Despite the age of his works, Thornton Wilder remains a staple in American theater—Our Town is still a popular production for high schools (there were three different productions of it, that I knew of, in our county during my four years of high school) and other pieces in his oeuvre are done professionally, as is the case with the Goodman Theatre’s forthcoming production of The Matchmaker, the play on which the much-loved Hello, Dolly! was based.
Scholarship on Wilder persists as well. Penelope Niven’s recent Thornton Wilder (2012), a Booklist Editors’ Choice title, takes an in-depth look at Wilder’s life. Reviewer Brad Hooper called the book “a joyous presentation of detail that will introduce Wilder to readers for whom such works as the seminal play, Our Town, and the finely executed historical novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, are vague echoes from times long gone.” Wilder won the Pulitzer for Our Town in 1938 but his skill wasn’t limited to the theater: he had also won a Pulitzer for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and remains the only author who has won in both drama and fiction. Click here to read our second look at The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
As the Goodman Theatre prepares for the opening of The Matchmaker, I interviewed Neena Arndt, the Goodman’s resident associate dramaturg, about her work on the production. One of the central functions of a dramaturg is to contextualize the world of the play for the artistic team, as well as the audience. With a production as epic as this one, there was a lot to get into. Below, Neena discusses the things she discovered while conducting her research, which stretched from the history of the play itself to the lives of ordinary people in rural and urban New York in the 1890s.
Talk about your work on this production and what it entailed. How did you conduct research? Did you use libraries?
One of the roles of a dramaturg is (often) research about the world of the play. In this case, our play takes place in 1896 in New York City and Yonkers, New York. I always try to remember that the past is a foreign country, so I shouldn’t assume that I know much of anything about how these people lived—what their everyday lives were like, how much education people had access to, what they ate, what they wore, how gender politics affected them. The characters in The Matchmaker come from a variety of social classes and life situations. Horace Vandergelder, for example, is a self-made, rich widower who owns a kind of general store. Minnie Fay is a young woman who works in a hat shop. So a lot of what I’m looking at is what those lives would have been like.
I think everyone can identify with wanting to truly live life,
not just slog through it. . . .
I do use libraries, I used Harold Washington and DePaul University’s library. I also conduct a fair amount of research online with JSTOR, for instance. A lot of my sources are articles or excerpts that you can only find in obscure academic places.
Wilder is an obvious staple in theatrical cannon, and I’m sure you already had a breadth of knowledge to begin with, but was there a certain area of research you knew you wanted to delve into, whether sociopolitical, biographical, or otherwise?
One of the things that’s important to know about this play is that it is based on a play by the Austrian writer Johann Nestroy, Einen Jux er will sich machen, which in turn is based on a play by the British writer John Oxenford called A Day Well Spent. So, just as Shakespeare often based his plays on existing literary works, Wilder wasn’t writing an original story, he is bringing his own voice to an older story. Of course, later on, Hello Dolly! was in turn based off The Matchmaker, and Tom Stoppard’s play On the Razzle uses the plot as well. It was important to me to look at where The Matchmaker stands as one of the iterations of this story.
Was there anything you discovered during this process that caught you off guard?
In one scene, two young men who have no sexual experience find themselves suddenly in a ladies’ hat shop. I discovered in my research that hats during that time period were often used for seduction. A woman could wear an everyday hat, or she could wear a very sexy hat. It was a little bit scandalous for women to work in that industry. So when these male characters tumble into the shop, it is almost like two young men tumbling into a lingerie shop—a big deal, and potentially hilarious.
What would you like the audience to know about this play?
This play is a farce! It’s jokes and puns and mistaken identities. Like a lot of farces, it’s about people who are desperate—for love, for adventure, for feeling like their lives are not just passing them by. I think everyone can identify with wanting to truly live life, not just slog through it—and this play explores that rather serious idea with a lot of laughs along the way.
In the play, Dolly reminisces about married life with her previous husband, and it’s apparent she enjoyed marriage for its own merits, but she also admits that finding a husband is financial freedom, which she equally desires. Can you say a little about what Dolly’s pursuit of a husband and its relationship to money might have meant then?
Being a widow was challenging in this period because of limited career opportunities for women. If a man didn’t leave his wife a large sum, and she didn’t have other family to support her, she might find herself doing what Dolly is doing—making ends meet by using any skills she has. (Matchmaking, teaching music lessons, and reducing varicose veins are a few of Dolly’s gigs.) So finding a husband could mean a woman would no longer have to struggle. However, I think Dolly also has another motive for marrying Horace. She knows he has a lot of money that is just sitting in the bank. She feels that money should be spent, and should flow around freely, “helping young things grow.” So she is hoping to use his money to help people change their life circumstances.
Last question: the obligatory question of relevancy. What excites you about producing The Matchmaker today? It’s certainly a timeless play, but are there parts of it that you think are especially relevant now?
One of the questions the play brings up is how a person should spend their money, especially if one has more money than is necessary to just pay the bills. Should you save it so you’ll have a cushion and security? Should you spend it on luxuries for yourself? Should you spend it on a good time for others? How about education for others? What to do with money is always a major question, both on the personal level, and on the larger level of how organizations and governments use their financial resources.
Below are some of the books Neena used in her research:
A Day Well Spent, by John Oxenford
Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America, by Ellen Rothman
New York Life at the Turn of the Century in Photographs, by Joseph Byron
Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, by Thornton Wilder and J. D. McClatchy
Thornton Wilder: A Life, by Penelope Niven
The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920, by John Whiteclay Chambers II