The Skin of Our Teeth

Premiered: Shubert Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, October 15, 1942
Type: Full-length Play
Award: Pulitzer Prize

Time magazine called The Skin of Our Teeth “a sort of Hellzapoppin’ with brains,” as it broke from established theatrical conventions and walked off with the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. Combining farce, burlesque, and satire (among other styles), Thornton Wilder departs from his studied use of nostalgia and sentiment in Our Town to have an Eternal Family narrowly escape one disaster after another, from ancient times to the present. Meet George and Maggie Antrobus (married only 5,000 years); their two children, Gladys and Henry (perfect in every way!); and their maid, Sabina (the ageless vamp) as they overcome ice, flood, and war — by the skin of their teeth.

Overview
by Ashley Gallagher

Plot Summary

“We came through the depression by the skin of our teeth, — that’s true! — one more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?”1 Wilder prepares the audience, through the voice of Sabina, the Antrobus family’s melodramatic maid, for the “cosmic allegory” that serves as the framework for The Skin of Our Teeth.2 In Act I, the Antrobus family is portrayed as the typical American family and a prime specimen of the human race, comprised of Mr. Antrobus, inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, Mrs. Antrobus, his wife, and their two children: Henry and Gladys. The Antrobus’s live in Excelsior, New Jersey during the Ice Age. As the audience soon discovers, the Ice Age is only the first of three disasters through which the family must struggle to survive in order to rebuild their community. Aesthetically, The Skin of Our Teeth is similar to Wilder’s first Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, in that both exhibit nonrealistic sets and break the fourth wall. Yet, The Skin of Our Teeth goes a step further; Wilder’s writing style facilitates “a double narrative: the story of the Antrobus family in the play and the story of a theater company putting on the play.”3 For example, in the very beginning of Act I, Mr. Fitzpatrick, the stage manager, calls from off stage for Sabina, whom the audience discovers is really an actress named Miss Somerset, to stall while they await Mrs. Antrobus’s entrance. Miss Somerset shakily continues her monologue as Sabina before stopping to complain about the play The Skin of Our Teeth as Miss Somerset. Sabina’s scripted ad lib is brought to a close upon Mrs. Antrobus’s entrance. During Mrs. Antrobus’s interaction with her children, Henry and Gladys, the audience learns that Henry is, in fact, Cain who, according to scripture and The Skin of Our Teeth’s allusions, killed his brother Abel. When Mr. Antrobus finally arrives home he invites refugees — Homer, Moses, and three of the Muses — to warm themselves by the fire or, allegorically, to save the human race. Act II finds the Antrobus’s after the Ice Age at an Atlantic City convention. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are interviewed about Mr. Antrobus’s presidency of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Human Subdivision, and the couple’s five thousandth wedding anniversary. Shortly thereafter Sabina, winner of a beauty contest judged earlier by Mr. Antrobus, schemes to steal Mr. Antrobus away from his wife. However, just as Mr. Antrobus readies himself to leave with Sabina, he regains his senses and realizes the world is about to be flooded. Transforming into a Noah figure, Mr. Antrobus gathers the animals two by two into a boat; his family and Sabina narrowly escape extinction once again. The opening of the third act of Skin of Our Teeth is interrupted by Mr. Fitzpatrick so that he can reassign the roles of actors, who have suddenly taken ill, to the theater staff. Sabina then resumes her search for the Antrobus family now that the war has finally come to an end. In his reference to war, Wilder provided hope to those Americans troubled about World War II at the time of the play’s premiere. Mr. Antrobus and Henry return from war to Excelsior, haggard and hateful of one another. The actor playing Henry, seen now as a “representation of strong unreconciled evil,” lunges at the actor playing his father, but Sabina steps between the two men, ending the fight.4 As the tension begins to settle, Mr. Antrobus admits that he does not have the strength or desire to rebuild society again. Yet, upon discovering that his books have been saved, Mr. Antrobus’s will to begin again is revived. Sabina closes Act III by repeating a portion of her Act I opening monologue and announces that the end of the play has not yet been written. She advises the audience to go home, sends the Antrobus’s good tidings, and ultimately reassures the audience of the family’s confidence in overcoming the threats to their survival yet again.

