The Skin of Our Teeth
Play, 1942
American Writer ( 1897 - 1975 )
Other Names Used: Wilder, Thornton Niven;
Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 4. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998. p309-328.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text: 
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The Skin of Our Teeth

THORNTON WILDER 1942

Thornton Wilder completed his sixth, and perhaps most ambitious, play, The Skin of Our Teeth, on January 1, 1942. After trial runs in New Haven, Connecticut, and Baltimore, Maryland, the play opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on November 18, 1942. The production—directed by Elia Kazan and starring Tallulah Bankhead (Sabina), Frederic March (Mr. Antrobus), and Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Antrobus)—received positive reviews and ran for 355 performances. Audiences and critics applauded Wilder’s unconventional drama about the history of humankind. Most reviewers agreed that the playwright had produced a work that would revitalize American theater; as Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times,” The Skin of Our Teeth stands head and shoulders above the monotonous plane of our moribund theater—an original, gay-hearted play that is now and again profoundly moving, as a genuine comedy should be.”

Disrupting traditional notions of linear time, Wilder’s play tells the story of the twentieth-century American Antrobus family in three acts which recount such epochal events as the onset of the Ice Age, the start of Great Flood, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Ending exactly as it began, the play illustrates the cyclical nature of existence, celebrating humanity’s resilience, inventiveness, and will to survive. Although the play offers an age-old message, it does so in an untraditional form, rejecting the conventions of naturalistic drama. Not only do the characters appear to be both middle-class Page 310  |  Top of ArticleAmericans and allegorical figures, but they also repeatedly drop out of character and speak directly to the audience, breaking theatrical illusion and reminding viewers that they are watching a play. Combining modern theatrical experiments and timeless human themes, Wilder produced a work that would both challenge and entertain generations of Americans. Along with Our Town (1938), The Skin of Our Teeth is considered Wilder’s theatrical masterpiece and an invaluable cornerstone of modern American drama.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, the survivor of twin sons born to Isabella Thornton and Amos Parker Wilder. At the time of Wilder’s birth, his father, a newspaperman with a Ph.D. in political science, was working as editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. A strict and religious man, Wilder’s father exerted a forceful influence over his second child. The young Thornton often felt the pull between his mother’s encouragement and his father’s disapproval.

In 1906, the Wilder family moved to Hong Kong, where Amos assumed the diplomatic position of consul general. There, the nine-year-old Thornton went to a German school for six months before returning to the United States with his mother. In the following years, Thornton attended schools in California and China, eventually graduating from Berkeley High School in 1915. He then spent two years at Oberlin College in Ohio, transferred to Yale University, graduated from there in 1920, and spent the next academic year at the American Academy in Rome.

Back in America in 1921, Wilder settled into a job teaching French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. On leave from Lawrenceville in 1925, Wilder entered the master’s program in French at Princeton University. In that year, he revised his fictionalized account of his time in Italy which became his first novel, The Cabala, a work that earned favorable reviews when it appeared in 1926. That same year, critics greeted a production of Wilder’s first play, an allegorical drama called The Trumpet Shall Sound, much less enthusiastically. But the next year, his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, would win the Pulitzer Prize for the best fiction work of 1927, allowing Wilder to resign his teaching position.

Wilder’s career as a novelist and playwright would flourish in the succeeding decades. Two collections of one-act plays and two more novels were followed by a play destined to become an American classic, Our Town (1938), a drama about small-town life that would bring Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize. His thirteen later plays include: The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), a comedy he revised into The Matchmaker (1954) and which became the source for the popular musical Hello, Dolly! (1963); The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), which earned Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize; Our Century (1947), a short burlesque; and The Alcestiad (1955), adramabased on Greek playwright Euripides’s Alcestis.

In his later years, Wilder continued to be honored. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963) and the National Medal for Literature (1965). His sixth novel, The Eighth Day (1967), earned a National Book Award. Two years after the publication of his final work, Theophilis North (1973), Wilder died on December 7, 1975, in Hamden, Connecticut, secure in his reputation as an innovative dramatist and important American literary figure.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act I

At the opening of The Skin of Our Teeth, images from a slide projector appear on the closed stage curtain. An Announcer narrates these pictures of “News Events of the World,” telling the audience about events in both the theater (items left in the lost and found) and the world (a glacier is moving South over Vermont; Mr. George Antrobus has invented the wheel).

When the curtain rises, it reveals the living room of the Antrobus house in suburban Excelsior, New Jersey. Sabina, the sexy maid, gives an opening speech which parodies the clunky expositions that often begin traditional realistic plays: it is six o’clock and Mr. Antrobus is not yet home; it is so cold “dogs are sticking to the sidewalks”; and “the whole world is at sixes and sevens.” But before the end of this speech, the actress playing Sabina drops her character and speaks in her own voice as Miss Somerset, complaining that she does not understand the play in which she is performing. After the stage manager sticks his head out to reprimand her, she picks up where she left off and is joined on stage by Mrs. Antrobus. The women discuss the weather, the Page 311  |  Top of Articlefact Sabina has let the fire go out, Mrs. Antrobus’s devotion to her ungrateful children, and Sabina’s past affair with Mr. Antrobus. Their conversation is then interrupted by a baby dinosaur sticking his head in the window to say it is cold, followed by the entrance of a telegraph boy who delivers a message from Mr. Antrobus saying he will be late and instructing them to keep the children warm by burning “everything but the Shakespeare.”

Before the telegraph boy departs, he helps Mrs. Antrobus re-light the fire. The dinosaur and a mammoth—who behave like family pets—have come into the house, and Mrs. Antrobus soon calls her children in as well. Yelling out the door, she orders her son, Henry, to put down a stone that he has picked up (and is contemplating throwing at something or someone). She yells at her daughter, Gladys, to put down her skirt (which she has raised to entice men). The ensuing conversation reveals that Henry—who, as Sabina told the audience earlier, killed his brother in an “unfortunate accident”—was once called Cain. Soon, Mr. Antrobus returns home bearing his newly-invented wheel and offering humorous comments about his day. Before long he has to turn the animals outside in order to make room for the human refugees he has encountered on the way home—these wanderers include the poet Homer, the lawgiver Moses, a doctor, and a professor. In order to save these representatives of higher civilization—and themselves—the Antrobuses need to stoke the fire. Sabina, who, as Miss Somerset, had previously reassured the audience that in actuality “the world’s not coming to an end,” now turns to the audience and tells them to help fuel the fire: “Pass up your chairs everybody. Save the human race.”

Act II

Act II again opens with slide projections on the curtain: “Time tables for trains leaving Pennsylvania Station for Atlantic City. Advertisements of Atlantic City hotels, drugstores, churches, rug merchants; fortune tellers, Bingo parlors.” These are followed by the announcer’s voice again narrating the “News Events of the World.” The news this time is that the hundred thousandth annual convention of the “Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans” is taking place in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Mr. Antrobus has been elected president of the order.

