up the tomato cans on the shelves of Vandergelder's store and leave. They are determined to have a good meal, to be "in danger," almost to get arrested, to spend all their money (three dollars), and to kiss a girl. Much of the best humor of the play consists in the attempts of these two—and, later, Irene Molloy—to have a part in the excitement of life heretofore denied them by conventions that equate "adventure" with foolishness. It is tender humor, a bit sentimental, even a bit "heartwarming," but nevertheless very enjoyable. The hilarious scene in Act III, where Dolly twists Vandergelder's exasperation with her into a hinted proposal, is one of Wilder's most comical.
It is interesting that while this play first appeared during the depression and featured a conflict between a villainous "boss" and his exploited employees, it was utterly unproletarian; it did not present a "problem" for which social amelioration or reform was needed. The play says in effect that Vandergelder is a moral rather than a social problem. Like Heaven's My Destination, it proposes that a vigorous, robust spirit of humanism is the answer to materialism: that effective reform should begin with the moral improvement of individuals rather than with legislation. But the play is really too good-natured to command serious consideration of its humanistic propositions; and perhaps this is one reason it failed in the thirties. Furthermore, it lacks the bite of real satire; and, while there is some ridicule aimed at conventional notions of "success," the character representing it, Vandergelder, is so candidly, absurdly, and farcically "bad" that the seriousness of what he represents does not become apparent.
There is less claim to serious attention and contemplation in this play than in any of Wilder's other full-length works; and it should be enjoyed for what it is—a farce. The laughter it evokes at Vandergelder and the conventions he embodies is that of compassion for a fellow human who is unaware of his own foolishness and not that of bitterness or contempt. Wilder often uses the phrase "makes fun of" where "satirizes" might ordinarily be expected. The difference in terminology is relevant, for he seldom satirizes in the sense that he holds persons up to ridicule or scorn. He takes the more gentle way of viewing his people with mild irony, and he achieves a kind of spontaneous gaiety out of his depictions of human folly instead of a laughter of superiority and contempt. The result in The Matchmaker is that one enjoys laughing at Vandergelder's absurdities but is not constrained to give much thought to their social or ethical significance.
Source: Rex Burbank, "Three Theatricalist Plays," in Thornton Wilder, Twayne, 1961, pp. 82-111.
This section contains 1,486 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)