In The Matchmaker: A Farce in Four Acts
, Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Thornton Wilder chronicles the comedic romantic misadventures of a Yonkers, New York, marriage broker and those in her orbit. Wilder based the play on John Oxenford's 1835 farce A Day Well Spent
and Johann Nestroy's 1842 musical Einen Jux will er sich machen
. Wilder originally wrote the play as The Merchant of Yonkers
in 1938 but reworked it significantly in 1954 and retitled it The Matchmaker
In the 1880s, Dolly Gallagher Levi is a charismatic widow who isn't above good-natured scheming and manipulation to achieve her aims. She is a jack-of-all-trades and, seemingly, a master of none. She presents a business card for virtually any service needed by anyone who crosses her path, from guitar and mandolin lessons to varicose vein removal. However, people primarily know Dolly as "a woman who arranges things."
Horace Vandergelder owns the Yonker's feed and provision store. He is an irascible miser of the highest order, and he takes great pride in the fact that he is a "half-millionaire." Horace employs two workers, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, two young men with grand dreams of seeing the world and meeting girls to court.
Much to Horace's consternation, his niece, Ermengarde, falls in love with a penniless artist, Ambrose Kemper. To prevent them from marrying, Horace takes Ermengarde with him on a trip to New York City and enlists the services of his late wife's friend, Dolly, as a matchmaker. However, Dolly—ever the romantic—supports Ermengarde and Ambrose's relationship, and she secretly plots to help the two marry.
Later, Horace returns from New York City and announces to Dolly that he will marry the widowed milliner Irene Molloy. But by this time, Dolly has already set eyes on nabbing Horace for herself, so she fibs and tells him that he cannot possibly marry Irene because she, Dolly, has found another, a far more suitable match for him. She does not, however, tell him who that match is.
Meanwhile, Cornelius and Barnaby see a chance to get away from their humdrum lives at the store and have an adventure in New York City.
In New York, Irene and her assistant, Minnie Fay, are discussing Irene's decision to marry Horace. She freely admits she does not love him, but she desperately wants to have a comfortable life away from the grind of the hat business. Horace has returned to New York City to continue courting her. As he and Dolly walk down the street together, Cornelius and Barnaby spot them and, afraid their boss will see that they've closed the store and embarked on a day of leisure, the two young men duck into Irene's shop to hide. When Horace enters the shop, he discovers the two men, and, scandalized, he calls off his engagement to Irene. Dolly tells Irene that Cornelius is a wealthy member of Yonkers society, so Irene insists that he take them to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant for dinner.
At the restaurant, only a screen separates the table where Irene, Minnie Fay, Cornelius, and Barnaby sit and the table where Horace and Dolly sit. Horace finds Ermengarde and Ambrose about to have a romantic date at the restaurant, and he puts a stop to it, sending Ermengarde to the home of his relative, Flora, who lives nearby.
As Cornelius worries about how he will pay for the expensive meal, Horace inadvertently drops his wallet. A waiter picks it up and mistakenly hands it to Cornelius, thinking it is his. Now, Cornelius suddenly has the funds to pay for the meal and to successfully woo Irene, with whom he is falling in love. At the same time, Barnaby is quite taken with Minnie Fay. Cornelius reveals to Irene that he is really not rich at all, and she understands, having developed her own affection for him.
At the next table, Dolly informs Horace that his intended (nonexistent) fiancée has married another. She also lets him know clearly that she, Dolly, would never marry him if given the opportunity—which, of course, makes him start to consider the notion. Then he sees Cornelius and Barnaby, despite their attempts to sneak out of the restaurant in women's coats, and fires them.
The entire group ends up at Flora's home, where the hostess is terribly confused by who among the group are actually couples. Compounding this issue is the fact that Barnaby is still donning the woman's coat he wore to hide from Horace at the restaurant. Everyone in attendance reveals his or her identity, and Cornelius announces he will marry Irene. Dolly steps aside to address the memory of her deceased husband, telling him she wants to marry Horace and to start to live again, sharing Horace's fortune far and wide. For his part, Horace, finding he is not immune to Dolly's charms, proposes marriage; he also rehires Cornelius and Barnaby, making Cornelius his partner in the business. Now softened, Horace welcomes the marriage of Ermengarde and Ambrose. At the end of the play, Barnaby addresses the audience, extolling the virtues of living life with just the right balance of risk and security.
While The Matchmaker
is a classic theatrical work by itself, it is perhaps better known as the basis for the legendary musical Hello, Dolly!
, first produced on Broadway in 1964, with Carol Channing in the title role. The musical, which adheres closely to the original plot of The Matchmaker
, is known for its Jerry Herman score.