The action begins with Mr. Antrobus giving a speech with the assistance of his wife, who whispers cues to him. He tells his listeners that “the watch-word


Thornton Wilder in 1968

Thornton Wilder in 1968

for the future” is “Enjoy Yourselves.” His wife, however, who steps up to speak next as president of the “Women’s Auxiliary Bed and Board Society,” offers an alternate motto: “Save the Family.” Throughout the act we see the conveners following Mr. Antrobus’s advice to seek enjoyment, while the president himself is tempted to sacrifice duty to pleasure and pursue an affair with Sabina, who now appears as Miss Lily Sabina Fairweather, Miss Atlantic City, 1942. During the seduction scene, Miss Somerset again drops her character, refusing to speak her lines because she believes they will offend a friend of hers in the audience. She does not “think the theater is a place where people’s feelings ought to be hurt.”

Meanwhile, a fortune teller on the boardwalk offers advice to Sabina, and speaks words of warning to both the audience and the heedless conveneers. Mrs. Antrobus reprimands Gladys, who shows up in a sexually provocative outfit complete with red stockings, and Henry, who threatens a chair-pusher with his slingshot. As events on stage get more chaotic, a storm signal warns of a coming hurricane. At the end of the act, Mr. Antrobus is forced to abandon his plan to leave his wife for Sabina and instead must shepherd his family and two of every kind of animal onto a waiting ark.

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A scene from a Brandies University production depicting the Atlantic City convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans

A scene from a Brandies University production depicting the Atlantic City convention of the “Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans”

Act III

At the outset of Act III the curtain raises on a dark stage. The Antrobuses’ Excelsior home is visible but the walls “lean helter-skelter.” The sound of a bugle is heard from off-stage and Sabina enters “dressed as a Napoleonic camp follower.” Ensuing dialogue makes it clear that a seven-year war has just come to an end.

Moments after Sabina enters, the stage manager interrupts the action to announce that several actors have fallen sick with food poisoning. He then asks the actor playing Mr. Antrobus to explain what is wrong. So Mr. Antrobus drops his character and tells the audience that the sick actors will be replaced by “a number of splendid volunteers,” including his own dresser and Miss Somerset’s maid. He then asks those in the audience to “just talk quietly among yourselves” while the stage manager quickly takes the volunteers through their parts. After this “rehearsal” is through, the action resumes with Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys, who holds a baby in her arms, emerging from a trapdoor in the floor.

Not long after Mrs. Antrobus, Gladys, and Sabina are reunited, Henry and Mr. Antrobus return from battle. Mr. Antrobus has come to recognize that Henry is “the enemy.” Henry remains as angry as ever and swears to kill his father, but during their fight, Miss Somerset again drops character and warns them not to play the scene, “You know what happened last night. Stop the play. Last night you almost strangled him.” The actor playing Henry also steps out of character and confesses “something comes over [him]” when he plays the scene and the “emptiness of being hated” in his own life makes him want “to strike and fight and kill.”

When the actors resume their parts, Sabina escorts Henry off stage while Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus begin a conversation in the living room which the women have put back in order. Mr. Antrobus explains he has momentarily lost “the desire to begin again, to start building”; but his wife, hearing the cries of her grandchild, tells him matter-of-factly that he will “have to get it back again.” Sabina reenters in her outfit from Act I, ready to barter some beef-cubes in order to go to the movies. She knows she should have turned the cubes over to “the Center downtown” but in her opinion “after anybody’s gone through what we’ve gone through, they have a right to grab what they can find” and she’s just “an ordinary girl” who “every now and then” needs to “go to the movies.”

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Sabina’s comments remind Mr. Antrobus of one of the three things that motivated him to keep going, “the voice of the people in their confusion and their need.” This, along with the thought of his family and his books, reinvigorates him. He picks up a book and, as he looks into it, the “volunteers” from the earlier rehearsal come forward to recite passages from Spinoza, Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible. At the conclusion of these recitations, the stage goes momentarily black, then the lights come up on the exact scene of the play’s opening with Sabina speaking the same opening lines before pausing to tell the audience, “This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of the play isn’t written yet. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus! Their heads are full of plans and they’re as confident as the first day they began—and they told me to tell you good night.”

CHARACTERS

Announcer

The Announcer’s voice narrates the slides and describes the “News Events of the World” at the beginning of Act I and Act II.

George Antrobus

Mr. Antrobus is the father of not only a typical suburban American family but also the entire human race. The play’s central character, he possesses the virtues and flaws of both the biblical Adam and the American Everyman. The inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, he “comes of very old stock and has made his way up from next to nothing.” In Act I, he is the hardworking and innovative businessman who loves his family and values his books and must preserve them all from the approaching Ice Age. In Act II, he is the President of the Order of Mammals who is tempted to leave his wife for a beauty contest winner, but with the onslaught of catastrophic rains, he returns to his family and loads them—along with his potential mistress and two of every kind of animal—onto a ship that will withstand the coming flood. And finally in Act III, he returns to his family after a seven-year war, ready to unearth his books and rebuild civilization.

Gladys Antrobus

The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, Gladys is constantly admonished to act like a lady, put down her dress, and not wear makeup or red stockings. Her mother reminds her that she should try to be as perfect as Mr. Antrobus thinks she is, and she does attempt to please her father by reciting lessons. But in Act III she appears with an apparently illegitimate baby which seems to be the result of her irrepressible sexuality.

Henry Antrobus

The son of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, Henry is introduced as “a real, clean-cut American boy” who killed his brother in “an unfortunate accident.” Later dialogue reveals that the dead brother was named Abel and Henry—who has a red mark on his forehead—used to be called Cain. These references clearly remind the audience of the biblical story of the two brothers. Henry demonstrates his violent nature throughout the play. In Act I Sabina reports he has “killed the boy that lives next door”; in Act II he threatens people with his slingshot; in Act III he expresses his desire to kill his father. Although Mrs. Antrobus always loves her son despite his evil character, Mr. Antrobus acknowledges in Act III that Henry is “the enemy” who starts wars and disrupts peace.

Maggie Antrobus

Mrs. Antrobus is both the ideal suburban wife and the archetypal earth mother. She uncomplainingly endures nature’s disasters, her husband’s infidelities, and her children’s disobedience, always facing each new crisis with energy and determination to survive. President of the Excelsior Mothers’ club, “an excellent needlewoman” who “invented the apron,” she “lives only for her children.” Entirely defined by her domestic role, her motto is to “Save the Family,” and in each Act of the play she manages to do just that.

Fred Bailey

The Captain of the Ushers, Fred is one of the backstage workers called forward in Act III to take the place of actors who have fallen sick with food poisoning.

Broadcast Official

In Act II, this man is trying, in the midst of chaotic activity, to get Mr. Antrobus to the microphone to give a broadcast to the conventions of the world.

Cain

See Henry Antrobus

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • In 1950, Decca Records put out the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) Album of Stars: Great Moments of Great Plays Volume I, which included sound recordings of selections from The Skin of Our Teeth performed by Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, and Alan Hewitt.
  • On September 11, 1955, NBC televised a production of The Skin of Our Teeth starring Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, and George Abbott.
  • Another production of The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Vivien Leigh, was televised live in London in March of 1959.
  • In 1968, as the twelfth episode of its One to One television series, WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., aired “Armchair Theater: The Skin of Our Teeth” produced by Cherrill Anson and directed by David Powell. This episode, available on video, includes excerpts of the play performed by Jack Burn, Mary Lou Groom, Judy Margolis, and Ruth Mintz, followed by discussion.
  • A video recording of the play, presented by the Kennedy Center and Xerox Corporation as part of the American Bicentennial Theater series in 1975, had a teleplay adapted by Douglas Scott and set design by Robert Kelsey.
  • A sound recording of the play was produced by the Sydney A.B.C. company in 1979 as part of its World Theater series.
  • As part of the “American Playhouse” series, PBS produced a live version of the play under the direction of Jack O’Brien in January, 1983.
  • A production recorded on May 19, 1988 is available on video from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN.
  • The Readings for the Blind series (Southfield, Michigan, 1994) includes a sound recording of Three Plays by Thornton Wilder.