Critical Analysis

The Skin of Our Teeth premiered at the Plymouth Theater in New York on November 18, 1942. Influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and “German expressionism, vaudeville, burlesque, and Wilder’s own one-acts,” Skin of Our Teeth pays homage to those sources in its depiction of the Antrobus family.5 In his preface to Three Plays Wilder writes, “I should be very happy if, in the future, some author should feel similarly indebted to any work of mine. Literature has always more resembled a torch race than a furious dispute among heirs” (687). The main characters of Skin of Our Teeth, the Antrobus’s, whose name is reminiscent of the Greek word “anthropos” meaning man, are portrayed as the first family of the human race struggling to survive disaster after disaster. George Antrobus is described as an Adam figure in Act I and his wife, Maggie, is his Eve. The couple’s son, Cain, is a symbol of violence while their daughter Gladys, who is chastised by her mother for pulling up her dress, represents man’s instinct to procreate. Lilly Sabina is linked with Mrs. Antrobus as Eve’s temptress side as well as Lilith of the Talmudic tradition.6 Wilder’s archetypal characters, however, are not solely defined by what they represent. Genuine humanity often comes through in the separation of actor from role. As Skin of Our Teeth progresses, identity and time are in constant flux. Time switches back and forth frequently between the audience’s present and the continuously changing time of the Antrobus’s. Yet, as each new crisis arises, the same evils are present and the same rebuilding must commence. The play’s title in itself “announces the theme, which is that no matter how hard pressed or frightened, the human race has [the] power to survive.”7 As the audience can see, Wilder’s characters must deal not just with questions about their humanity and relationships but also with their basic survival: What shall we eat? How shall we keep warm? Wilder also connects the play with the real sacrifices being made during World War II and the collapse of western culture and the spread of violence.8 The stage manager, Mr. Fitzpatrick, plays a different role than Our Town’s stage manager; he becomes the problem solver. When Miss Somerset stops the action to complain about a scene and actors fall sick from food poisoning, Mr. Fitzpatrick is on hand to fix the situation. He is also the link between “the transcendental area and [the] here-and-now.”9 But, beyond their dissimilar stage managers, Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth are essentially about American families “struggling with implacable fate and their own smallness.”10 By the end of Act III, George Antrobus has reaffirmed his desire to rebuild the world, dramatizing “the human race…in the process of getting it right.”11

Footnotes

1Wilder, 218.
2Konkle, 155.
3Konkle, 156.
4Wilder, 276.
5Goldstein, 118.
6Papajewski, 117.
7Goldstein, 188.
8Streasu, 62.
9Papajewski, 123.
10Castronovo, 99.
11Konkle, 161.

Bibliography

Almeida, Diane. “Four Saints in Our Town: A Comparative Analysis of Works by Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder.” Journal of American Drama and Theatre. 9.3. (1997 Fall): 1-23.

Corrigan, Robert W. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” Educational Theatre Journal. 13.3 (October 1961): 161-173.

Fisher, James. “‘Troubling the Waters’: Visions of the Apocalypse in Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and Kushner’s Angels in America.” Thornton Wilder: New Essays. Blank, Martin (ed.), Brunauer, Dalma Hunyadi (ed.), Izzo, David Garrett (ed.). West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 1999. 391-407.

Helmetag, Charles H. “Mother Courage and Her American Cousins in The Skin of Our Teeth.” Modern Language Studies. 8.3 (Fall 1978): 65-69.

Lang, Hans-Joachim. “Wilder in Germany: The Political Story after 1945.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature. 36 (1987): 41-63.

