Thornton Wilder’s resplendent comedy The Matchmaker opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway on December 5, 1955 — sixty-five years ago this month. We spoke with Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, who discussed the play’s creation and enduring appeal.
But first, a bit of theatre history: In 1835, playwright John Oxenford wrote a one-act farce called A Day Well Spent. In 1842, Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy expanded Oxenford’s play into a full-length farce called Einen Jux will er sich machen (He’ll Have Himself a Good Time). Thornton Wilder used those plays as the basis for his 1938 comedy The Merchant of Yonkers, which he later revised and retitled The Matchmaker. (In 1963, The Matchmaker was adapted into the hit musical Hello, Dolly!)
Concord Theatricals: Thank you so much for speaking with us. This play had a fascinating genesis! How did it come to be? What first drew Thornton Wilder to A Day Well Spent and Einen Jux will er sich machen?
Tappan Wilder: Big question! Remembering always the mystery of creativity, let start by citing my uncle’s lifelong passion for laughter, high jinks and vaudeville that matured into a young playwright’s fascination with comedy as a theatrical form in general and farce in particular, going back to Platus. (Wilder always did his homework in the Roman-Greek classics.) Along the way, throw in a hobby he adopted in high school: while his pals were keeping stats on their favorite baseball players, young Wilder was keeping detailed records on the plays – and their directors and stars – being performed on the great stages of the German language theatre. Collecting this data is where, I believe, he first encountered the name Johann Nestroy, the Shakespeare of the Viennese stage, and also the name Max Reinhardt, the Austrian-born director of God-like fame on those stages who directed Nestroy, including Einen Jux will er sich machen.
In the 1930s, Reinhardt was well-known in this county, but Nestroy known scarcely at all. It simplifies a complicated story to say that by 1935, when Wilder first conceived the play we know today as The Matchmaker, based on one of Nestroy’s masterpieces, he probably knew more about Nestroy than anybody in America. And moving along, throw in a dash of Moliere’s legendary farce L’Avare (see Matchmaker Act 1), mix in a lovable fixer-upper named Dolly Levi (he invented), and you end up with Thornton Wilder’s Matchmaker, a four-act piece of fabulous entertainment and a full credit course in the history of drama. And to top it off, the director of its Broadway production in 1938, with the work then flying under its first name, The Merchant of Yonkers, was none other than Max Reinhardt, a refugee from Naziism now living in the United States.
I gather, however, that The Matchmaker in the form of The Merchant of Yonkers was unsuccessful?
Both yes and no. If you measure a play’s success by its Broadway run, The Merchant of Yonkers was a disaster. It was chased from the stage after only 39 performances by a pack of reviews shouting that it was fatally flawed in number of ways, all adding up to death for farce: it wasn’t funny. Why? It’s clear that Reinhardt had directed a show in a formal, slow-paced, heavily decorated formal way (including heavy brown and purple sets) that might have appealed to Europeans but definitely not an American high jinks-minded crowd.
That’s the bad news about The Merchant of Yonkers. The good news is that Harpers & Brothers published the play and the show was soon being mounted by a steady number of amateur theaters (schools and colleges) throughout the country – so many, in fact, that for those who knew the play well and believed in it, it was never a question of whether but when it would return to glory. That moment occurred in 1954, with the retitled The Matchmaker, this time in the hands of two high-voltage energy sources and believers: director Tyrone Guthrie and actress Ruth Gordon. It proved a big juicy success. The show’s highlights included a happy premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in summer 1954, an eight-month London run followed by a Broadway run of 486 performances (Wilder’s Broadway record for a play) in 1955-1956, and a wonderfully successful out-of-town tour. And the lights have been on for The Matchmaker ever since.
How else did New York’s hit play of 1955 differ from the commercial failure of 1938?
The difference, which added up to a big difference, is that Guthrie and Gordon turned a farce with heavy legs into a production full of incredible energy, craziness and fun. Even the staging was colorful and joyous. And by the way, The Matchmaker crowd never called their hit a “revival.” For them it was a whole new play. My uncle did make a lot of little changes in the text, but it’s still pretty much The Merchant, just this time a galloping, happy show.
The Matchmaker is set in Yonkers and New York City. Thornton Wilder lived much of his adult life in Hamden, Connecticut. Did he have any special connection to Yonkers or NYC?