Chair Pushers

Wilder’s stage directions for Act II, using the sort of stereotypical racial designations typical of the years preceding the Civil Rights movement, note that “three roller chairs, pushed by melancholy Negroes, file by empty. Throughout the act they traverse the stage in both directions.”

Conveners

Six conveners—attendees of the Annual Convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals—appear throughout Act II, walking on the Boardwalk. Determined to enjoy themselves, they do not heed the Fortune Teller’s warnings about the coming rain. Engaged in drinking, gambling, and other sorts of revelry, they taunt Mr. Antrobus about being domesticated and tied to his family.

Dinosaur

The baby Dinosaur Dolly appears on the Antrobus’s front lawn in Act I, is allowed in out of the cold, and behaves like a family pet. At the end of the Act when more room is needed for human refugees inside the house, Mr. Antrobus sends it and the Mammoth outside again, presumably to face extinction in the face of the oncoming ice age.

Doctor

The Doctor is the first refugee who comes into the Antrobus home in Act I.

Dolly

See Dinosaur

Esmerelda

See Fortune Teller

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Miss Lily-Sabina Fairweather

See Sabina

Mr. Fitzpatrick

The stage manager who comes out front at several points to deal with problems, such as Miss Somerset’s refusal to act certain scenes or the illness of other actors which necessitates their being replaced by volunteers.

Fortune Teller

The Atlantic City Fortune Teller who appears in Act II offers advice and words of wisdom to Sabina and other characters. The Fortune Teller also speaks directly to the audience, saying that it is easier to tell the future than to understand the past and that the Antrobuses are a reflection of those watching the play. Her comments point to the themes and concepts Wilder seeks to highlight.

Frederick

See Mammoth

Hester

The wardrobe mistress, Hester, is another backstage worker called forward in Act III to replace one of the actors who have fallen sick with food poisoning.

Homer

The second refugee, “a blind beggar with a guitar,” who comes into the house in Act I. Homer is “an old man” and “particular friend” of Mr. Antrobus. His name and Mr. Antrobus’s comment that it was this man who “really started off the A.B.C.’s,” suggest to the audience that this is the poet Homer who authored the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Ivy

Miss Somerset’s maid Ivy is one of the backstage workers called forward in Act III to take the place of actors who have fallen sick with food poisoning.

Lily Sabina

See Sabina

Mammoth

The Mammoth comes into the Antrobus home in Act I along with the Dinosaur. Both animals act like pets until Mr. Antrobus sends them outside at the end of the Act.

Judge Moses

The third refugee who enters the house in Act I, Judge Moses is an elderly Jewish man wearing a skull cap. The Judge’s recitation in Hebrew, along with Mr. Antrobus’s comment that this is the man “who makes all the laws,” suggests that this is the biblical Moses who led the Jews out of Egypt and received the Ten Commandments from God in the Old Testament.

Muses

The three sisters—Miss E. Muse, Miss T. Muse, and Miss M. Muse—enter the Antrobus home in Act I along with the other refugees. Their name and relationship suggests they are the sister goddesses from Greek mythology who inspired song and poetry.

Sabina

The character of Sabina is described in the stage directions for Act I as “straw blonde” and “over-rouged”; she carries a feather-duster and plays the stock role from farce of the smart-mouthed maid. Her mercurial emotions, pessimism, and desire to have fun distinguish her from the unflinching, resilient, and pragmatic Antrobuses. The sexy Sabina—whose name variations are meant to remind the audience of the biblical stories of the Sabine women and Lilith (in biblical legend, Lilith was Adam’s first wife who was supplanted by Eve)—is the opposite of the maternal Mrs. Antrobus. A house servant and Mr. Antrobus’s former mistress in Act I, Sabina appears in Act II as the winner of an Atlantic City beauty contest who is determined to lure Mr. Antrobus away from his wife. She reappears in Act III as a returning camp follower whose numerous liaisons have left her wishing “never . . . to kiss another human being” again.

Not far into the first act, the actress playing Sabina, Miss Somerset, steps out of her role and addresses the audience in her own voice, revealing that she hates the play but has taken the part out of Page 316  |  Top of Articlefinancial necessity. Miss Somerset will drop out of character several more times during the course of the play to express similar dissatisfactions. Her side comments, both as Sabina and Miss Somerset, provide much of the play’s humor.

Miss Somerset

See Sabina

Mr. Tremayne

A dresser for the actor playing Mr. Antrobus, Mr. Tremayne is one of the backstage workers called forward in Act III to take the place of actors who have fallen sick with food poisoning.

Ushers

These two ushers rush down the theater aisles with chairs when Sabina calls out to the audience at the end of Act I, asking everyone to pass up their chairs for the fire to “save the human race.”

THEMES

Absurdity

Much of the humor in The Skin of Our Teeth derives from Wilder’s use of bizarre juxtapositions which place the characters in absurd situations and highlight the ludicrous aspects of seemingly ordinary events. Combining elements of twentieth-century suburban America with events from the historical and mythological past creates an odd world where a middle-class family can have a dinosaur and mammoth for pets, the Antrobuses can celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary, and the children can recite poems even though their father has only just invented the alphabet.

American Exceptionalism

By presenting his allegorical parents of the human race as a conventional American middle-class couple, Wilder reinforces Americans’ belief in the exceptional nature of their country and its citizens. Mr. Antrobus’s virtues of inventiveness, resilience, and diligence are those of the ideal American entrepreneur, and the family’s continued ability to start from nothing and achieve greatness is the essence of the American dream. The play suggests the best human characteristics are also the best American qualities.

Illusion vs. Reality

While traditional realistic plays try to create a “real” world on the stage, encouraging viewers to forget that they are watching actors play roles in a fictional drama, Wilder constantly interrupts this sort of theatrical illusion to remind the audience that they are watching a drama. When actors step out of their roles and speak directly to the audience, they highlight the fact that this is a performance taking place on a stage, a fictional world that can be altered and adapted by the ordinary people who are putting it together. Wilder repeatedly reminds the audience of the realities of sets, actors, and scripts, disrupting the conventions of naturalistic theater.

Cycle of History

The Skin of Our Teeth emphasizes the repetitive nature of human history. The Antrobuses have faced disasters in the past, overcome more disasters during the course of the drama, and are ready to engage in further struggles at the performance’s end. Wilder emphasizes the circular quality of the characters’ lives, each act finds them starting over again. The play concludes with the exact same words and situation with which it began—another reminder that the cycle of history (and human existence) is on-going.