Lobdell, Jared. “Thornton Wilder as Fantasist and the Science-Fiction Anti-Paradism: The Evidence of The Skin of Our Teeth.” Hassler, Donald M. (ed.). Patterns of the Fantastic II. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1985. 29-38.

Rabkin, Gerald. “The Skin of Our Teeth and the Theatre of Thornton Wilder.” The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama. Warren French. (ed.). Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1969. 113-120.

Robinson, Henry Morton. “The Curious Case of Thornton Wilder.” Esquire. 47 (March 1957): 70-71, 124-126.

Scharff, Jill Savege. “The Skin of Our Teeth: A Psychoanalytic Perspective.” Blank, Martin (ed.), Brunauer, Dalma Hunyadi (ed.), Izzo, David Garrett (ed.). Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 1999. 379-90.

Shunami, Gideon. “Between the Epic and the Absurd: Brecht, Wilder, Durrenmatt, and Ionesco.” Genre 8 (1975): 42-59.

Wilson, Edmund. “The Antrobus’s and the Earwickers.” Nation. 156.5 (30 January 1943): 167-168.

Further Commentary

The Skin of Our Teeth, a Play for the New Millenium

by Kara-Lynn Vaeni and Mark Blankenship, with added commentary by Lincoln Konkle.

The Skin of Our Teeth made its world premiere at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on October 15, 1942, where it received a notoriously mixed reaction from audiences (legend tells of patrons racing from the theater at the first intermission). The play received a warmer reception at its New York premiere on November 18, and in 1943 it won Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize. The play has been continually produced since, with recent major productions at the Guthrie, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Trinity Repertory Theatre, and New York’s Public Theatre. The Skin of Our Teeth was first published by Harper in 1942; it was reprinted in Three Plays with a preface by Wilder in 1957. Critical and audience responses to the play have always been divided (perhaps the sign of a truly great work), but the play’s constant presence on the stage suggests James Woolcott was correct when he stated “having seen The Skin of Our Teeth and thought about it and read it, I know what I think about it. I think no other American play has ever come anywhere near it.”

The Skin of Our Teeth is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, their children Henry and Gladys, and their maid Sabina. They are simultaneously a typical American family living in a present-day New Jersey suburb and are also Adam, Eve, Lilith, Cain and a daughter who survive the Ice Age (although their pet dinosaurs do not), the Flood (as in the book of Genesis in the Bible) and War (as in WWII). Thus, as he did in The Long Christmas Dinner, Wilder compresses long expanses of time to establish his universal theme. Mr. Antrobus invented the wheel and the brewing of beer and no matter what happens, is intent on saving the works of Shakespeare. Mrs. Antrobus invented the hem, the apron and “frying in oil”, and would burn all the works of Shakespeare to keep her children from catching a cold. Henry/Cain is trying to memorize the multiplication tables and learn how to use his slingshot, Gladys loves her Daddy and can’t keep her dress down, and Sabina just wants to get out of the kitchen and go to the movies. And all the while, the actors crack jokes to the audience, refuse to perform scenes they don’t like and argue with the Stage Manager (of course we have a Stage Manager!) while the set falls down around their ears.

When writing The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder called it “the most ambitious project I have ever approached.” This may be true, since the play does strive to represent the ongoing going struggles of humanity, but it can still be placed within the rest of his canon. For example, much like the seminal Our Town (as well as most of his shorter plays), The Skin of Our Teeth is decidedly non-naturalistic—characters address the audience, backstage crew enter and speak, and the set is minimal or symbolic. In this play, however, Wilder enhances his technique by introducing the fictional actors who play his characters. Therefore, while he repeats the Pullman Car Hiawatha conceit of having the hours personified as philosophers, he also depicts them as being played by the theater’s maintenance staff. Housemaid Sabina may pause to address the audience like Our Town‘s stage manager, but she also speaks to us as Miss Fairweather, the actress playingSabina. This extra level of theatricality grounds Wilder’s archetypal figures in human detail, reminding us that the play’s ideas implicate everyone.

