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Theatre / The Matchmaker

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The Matchmaker is a play by Thornton Wilder, first performed in 1954.

Horace Vandergelder, a prosperous merchant of advanced years, has decided to remarry. He sets out to spend the day in New York visiting his intended, accompanied by Mrs. Dolly Levi, an old family friend who has been mediating the match but secretly has her sights set on Horace herself. His clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, take advantage of his absence to give themselves the day off and go into New York themselves seeking adventure, where Cornelius falls in love with a young widow who runs a hat shop — who, unbeknownst to him, is Irene Molloy, the woman his boss intends to marry. Cornelius and Barnaby end up going out to dinner with Irene and her assistant at the same restaurant where Horace and Dolly have reserved a table — and Horace's niece is secretly meeting the handsome artist her uncle has forbidden her to have anything further to do with. Hilarity Ensues.

The Matchmaker became the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly!. It has a convoluted history: it's a revamp of an earlier Wilder play called The Merchant of Yonkers from 1938, which was based on the 1842 three-act musical farce Einen Jux will er sich machen (He'll Have Himself a Good Time) by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, which was in turn based on the 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent by English dramatist John Oxenford.

In 1958 the play was adapted into a film directed by Joseph Anthony, and starring Shirley Booth (in her last film role, which earned her a nomination as the year's Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle)), Paul Ford, Anthony Perkins, Robert Morse, and Shirley MacLaine, with music by Adolph Deutsch and costumes by Edith Head; this version retained the fourth-wall-breaking monologues.

This play contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Location Change: It is inspired by Einen Jux will er sich machen by Johann Nestroy, set in Austria, which in turn is inspired by A Day Well Spent by John Oxenford, set in England.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: The play ends with Mrs. Levi Breaking the Fourth Wall and prompting Barnaby to tell the audience the play's moral.
  • Audience Monologue: There's one in each of the four acts.
    • In Act 1, Vandergelder describes his world view, summed up by the sentence "Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contamination", and explains why he's nevertheless planning to risk being a bit foolish by getting married.
    • In Act 2, Cornelius describes the wonders of being in love, and how he won't care what happens if Vandergelder catches him out because the memory of this day will sustain him.
    • In Act 3, Malachi describes his philosophy that everybody should have one vice to keep them honest, but no more. (His used to be petty theft, but then he became an alcoholic so now he's scrupulously honest with other people's property.)
    • In Act 4, Miss Van Huysen steps forward to deliver a monologue to the audience, but gets sidetracked before she finishes the first sentence. The real monologue comes a bit later, from Mrs. Levi, explaining why she intends to marry Vandergelder and working through her doubts.
    • The play ends with another short address to the audience from Barnaby, attempting to come up with a moral to the story.
  • Closet Shuffle: When Vandergelder comes to visit Mrs. Molloy's hat shop while Cornelius and Barnaby are already there, Cornelius hides in a coat closet and Barnaby hides under a table with a long tablecloth. Elaborate and ultimately unsuccessful maneuvers ensue to keep Vandergelder from discovering them.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: The subplot with Ermengarde and Ambrose. Vandergelder sends his niece Ermengarde to stay with an old family friend, Miss Van Huysen, to keep her away from her boyfriend Ambrose, who he disapproves of. This inspires Ermengarde to run off with Ambrose instead of going to Miss Van Huysen's house, and they face various difficulties all through the play while they try to figure out where they're going to go and how they're going to straighten things out with Uncle Horace. In the final scene, they finally end up at Miss Van Huysen's house, where it turns out that she's entirely in sympathy with them and if Ermengarde had gone to her house as planned Ambrose would have had no trouble visiting and they could have spent the same amount of time making plans in comfort and with Miss Van Huysen's help.
  • Fighting Irish: Mrs. Molloy claims that one of the things she misses about her late husband was the blazing rows they used to have, which never failed to brighten her spirits when she was feeling down.
  • Going to See the Elephant: Cornelius and Barnaby take advantage of their overbearing boss going on an overnight trip to give themselves the day off and go to New York City to see what wonders it has.
  • Hesitation Equals Dishonesty: The characters mostly speak clearly and without errors, and in some places spontaneously produce eloquent monologues. In a few places, Mrs. Levi is written as stammering or using filler noises specifically to signal to the audience that at these moments she's making it up as she goes along.
  • Ill-Timed Sneeze: After Cornelius hides in the closet from Vandergelder, Mrs. Levi is able to reassure Vandergelder that there isn't a man hiding in the closet, despite Minnie seeing one there. But when a tremendous sneeze comes from inside the closet, she has to bow to the inevitable and admit that there is one.
  • Inspiration Nod: The late Mr. Levi was an immigrant from Vienna, as a nod to the Austrian play that inspired this one.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: Vandergelder refuses to condone a relationship between his niece Ermengarde and the artist Ambrose. He tells Ambrose that he's sent Ermengarde away and Ambrose will never find out where she's gone; immediately, a maid comes in and announces that Ermengarde has just finished packing and recites the full address of where she's being sent so Vandergelder can confirm the luggage is labeled correctly.
  • Invented Individual: Vandergelder's announcement that he intends to propose to Mrs. Molloy comes as a shock to Mrs. Levi, but she rallies and hurriedly invents a woman named Ernestina Simple, who is everything Vandergelder thinks he wants in a wife, and claims that she's promised Ernestina to introduce them. Vandergelder allows her to set up a dinner meeting, which she turns up to herself, proclaiming bitterly that Ernestina has done them both dirty by eloping that very day with another man. Having thus arranged to get Vandergelder to herself in a romantic setting, she sets about wooing him, and the untrustworthy Ernestina is never heard from again.
  • Karmic Thief: Malachi describes his past as a petty thief as having been "engaged in the redistribution of superfluities", stealing from people who don't deserve what they have and won't miss what he takes.
  • The Matchmaker: Dolly Levi is acting as one for Horace Vandergelder.
  • Mistaken Identity: In the final scene, Cornelius and Barnaby (with the latter in drag to avoid Vandergelder) get mistaken for the eloping Ambrose and Ermengarde. Then the real Ambrose and Ermengarde show up, but Ambrose doesn't want trouble with Vandergelder so he claims to be Cornelius. Somewhere around this point, Miss Van Huysen gets so confused she starts wondering if she's really Miss Van Huysen.
  • My Card: Mrs. Levi has been living in genteel poverty since her husband died and running various sidelines to keep afloat. When she meets Ambrose Kemper, she offers him her card, then apologizes and switches that card — "Varicose veins reduced. Consultations free." — for a more respectable one advertising her services as a music teacher.
  • Non-Promotion: Vandergelder announces that he's going to promote his assistant Cornelius to chief clerk, and brushes Cornelius off when he points out that he was the chief clerk already. After he leaves Cornelius says sourly that if he does a very good job, maybe in a decade he'll be promoted to chief clerk again.
  • Translation by Volume: When Vandergelder is trying to order dinner at the fancy restaurant. For added irony, the waiter speaks English just fine; the real problem is that Vandergelder doesn't speak haute cuisine.
    Vandergelder: And with the chicken I want a bottle of wine.
    Waiter: Moselle? Chablis? Vouvray?
    Malachi: He doesn't understand you, Mr. Vandergelder. You'd better speak louder.
    Vandergelder: W. I. N. E.
    Waiter: Wine.
    Vandergelder: Wine!