Family

Wilder’s play both parodies and idealizes the image of the nuclear family. George and Maggie Antrobus are extreme examples of the masculine provider and the feminine caregiver. His enthusiasm for his inventions and books and her single-minded devotion to her children might be viewed as humorously exaggerated. Yet, their adherence to their stereotypical gender roles seems to contribute to the survival of the human race in each act, suggesting that the perpetuation of civilization depends upon the perpetuation of a traditional family structure in some form.

Good and Evil

The character of Henry, formerly known as Cain, emphasizes the constant presence of evil in

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Compare and contrast The Skin of Our Teeth with James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Wilder acknowledged that Joyce’s novel was an important influence and source for his play. What similarities in content and structure do you see between the two works? What significant thematic differences distinguish Wilder’s world view from Joyce’s?
  • Research the political and cultural climate of post-World War II Germany. What issues and ideas confronting the German people during this time would account for their positive response to Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth?
  • Look up psychologist Carl Jung’s definition of “archetype.” What archetypal images and figures appear in The Skin of Our Teeth? How does recognizing them as such influence viewer interpretation of the play?
  • Compare and contrast The Skin of Our Teeth with a traditionally naturalistic play such as Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956). What staging techniques characterize each work? What theatrical conventions does Wilder’s play break down?
  • Read a book or view a film that portrays a post-apocalyptic world, for example, a novel such as Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (1981) or Richard Matheson’s short novel I am Legend (1954), or a movie like The Road Warrior (1982) or The Day After (1983). Then compare your chosen work’s setting and characters to those of The Skin of Our Teeth. To what extent does this work share Wilder’s cyclic vision and message about humanity’s fortitude, adaptability, and duality? Do the two works present similar or contrasting views of the human condition?

the world. The angry and violent Henry is part of the human family—and appears in every act—suggesting that evil can never be left behind. Henry’s fight with his father towards the end of the play illustrates the on-going struggle between good and evil. Wilder interrupts this fight, however, leaving it unresolved (as real world clashes between such forces often end). The play suggests that as humanity enters each new era, it always brings both its good and evil impulses along.

Human Condition

Wilder’s characters exemplify basic human qualities and encounter basic human experiences. They illustrate the unchanging facts of the human condition. Representing in turn intelligence, maternal love, violence, lust, selfishness, and determination, the Antrobuses and Sabina endure work, betrayal, natural disaster, and war. In his depiction of them and their strangely timeless world, Wilder underscores the best and worst aspects of the human condition: humanity possesses the will and ability to survive and yet must repeatedly confront (and overcome) its own destructive tendencies.

STYLE

Allegory

An allegory is a narrative in which the characters and events can be read both literally and figuratively. In the case of The Skin of Our Teeth, the Antrobuses can be read as ordinary people (a middle-class American couple) and as allegorical figures (Adam and Eve, the progenitors of humankind). The action of the play can be viewed literally, as the experiences of a particular family, and allegorically, as the story of human history. Wilder, Page 318  |  Top of Articlewith both character names (such as Henry a.k.a. Cain and Sabina) and explicit comments, emphasizes the allegorical nature of his play.

Anti-Illusion Theater

Anti-Illusion theater was pioneered by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera), who believed an audience should remain conscious of the physical realities of performance and not give into the illusion that events depicted on stage are real. Like Brecht and Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author), Wilder uses various techniques to break the theatrical illusion. Both by presenting actors who drop out of character, comment on their lines, and speak directly to the audience and by bringing “backstage” figures in front of the curtain, he calls attention to the efforts that go into producing a theatrical work, prompting viewers to think about how and why a story is told in a certain way. In so doing, Wilder engages in meta-theater, creating a play that comments on the process of creating a play. (Meta is a prefix placed before any creative work that is self-referential; metafiction is perhaps the best-known of this form, with the writings of John Barth exemplifying the genre.)

Characterization

Wilder does not try to present complex multi-faceted characters in The Skin of Our Teeth but instead presents each person on stage as a generalized type. Every character is easily identified with an archetypal role—the mother/nurturer (Mrs. Antrobus), the temptress (Sabina), the provider (Mr. Antrobus)—and exhibits the personality traits traditionally associated with this role. These simple and flat characterizations, along with the technique of having actors interrupt the action and comment about the nature of the play, keeps the audience from identifying with the characters and destroys the illusion that the Antrobuses are “real” people. It is interesting to note, however, that even though the “actors” playing the roles in The Skin of Our Teeth do break character and address the audience—presenting themselves as real people—they themselves are characters created for the purpose of anti-illusion theatre. While Miss Somerset may seem a more tangible person than Sabina, she is in fact just another character created by Wilder. The playwright’s purpose, however, is not to provide the actors with a forum to address the play process but to make the audience aware of the theatrical process they are viewing and provide a contrast to the broad character types.

Farce

Wilder’s play employs many elements of farce—a comedic theatrical form characterized by broadly drawn characters, improbable situations, and physical humor. Sabina’s character of the seductive, inefficient, wise-cracking maid is a stock figure in farce. Similarly, incongruous images such as a pet dinosaur curled up in front of the family fireplace, reflect staging characteristic of farce. Other farcical elements include Henry’s violent tendencies (he is constantly warned against committing violent acts) and Gladys’s nymphomania (in the first act her mother yells at her to lower her skirt, an action she presumably undertakes to attract men to have sex with her).

Juxtaposition

Throughout the play Wilder juxtaposes the modern and the ancient, the momentous and the insignificant, the serious and the silly. These ludicrously opposed images and ideas both produce humor and emphasize the simultaneous greatness and absurdity of humankind. A good example of this is found in Mr. Antrobus’s qualities as an inventor and an educated man. The newsreel at the play’s opening informs the audience that George Antrobus has just invented the wheel and the alphabet despite the obvious fact that the society in which he lives has already lived with archetypal inventions such as these for many years.

Wilder plays with audiences’ notion of linear time by setting his play in past historical epochs and in 1940s New Jersey simultaneously. The three acts take place during the Ice Age, the Great Flood, and the Napoleonic Wars respectively, yet the characters dress and act like twentieth-century Americans. The play’s notion of time is further complicated by the Antrobus’s apparent agelessness (they have been married 5,000 years) as well as the repetitive cycle of events (at the end the play starts over where it began). This use of time emphasizes the play’s message about humanity’s ability to endure through the ages, while also contributing to Wilder’s goal of reminding the audience of the non-reality of the staged events.

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HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Wilder began writing The Skin of Our Teeth in 1940 at a time of great political and cultural change. As the 1930s drew to a close, Americans found themselves in an increasingly urban and secular world where market forces took precedence over moral ideals and psychology took the place of religion. The ideas of Sigmund Freud, a German psychologist who argued that the unconscious mind significantly impacted human behavior, greatly influenced the art of the era. Experimental movements in visual art, such as surrealism, reflected artists’ attempts to move beyond traditional aesthetic standards they felt did not do justice to the imaginative resources of the human unconscious. Many writers and musicians engaged in similar experiments during the following decades, altering conventional forms so as to better express human consciousness and experience.