I’m not familiar with any special connection, although there is a family connection to the area; Wilder’s grandfather on his mother’s side descended from Hudson River gentry and the grandfather was the longtime minister of the Presbyterian Church in Dobb’s Ferry, New York, not far from Yonkers. So it was country he knew, but whether it influenced him or not, I can’t say. What he needed, of course, was a semi-rural location with convenient rail access to New York: a good place to grow up, but not a good place for adventure. Everybody knows you go to the city for that!
I understand you saw Ruth Gordon in the original Broadway production of The Matchmaker. What do you remember about that production and that performance?
Did I see The Matchmaker in New York? I must have but I can’t remember. I have a poor memory, but I sure do remember seeing the show on tour in Boston. I was sixteen and I can still recall my father laughing his head off. He may have been an ordained minister and theologian, but I can assure you that he shared his brother’s funny bone. And we all went backstage to meet Ruth Gordon, another unforgettable thrill. Recently, I have seen two marvelous productions I sure do remember: at the Stratford Festival, directed by Chris Abraham, and at the Goodman, directed by Henry Wishcamper.
How would you compare The Matchmaker to other plays by Thornton Wilder? What makes this play unique in his canon, and what characteristics does it share with his other works?
My uncle worked with great I success in a great variety of artistic art forms – fiction, drama, opera, film, etc., and in different levels within these forms – comedy, melodrama, tragedy, etc. As a result, I view his so-called “canon” as composed of a series of “uniq
ue” artistic occasions, joined, at the hip by common themes. In the Comedy Department, The Matchmaker shares billing with such works as The Skin of Our Teeth, his work adapting John Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, the one act Queens of France, and a playlet (my favorite) Now the Servant’s Name Was Malchus. Each is unique and special. The Matchmaker, however, is first among equals for being such a complete take on a great fascial work. He wrote nothing else like it.
This play, of course, was famously adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly! What does the play have that the musical lacks? What, if anything, was lost in translation?
I adore the musical. Who can’t? But like any adaptation, especially when music is involved, you inevitably lose characters and the characters remaining are less fully developed. For that matter, the musical drops The Matchmaker’s fourth act entirely. When Thornton said, “I love the musical, but I miss my beautiful words,” he wasn’t knocking the musical as much as saying that a different form makes for a different work and different expectation. Let me cite an example: I believe that the scene in Irene Malloy’s hat shop, when Cornelius and Barnaby sing the Civil War song “Tenting Tonight” to lure Irene and Minnie Fay to their side (and evening), is one of the most moving moments in all Wilder drama. Inevitably, it loses its hold when that scene gets tied in to other songs. That’s okay; just different.
These characters and this story continue to delight audiences 65 years after they were introduced in 1955 (and 82 years after The Merchant of Yonkers!). What makes this play universal and timeless? Why do audiences still love it so much?
Allow me to answer this by an analogy. Thornton Wilder’s most famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in in 1928, is set in Lima Peru in 1714. In his introduction, the distinguished American novelist Russell Banks makes the point that this work “lives on because it celebrates our conflicted, contradictory, eternal human nature, our essential humanity.” That’s just the way I see it with The Matchmaker. It’s great entertainment, but it’s also all about us in all our fragility and imperfections. If I suddenly sound serious, I mean to be serious. Along with laughter, Wilder’s play has a great deal of serious stuff to say about loneliness, the dangers of too much and too little money, the importance of adventure for the living of one’s life, the promise of youth, marriage, and above all—love! Why do audiences still love it? They are up there on the stage, too!
Absolutely. So what does The Matchmaker offer theatres and audiences at this moment in history (and beyond)?
When the times are hard – and we can be sure that “stress,” no matter what one’s station in life and bank account balance, is going to be the order of day for the foreseeable future – even when we take our masks off, laughing with and at ourselves has to be the Rx we need in order to live. We need to laugh in general and at ourselves. So I say let’s do a play in which we can all see ourselves, strengths and weaknesses alike, moving on… ever moving on, united. Can it get any better?
Photo: Ruth Gordon and Thornton Wilder backstage at The Matchmaker, circa 1955 (courtesy of The Wilder Family, LLC)