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On Stage: Thornton Wilder's Attempts At 'The Matchmaker'

Gary Heyde

Thornton Wilder is the only U.S. writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for fiction as well as drama. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. His play Our Town was named the Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama in 1938, and in 1942, Wilder won again in drama for The Skin of Our Teeth. However, not every effort was a home run, at least not a first.

Wilder began work on The Merchant of Yonkers at the begining of 1937. He was inspired by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, who, in turn, had been inspired by John Oxenford. The original Oxenford play, A Day Well Spent, is a one-act farce about clerks managing to sneak in a holiday; the Nestroy version widens the plot, and contributes songs, music, and some social observation to the mix. Thornton Wilder then made a number of changes to the plot, the most important being the introduction of the matchmaker character, Dolly Gallagher Levi.

The Merchant of Yonkers failed miserably, closing after 39 performances. Nearly 20 years later, Wilder was persuaded by actor Ruth Gordon and director Tyronne Guthrie to try again, and the resulting work which included making Dolly Levi a major character and giving her a grand soliloquy, became The Matchmaker. It opened on Broadway in 1955, giving rise to the musical verison, Hello Dolly, which premierd in 1964 with Carol Channing in the title role.

The Matchmaker is onstage at the Kechi Playhouse through August 26.

Sanda Moore Coleman received an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University in 1991. Since then, she has been the arts and community editor for The Martha's Vineyard Times, a teaching fellow at Harvard University, and an assistant editor at Image. In 2011, she received the Maureen Egan Writers Exchange prize for fiction from Poets & Writers magazine. She has spent more than 30 years performing, reviewing, and writing for theatre.