Although open to cultural influences from abroad, America had followed a policy of political isolationism throughout the 1930s. In Europe, Adolf Hitler’s army attacked Poland in September of 1939, beginning World War II. The United States stayed out of the war even as the Germans continued their offensive, invading Norway, Denmark, and France in the spring and summer of 1940. As the situation worsened, President Franklin Roosevelt did encourage Congress to pass, in March of 1941, the American Lend-Lease Act which gave money and supplies to the Allied nations (England, France, and Russia) fighting against the Germans. But America did not officially enter the war until the Japanese air attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. This event, followed by Germany’s declaration of war against the United States days later on December 11, made further isolationism impossible.

When Wilder finished his play in January of 1942, the United States had joined the Allied forces and was engaged in a global war. Battles raged in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific with only four countries remaining neutral (Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland). In early 1942 things still looked bleak for the Allies, but three decisive battles that year would alter the course of the conflict. In February, the six-month-long battle for control of Stalingrad, Russia, finally ended with the Russian forces outlasting the demoralized German invaders. In June, the battle of Midway Island would leave the Japanese fleet permanently crippled. And in November, the British victory at the battle of El Alamein would turn the tide in Africa. Meanwhile, American forces were gradually gaining command of the Atlantic.

At home, Americans were closely following these military events and doing what they could to aid the war effort. Stateside industrial plants began to shift from producing commercial goods to producing war supplies; rubber and gasoline were rationed and families were encouraged to grow their own food in “Victory Gardens.” Audiences who went to see the first production of The Skin of Our Teeth, although hardly suffering the hardship and starvation that afflicted the populations of Europe, still would have related to the images of war-induced sacrifice and destruction depicted in Wilder’s play.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Since its premiere, The Skin of Our Teeth has maintained a solid critical reputation, earning consistent critical acclaim and winning over new generations of Americans with its frequent revivals.

The original Broadway production, which opened on November 18, 1942, prompted reviewers like the New York Daily Telegraph’s George Freedley to comment both that “Wilder certainly has the most vivid imagination in the theater today,” and that the play is “a perfect piece of theater.” Although a few critics complained that the work lacked substance and that Wilder’s anti-illusion staging devices were awkward, such voices were distinctly in the minority.

The play did generate some controversy when two authors, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, published an article in the Saturday Review of Literature claiming that Wilder had plagiarized James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Campbell and Robinson carefully pointed out the similarities in plot, theme, and presentation between the two works. Wilder, who freely admitted Joyce’s influence on his play, did not directly answer the charges but merely encouraged critics to read both texts and judge for themselves. A small flurry of articles on the issue followed, some poked fun at Campbell and Robinson while most acknowledged that Wilder’s use of Joyce’s novel was no different

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1942: German leader Adolf Hitler begins the methodical annihilation of millions of European Jews in what he calls the “final solution” and history will term the Holocaust. In July, Paris police, under the command of occupying German forces, gather 30,000 Jews and send them to German concentration camps, where all but thirty will die.

    Today: On September 30, 1997, Roman Catholic bishops in France offer the Church’s first public apology to the Jewish people for its silence during the French participation in the Holocaust. Earlier in the year, the French medical association and the French police offer similar public apologies; while in Switzerland, the government finally responds to years of protests, creating a fund to reimburse survivors and relatives of Holocaust victims whose bank accounts and assets were kept by Swiss financial institutions after World War II.
  • 1942: German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun launches the first surface-to-surface guided missile.

    Today: Highly sophisticated guided missiles, as seen in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, play an important role in late-twentieth-century warfare. The United States military arsenal includes computer-guided missiles such as the Tomahawk cruise missile.
  • 1942: Congress establishes the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), bringing women into the United States armed services in an official, but limited, capacity.

    Today: Women are active in all branches of the American armed services. In the U.S. Army, for example, women make up 14% of the personnel. These 69,000 female soldiers, however, are still excluded from thousands of combat positions as well as the senior leadership roles attained through serving in combat jobs. Questions about women’s equal participation in combat, as well as highly publicized reports of sexual misconduct and harassment on military bases during the late-1990s, continue to fuel debate about the role of women in the military.
  • 1942: The government asks Americans to grow vegetables in “Victory Gardens” to help alleviate war-time food shortages. Forty percent of U.S. vegetables will be grown in such gardens in 1942, but this percentage decreases in succeeding years as public interest wanes.

    Today: Agriculture in America is big business, and the United States possesses the world’s largest food surplus. The United States exports double the amount of food it imports. While Americans still grow some of the food they eat, it is more of a leisure pursuit than an economic necessity.
  • 1942: Oxford University scholar Gilbert Murray founds the organization Oxfam to fight world famine. Millions of Europeans in German-occupied countries such as Greece, Poland, and Yugoslavia suffer from starvation as the war cuts off food supplies.

    Today: Oxfam International has grown into a confederation of ten Oxfam agencies that direct projects in more than one hundred countries. Oxfam America, founded in 1970, fights against global poverty, hunger, and social injustice in the United States as well as in countries such as North Korea, where over 100,000 people died of starvation in 1996.

than many other dramatists’ creative use of their sources. Although this controversy may have prevented the New York drama critics from naming it the year’s best play, The Skin of Our Teeth still won Page 321  |  Top of Articlethe Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1942 and ran for 355 performances.

In 1945, a London production starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier was also a success. Though the Soviet Union banned performances of Wilder’s plays, other European countries responded favorably to The Skin of Our Teeth; performances in Amsterdam and Bavaria, as well as a 1946 London revival, were well-attended and positively reviewed. German theatergoers particularly loved the play, which offered hope for revitalization to a broken people. In years to come, the play would become even more highly regarded—and receive more critical attention—in German-speaking countries than in the United States.

By the 1950s, the play’s reputation was solidly established. In 1952, Sheldon Cheney, in his survey of the history of theater The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting, and Stagecraft, would pronounce The Skin of Our Teeth “the most notable event of the forties.” Two years later Frank M. Whiting’s An Introduction to the Theater would tell readers that “any survey of American playwriting must recognize the importance of Thornton Wilder.” By 1956, several academic articles about The Skin of Our Teeth were published, and the work was discussed in three books on drama. Scholars continued to praise Wilder’s theatrical technique and began to associate his work with Brechtian epic-theater. Critics also noted Wilder’s influence on European absurdist drama.

In 1961, Rex Burbank published the first book entirely devoted to Wilder’s work. Though this text would be followed by several other full-length studies in succeeding decades, and Wilder would continue to hold the status of a respected literary figure, his writings would not receive as much academic attention as some of the dramatists of the next generation like Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Some critics attribute this relative neglect to the fact that Wilder’s essential optimism and classical ideals were at odds with the late-twentieth century preference for the pessimistic worldview of modernist works influenced by romantic aesthetics.

Despite scholars’ reserved responses, in the last half of the century live performances of The Skin of Our Teeth have continued to be popular. A 1955 revival at the National Theater in Washington, D.C.—starring Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, and George Abbot—earned critical raves. And although a national touring production of the play was less successful, the play again pleased critics when it was included as part of the American “Salute to France” in Paris. In 1961 the play once more went abroad as part of the Theatre Guild American Repertory Company’s world tour and was embraced by audiences in countries as diverse as Chile, Greece, Trinidad, and Sweden. Americans again received the play favorably in a 1975 Kennedy Center production that was part of the national Bicentennial celebration, and more recently, a 1983 PBS “American Playhouse” production earned good reviews.

