Written in the Fall of 2008 for a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, directed by Irene Lewis. -DL
For the dramatic frame of The Matchmaker, Thornton Wilder rejected the radically naked stage apparatus that had surprised and charmed audiences in his previous work the year before, Our Town. Surprisingly, Wilder chose instead to work within the comparatively ancient theatrical models established by [John] Oxenford, [Johann] Nestroy, and Molière. More striking was Wilder’s heightening of theatrical pitch: the slamming doors, crossdressing boys, and the rapid fire pit-patter of comic archetypes signal that we are unmistakably in the province of that most vigorous and gleefully lowbrow of genres, the knockabout farce. Why would Wilder forsake the dizzying poetic heights of Our Town’s final act, a graveyard scene that brilliantly distills the eternity of the cosmos, for the quotidian bluster of the farcical gene? Why would he foresake the timeless Protestants of New Hampshire for the ethnic roustabout of Yonkers?
Looking at it from another point of view, Wilder had merely traded like for like, one vision of theatrical eternity for another. Like melodrama, one of its cousins, farce is a modern genre that ransacks previous theatrical traditions for maximum visceral effect. Its catharsis is found in the carefully calibrated explosion; a good farce, skillfully performed, resembles a dramaturgical dynamo, a continuous motion machine setting off one reversal after another, like a row of dynamite blasting caps studding, teethlike, a set of gears. Born in the marketplaces and city streets of early modern Europe, its form is industrial and urban rather than agrarian and pastoral, and throughout the centuries its fundamental structure has remained the same: recognizably human figures in the midst of a relentlessly moving, stimulatingly chaotic world. The plots are almost always drawn from prior sources, but that’s not the point; the manner of getting from point A to point B is typically ingenious, and the form is elastic enough to accommodate passages of trenchant social commentary that could scarcely come from any other era. Nestroy’s 1842 comedy, Einen Jux will er sich machen (A Joke Will Tell Itself), forecasts the proletariat that would politically awaken in the revolutions of 1848. In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s archetypal silent film farce of 1935, the genre’s purest formal expression – man vs. machine – doubles as a fascinating glimpse into the troubled era, complete with unemployment lines, anarchist protests, and corrupt keystone cops. Similarly, Wilder’s farce, written toward the end of the Great Depression and at the doorstep of the Second World War, vacillates between the eternal themes of love and money, ending with a plea for enlightened tolerance.
Thornton Wilder understood farce’s mechanical imperative. He viewed the genre as something like dramaturgical chaos theory, a machinelike form impelled by twin drives toward “logic and objectivity.” As Wilder writes, “A ‘pure’ farce would be all pattern and would admit no mixture,” and it “dare not lean too far toward the exposition of character.” Perhaps, but farce’s triumph is its almost inhuman tendency to set characters in motion. Within the genre’s perpetual motion machine, a clockwork form that stretches into a kind of infinity, Wilder layers a story just as rich as Our Town in its Americanness, and in its utterly human resonance. “My play is about the aspirations of the young (and not only the young) for a fuller, freer participation in life,” he writes of The Matchmaker, in the 1956 preface to his Three Plays, concluding with an extended comparison between his creation and Nestroy’s original text:
“Imagine an Austrian pharmacist going to the shelf to draw from a bottle which he knows to contain a stinging corrosive liquid, guaranteed to remove warts and wens; and imagine his surprise when he discovers that it has been filled overnight with very American birch-bark beer.”
In the metaphor, Nestroy’s anti-capitalist satire is a pungent medicine similar to Wilder’s vision of “pure farce.” It is 100% alcohol, as toxic as it is effective. Wilder’s play possesses an altogether different complexion: a New World product, modeled on its forebear, as sweet as it is sharp.