Throughout the 1990s, the play has remained a perennial favorite of high school, college, and community theater. In 1997, the centennial of Wilder’s birth prompted numerous revivals of his plays, as well as the creation of an internet web page devoted to his life and writings. Today, The Skin of Our Teeth is not only performed frequently but also appears regularly in literature anthologies and on college course syllabi. It holds a place, alongside Wilder’s Our Town, as one of the best examples of mid-twentieth-century American drama.

CRITICISM

Erika M. Kreger

Kreger is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor at the University of California, Davis. In this essay, she examines how Wilder joins innovative theatrical techniques, classic themes, and American optimism to create the mythic world of The Skin of Our Teeth.

The Skin of Our Teeth is a play full of paradoxes. When audiences first viewed Thornton Wilder’s comedy in 1942, they were confronted by events which seemed to take place both in the distant past and the immediate present, characters who were both age-old allegorical figures and contemporary actors, and dialogue that was both irreverent and philosophical. Wilder’s theatrical techniques were undeniably innovative for his time; he broke with the conventions of naturalistic theater that had guided previous generations of American playwrights. But perhaps the central irony of the play is that it uses these progressive techniques to present an extremely traditional message. In The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder pairs modern form with classical content, disrupting viewers’ assumptions about the nature of theater, while also reinforcing their beliefs about the nature of humanity.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) is Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a work made up of three connected stories detailing the experiences of several people killed by a collapsing bridge in eighteenth-century Peru.
  • The Making of Americans (1925) is a novel by Wilder’s good friend Gertrude Stein. This narrative about several generations of Stein’s family uses her trademark techniques of simple language and repetition. Her goal was to create a sensation of a constant present, to begin again and again because “repeating is the whole of living and by repeating comes understanding.” Stein’s techniques greatly influenced Wilder.
  • Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), is a drama by German playwright Bertolt Brecht. The narrative revolves around a seventeenth-century German canteen woman who is an allegorical figure representing the destructive forces of capitalism. The play exemplifies Brecht’s ideas of epic-theater and the anti-illusion techniques which influenced Wilder.
  • Our Town (1938) is Wilder’s most famous work and possibly America’s most-produced play. It depicts the daily existence of people in a small New Hampshire town, employing some of the same non-realistic theatrical techniques seen in The Skin of Our Teeth.
  • Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) is an experimental drama by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello. This play challenged the tradition of naturalistic theater and greatly influenced Wilder’s writing.
  • Watch on the Rhine (1941) is a realistic play by Lillian Hellman that provides an interesting contrast to Wilder’s work. This drama, about a couple fighting against Nazi ideas in the United States, deals explicitly with the political issues of its time.

Accustomed to plays which sought to create the illusion that events on stage were really happening, 1940s audiences were caught off guard by Wilder’s disregard for such theatrical convention. They recognized, in the opening minutes of The Skin of Our Teeth when “Miss Somerset” stops speaking in the character of Sabina and starts complaining about her lines, that they were viewing a different kind of play. They were not used to actors breaking the proscenium barrier—the imaginary divide between the people on stage and the people in the audience—and asking the viewer to participate in events on stage by, for example, passing up their chairs at the end of Act I to fuel the fire that will “save the human race.”

Wilder anticipated theatergoers’ surprise, and knew, as he wrote in a journal entry for October 26, 1940, that “twenty years from now . . . audiences will be accustomed to such liberties and the impact of the method will no longer be so great” (published in The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961). But in 1942, he felt American drama needed some shaking up. Theater, he explained in his 1957 preface to Three Plays, had “become a minor art,” “an in consequential diversion.” In the plays of the 1920s and ‘30s, “the tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.” So Wilder decided to try a new approach; he began writing plays “that tried to capture not verisimilitude but reality.”

Wilder’s desire to present a different kind of reality on stage resulted in plays, like The Skin of Our Teeth, which can be classified as anti-illusion theater. Originating with European playwrights like Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera) and Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author), this type of drama emphasizes the artificiality of performance while highlighting the actuality of performers. As Brecht explained the theory, in an essay collected in John Willett’s anthology Brecht Page 323  |  Top of Articleon Theatre, “the audience must not be able to think that it has been transported to the scene of the story but must be invited to take part” in the events on stage.

Anti-illusion dramatists, Thomas Adler explained in an essay in Claudel Studies, “write plays about plays . . . taking as their subjects the nature of the theatre and the act of going to the theatre and demanding that their audiences consciously think of themselves as an audience.” (This self-referential technique is often referred to as meta-drama.) A play like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author (1921), in Adler’s view, requires “absolutely no make-believe. . . in viewing it: the theatre is the theatre, the audience is the audience, the stage is the stage, the characters are the characters, and so forth.” Although “ordinarily, we call a play realistic when what we see on stage presents . . . [a] convincing illusion that what we are seeing is a faithful representation of reality; and when we in the audience are separated from what is happening on stage by an imaginary fourth wall,” Adler argued that this type of play is actually un-realistic because it asks audience to “make believe that [they] are not making believe.” A play that breaks through the fourth wall actually emphasizes the true realities of performance: the fact of sitting in a theater watching a production put on by living people.

Wilder’s use of anti-illusion techniques in The Skin of Our Teeth is both surprising and fun. Disrupting audience expectations might alienate or confuse theatergoers, but Wilder anticipates such resistance and cleverly uses the actors’ asides to articulate and diffuse viewers’ objections. Miss Somerset often speaks for the sort of theatergoer who does not want to tackle tough questions. She will express annoyance at the playwright’s subject matter and then at other points exclaim: “Oh, I see what this part of the play means now!” Yet not entirely won over, she still refuses to ponder the big issues: “I’ll say the lines, but I won’t think about the play.” Like the middle-class theatergoer who seeks escapist entertainment—the sort of person Wilder wanted to jolt out of their complacency—Miss Somerset thinks plays should be pleasant and predictable. She does not “think the theatre is a place where people’s feelings ought to be hurt.” Wilder is definitely poking fun at such timid responses to theater—but he is also giving the ordinary person a voice, a voice given some credence because it is associated with the most sympathetic and amusing figure in the play.

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“WITH HIS DEPICTION OF THIS TYPICALLY SUBURBAN AND YET ARCHETYPICALLY MYTHIC FAMILY, WILDER TRANSFORMED THE AMERICAN THEATRICAL LANDSCAPE OF THE 1940S. HE WILL CERTAINLY BE REMEMBERED AS AN INNOVATOR IN TWENTIETH CENTURY DRAMA, THOUGH HE WOULD HAVE CLASSIFIED HIMSELF AS A TRADITIONALIST.”

In addition to reassuring the audience and providing comic relief, Sabina/Somerset’s out-of-character comments contribute to Wilder’s goal of capturing the “reality” of theater. Early on, Somerset complains “I hate this play and every word in it,” confessing she only took “this hateful job” out of necessity. Before viewers have a chance to connect with the character of the sexy maid Sabina, their attention shifts to the actress playing the part and the circumstances of her employment. Although Somerset’s comment that “for two years I’ve sat up in my room living on a sandwich and a cup of tea a day waiting for better times in the theater” breaks the illusion that the woman speaking on stage is actually Sabina, it builds awareness of behind-the-scenes realities. Similarly, the “rehearsal” at the beginning of Act II brings backstage workers out front, emphasizing the labor that goes into producing a play. Other illusion-breaking moments—such as the Act III confession of the actor who plays Henry, who reveals he feels the same violent rage as his character—emphasize that hardship and passionate emotions are part of “real life” just as much as they are part of dramatic performance.

These moments in which the actors’ and characters’ experiences intersect illustrate Wilder’s belief, expressed in his Three Plays preface, that theater “has one foot planted firmly in the particular, since each actor before us . . . is indubitably a living, breathing ‘one’; yet it tends and strains to exhibit a general truth” as well. To get at this truth,

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Mr. Antrobus is once again tempted by the charms of Sabina

Mr. Antrobus is once again tempted by the charms of Sabina

Wilder emphasized general traits in his characterizations, another technique of anti-illusion theater. The play’s characters are not psychologically developed and individualized but rather are broadly defined as common types, the sort of one-dimensional allegorical figures often found in myth. Despite their suburban setting, the main characters are presented as archetypes (age-old models of basic human roles such as the Great Mother, the Hero, the Fallen Woman). Each person on stage, when speaking in character, represents as essential human quality—intellect (Mr. Antrobus), nurture (Mrs. Antrobus), sexuality (Sabina and Gladys), violence (Henry)—and these qualities appear in every historical epoch.

Although such allegorical characterizations were a departure from the dramatic practices common in the era immediately preceding the composition of The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder’s approach to character was not new. He had, in fact, returned to very old ideas, reclaiming classical Greek dramatic forms. In his essay “Some Thoughts on Playwriting” (published in Playwrights on Playwriting), Wilder gave an example of the theatrical philosophy behind the staging of a classical play such as Euripides’s Medea (c. 431 B.C.). In such plays, the actors wore large masks and spoke their lines loudly without significant inflection. “For the Greeks,” Wilder argued, “there was no pretense that Medea was on the stage.” They saw “the mask, the costume, the mode of declamation” as a “series of signs which the spectator interpreted and reassembled in his own mind.” These ancient viewers were active participants in the theatrical experience, assembling in their own minds the ideas and images presented on stage. Wilder wanted his twentieth century audiences to be just as active.

By the time Wilder began writing for the stage, modern drama had moved away from the staging techniques of Euripides and Sophocles (Antigone). In post-Sophoclean drama, as German writer Frederic Nietzsche explained it in The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, “the spectator ceases to be aware of the myth at all and comes to focus on the amazing lifelikeness of the characters and the artists power of imitation.” But, as noted above, Wilder did not concern himself with this modern focus on “lifelikeness” and instead wished to regenerate awareness of the myth. He made his intent clear in an October 26, 1940, journal passage, complaining of the difficulties of his “attempt to do a play in which the protagonist is a twenty-thousand-year-old man and whose heroine is a twenty-thousand-year-old woman and eight thousand years a wife.” His “challenge” was to “represent Man and Woman.” And he believed that “by shattering the ossified conventions of the well-made play [the] characters [would] emerge . . . as generalized beings.” His “favorite principle” he wrote in another journal entry on October 29, 1940, was “that the characters on the stage tend to figure as generalizations, that the stage burns and longs to express a timeless individualized Symbol.”

In addition to its symbolic characters, Wilder’s play contains other elements of classical drama. Both the structure and content of the work emphasize the cycle of history often depicted in myth. Sabina’s comment early in Act I emphasizes the cyclical nature of the Antrobuses’ existence, as well as its ambivalence and uncertainty: “Each new child that’s born to the Antrobuses seems to them to be sufficient reason for the whole universe’s being set in motion; and each new child that dies seems to have been spared a whole world of sorrow, and what the end of it will be is still very much open to question.” Throughout the rest of the play, characters will frequently refer to the repetition in their lives—“always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again.”—demonstrating Page 325  |  Top of Articlehow things circle around and return to the same place rather than progressing forward. Each Act finds the same characters having come through another disaster, essentially unchanged. The end of Act III finds Sabina exactly in the same place she was at the play’s outset, speaking the same lines once more and only pausing briefly to tell the audience to go ahead and leave since the Antrobuses have to go on for ages and ages yet.”

Wilder’s mythic vision, however, is less fatalistic than that of the classical works from which he drew inspiration. He did not want to portray humanity’s helplessness in the face of adversity but rather wished to convince the audience of humanity’s fortitude and strength. He wondered, in a December 2, 1941, journal entry, “what does one offer the audience as explanation of man’s endurance, aim, and consolation?” He hoped his play would show that the representative man finds “adequate direction and stimulation” in “the existence of his children,” “the inventive activity of his mind,” and “the ideas contained in the great books of his predecessors.” His image of the persevering ordinary man reflected the optimistic ideals of American democracy. Although the ancient Greeks—as Winifred Dusenbury commented in Modern Drama—created “no myth which symbolizes free men governing themselves.” Two thousand years later, Americans have begun to write a “mythology of the Common Man.” A figure such as Mr. Antrobus, the inventive businessman and loving father, is an ordinary hero worthy of a democratic mythology. This Everyman—despite his flaws, failures, and crises of confidence—is a leader. His ingenuity ensures that his family—the human family—will get through more wars and more walls of ice and floods and earthquakes, even if they only make it through by the skin of their teeth. The play’s concluding message, much like the optimistic outlook of other democratic American narratives, is that not only will people always come through such crises but they will learn something and start to get better.

The Antrobuses, the Fortune Teller informs the audience in Act II, are: “Your hope. Your despair. Your selves.” They represent the best and worst of humanity—and in Wilder’s comic formulation perhaps offer a good deal more hope than despair. With his depiction of this typically suburban and yet archetypically mythic family, Wilder transformed the American theatrical landscape of the 1940s. He will certainly be remembered as an innovator in twentieth century drama, though he would have classified himself as a traditionalist, as he wrote in the preface to Three Plays, “I am not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrusive bric-a-brac.”

Source: Erika M. Kreger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Lewis Nichols

In this review of The Skin of Our Teeth, which was originally published on November 19, 1942, Nichols offers a positive review of the original Broadway production of the play.

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Source: Lewis Nichols, review of The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 242-243.

Peter Fleming

Terming Wilder’s drama a “morality play” designed to make audiences think about the consequences of their lives, Fleming gives the work a favorable review. He singles out such high points as a “high degree of suspense” and the play’s theme of the “invincibility of the human spirit”—factors which make The Skin of Our Teeth “astonishingly successful” theatre.

It is by the skin of our teeth, the author very plausibly asserts, that the human race escapes the consequences of its own proclivities for self-destruction. He calls his morality play “a history of mankind in comic strip,” and though the history is allusive and surrealist the strip is undeniably comic. Nothing, in fact, could be less ponderous than Mr. Thornton Wilder’s approach to his weighty theme. It is nevertheless truly philosophical.

Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus represent Homo Sapiens down the ages. They have a son and a daughter, and in the son germinate the seeds of what the Russians call “deviationism”—the itch first to break away from and then to overthrow the established order. The pert and lovely Sabina is their servant, feckless yet oddly faithful, shallow but percipient. Jabberwockian is the only word with which to describe the pattern of their vicissitudes. Some slight idea of the dramatist’s technique may be conveyed by recalling that Moses and Homer are among refugees fleeing from the Ice Age who seek Page 327  |  Top of Articleasylum in the Antrobus’s New Jersey home, which already shelters a dinosaur and a mammoth. Nor is chronology the only convention which Mr. Thornton Wilder, with an engaging insouciance, defies. At frequent intervals the actors, and in particular Sabina, step outside the play and make their own adverse comments on it, so that a harassed stage-manager has to intervene to restore order. In short, the tactics of the Crazy Gang are employed in an attempt to solve the ultimate riddle of human destiny.

The result is astonishingly successful. One merit of the author’s capricious (to put it mildly) methods is that they engender a very high degree of suspense; with no possible means of telling what is going to happen next on or, for that matter, off the stage, the audience has no choice but to remain alert and curious. But the play has solider virtues than this. Its theme is the invincibility of the human spirit, and despite the atmosphere of harlequinade there is something moving and noble in the spectacle of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, though conscious of their own follies and failings, and aware that each renewal of hope after a hard-won victory will be cheated by fresh disasters, refusing to admit defeat. The author takes every conceivable kind of risk—save only that of being pompous. Never was a message put across with less solemnity: and seldom with greater success.

The play unquestionably owes much to its producer, Mr. Laurence Olivier, who has imposed a tremendous pace on its zany symbolism. It is also deeply in debt to his wife, Miss Vivien Leigh, whose enchantingly detached Sabina is a very fine piece of comic acting. Mr. George Devine’s rugged and impressive Antrobus is well matched by Miss Esther Somers’s quiet but powerful portrait of his wife. I also liked very much poor Mr. Fitzpatrick, whoever he was; he does not appear on the programme, but he was frequently on the stage, composing with a dire embarrassment recurrent mutinies among the cast. The Skin of our Teeth is as topical as Mr. Molotov’s liver, and is well worth going to see.

Source: Peter Fleming, review of The Skin of Our Teeth in the Spectator, Volume 177, no. 6169, September 20, 1946, p. 287.

James N. Vaughn

Vaughn reviews the original Broadway production of Wilder’s play, finding the cast and production values to be of the highest quality. The critic feels, however, that the playwright’s text does not

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“THE AUTHOR TAKES EVERY CONCEIVABLE KIND OF RISK—SAVE ONLY THAT OF BEING POMPOUS. NEVER WAS A MESSAGE PUT ACROSS WITH LESS SOLEMNITY: AND SELDOM WITH GREATER SUCCESS.”

achieve what his previous play, Our Town, did in terms of enchanting an audience.

Thornton Wilder in his new play has preached a sermon in a style joining asides like those of Saint Bernard with jarring juxtapositions like those of T. S. Eliot. Life, he wants to say, is struggle to discover truth, to build material conditions in the image of truth and above all to subdue natural forces and human anger, lust and unreason. Within himself and without, everyman meets such forces—inexhaustible supplies of arrogant energy blindly seeking his moral and material destruction. Working day and night they make moral and physical development a process ever balanced on the “razor edge of danger.” Wilder says through this play that the unhuman irrational principles give us in man everything from bingo to war: everything sordid, dull, vulgar, carnal and murderous. In nature these principles develop a slow, unending series of frightful catastrophes from ice packs to hurricanes. Thus it has always been and so it will be always. Nevertheless we live, and rightly, with hope and faith because God has announced that our general conditions shall be permanently improved by thought, orderliness and the achievement of moral integrity.

The story is told of George Antrobus, his wife and two children. Antrobus, a kind of Adam, is the inventive, practical, home-building man. In the end he lives by thought and spirit despite momentary falls from grace. He is tried by nature, by lust and by the rebellion of his own son, but he survives because within him is an undying determination to begin anew the construction of the perfect world.

To preach his sermon Wilder has the advantage of the superlative talent of Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. Tallulah Bankhead supplies the comic touch and carnal Page 328  |  Top of Articleintimations—with modest success, I should say. Florence Reed as the Fortune Teller charged with ominous passages regarding the unknowability of the human past is superb.

Had the play been placed in less capable hands it might have been a grotesque failure. It lacks enchantment. The device, freely employed, of bringing the audience into the play need not destroy continuity of audience feeling as Mr. Wilder in Our Town proved. But the same technique fails in the present play because it is too overt, too garish, too sensational in the literal sense. The reception of the audience was tepid.

Source: James N. Vaughn, review of The Skin of Our Teeth in Commonweal, Volume XXXVII, no. 7, December 4, 1942, pp. 175-76.

SOURCES

Adler, Thomas P. “Theater Looking at Theater: A Self-Image of Post-World War II American Drama” in Claudel Studies, Volume 9, number 1, 1982, pp. 31, 40.

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Skin of Our Teeth—Thornton Wilder Writes a Wise and Frisky Comedy about People” in the New York Times, November 22, 1942, section 8, p. 1.

Cheney, Sheldon. The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting, and Stagecraft, Longmans, Green, 1952, p. 570.

Dusenbury, Winifred. “Myth in American Drama between the Wars” in Modern Drama, Volume 6, 1963, p. 298.

Freedley, George. “The Stage Today” in the New York Morning Telegraph, November 20, 1942, p. 2.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, Doubleday, 1956, p. 106.

Whiting, Frank M. An Introduction to: The Theatre, Harper & Brothers, 1954, p. 106.

Wilder, Thornton. The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 22, 24, 37.

Wilder, Thornton. Preface to Three Plays, Harper & Row, 1957, pp. viii, xi-xiv.

Wilder, Thornton. “Some Thoughts on Playwriting” in Playwrights on Playwriting, edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, 1960, p. 108.

Willett, John, Editor. Brecht on Theatre, Hill and Wang, 1964, p. 212.

FURTHER READING

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama: Volume One, 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

A good overview of American theater before World War II, this discussion devotes a full chapter to Wilder.

Blank, Martin, Editor. Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, G.K. Hall, 1996.

This is a good recent collection of articles on Wilder’s work.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder, Ticknor and Fields, 1983.

This biography, which makes use of Wilder’s papers at the Yale University Beinecke Library, includes many excerpts from unpublished journals and notebooks that illuminate Wilder’s troubled personal life.

Walsh, Claudette. Thornton Wilder: A Reference Guide, 1926-1990, G.K. Hall, 1993.

This comprehensive annotated bibliography of works by and about Wilder is an invaluable resource for anyone studying his writings.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"The Skin of Our Teeth." Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 4, Gale, 1998, pp. 309-328. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2692900028%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Ded1aed4f. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692900028

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  • Absurdity
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • Allegory
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 310
      • 4: 316-318
      • 4: 324
  • American Exceptionalism
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • American Northeast
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 320
  • Classicism
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 324-325
  • Cycle of History
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • Emotions
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 323
  • Europe
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 320-321
  • Family
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • Good and Evil
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • Heroism
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 325
  • History
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 320
  • Hope
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 325
  • Human Condition
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 317
  • Humor
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
      • 4: 318
  • Illusion vs. Reality
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • Loyalty
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 316
  • Myths and Legends
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 325
  • North America
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 319-321
  • Personality Traits
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 318
  • Politics
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 311
      • 4: 319
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 319-320
  • World War II
    • The Skin of Our Teeth
      • 4: 319-320