While The Skin of Our Teeth repeats the life-cycle allegory (though on a cosmic scale) and presentational theatrical style of Our Town, it employs the farcical tone and type characters of The Matchmaker. The Antrobuses and Sabina are two-dimensional at best, and many of the large cast of minor characters do not even register as individuals (e.g., the refugees in Act One, the conveeners in Act Two). Like the slapstick antics and light banter of the couples in The Matchmaker, the stage business and dialogue in The Skin of Our Teeth is often downright silly, as when Antrobus—in a spoof of Darwinian evolution—addresses the six hundred thousandth annual convention of that “great fraternal order—the ancient and honorable order of mammals, subdivision humans,” which has just elected Antrobus as its president : “I do not deny that a few months before my birth I hesitated between . . . uh . . . between pinfeathers and gill-breathing,—and so did many of us here,—but for the last million years I have been viviparous, hairy and diaphragmatic.” Antrobus’ species pride is thunderously applauded by the delegates to the convention.

However, at moments in this epic affirmation of human survival, the tone becomes solemn, as in Act Three after the Antrobuses have all returned home from the war; though he momentarily despaired at the thought of trying to start over again, Antrobus picks up a few of his books that have survived and says, “All I ask is the chance to build new worlds and God has always given us that. And has given us [opening the book] voices to guide us; and the memory of our mistakes to warn us. . . . We’ve come a long ways. We’ve learned. We’re learning. And the steps of our journey are marked for us here.” There was great cause for a pessimistic outlook at the time Wilder was writing: headlines were dominated by a second world war a mere twenty-five years after the first, and the hardships of the Great Depression were fresh in collective memory. But Thornton Wilder has Sabina close The Skin of Our Teeth with this optimistic farewell to the audience: “This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of this 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.”

Notes from the End of the World: A Dramaturg Reports on a Production of The Skin of Our Teeth

by Mark Blankenship

Any play with three apocalypses, talking dinosaurs, and characters who refuse to say their lines is clearly aiming high. But when that play has a housemaid tell us in her opening speech that it will address all “the troubles the human race has gone through,” it may seem destined for ambitious failure. The Skin of Our Teeth, however, succeeds. A vast, symbolic play about all of humanity, Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece is also a witty, compassionate look at the struggles of a single family. Sure, the Antrobus clan (whose name derives from the Greek for “humanity”) may weather the calamities of ices ages, floods, and wars, but they also face the struggle of raising children, going to work, and trying to stay faithful for five thousand years. With staggering imagination, Wilder reminds us that the destruction and rebirth on his stage take their shape from the cycle of our own lives. It’s no accident that Sabina, the saucy housemaid who directly addresses us with her analysis of the play, closes by insisting, “We have to go on for ages and ages yet.” Onstage or off, she’s telling us, we’re all enduring the same old thing.

The point, of course, is that we keep going. Though humanity may get trapped in self-destructive cycles, ours is not a hopeless world. In his journal Wilder commented that he wanted The Skin of Our Teeth to “offer the audience [an] explanation of man’s endurance, aim, and consolation.” He understood that many who sought that explanation would begin and end with the presence of the divine. “It’s not so much that I deny the religious note,” he said, “as that it presents itself to me only intermittently and in terms too individualistic to enter the framework of this place.” Therefore, while the religious note is certainly sounded (especially through the omniscient Fortune Teller in Act II and consistent Biblical imagery), the play finds its solution in the cause of its problems: humanity itself. “The existence of his children and the inventive activity of his mind keep urging [man] on to continued and better-adjusted survival,” Wilder wrote, “[while] the ideas contained in the great books of his predecessors hang above him in mid-air, furnishing him adequate direction and stimulation.” This was his explanation for why we persist: even as we see our talent for destruction, we don’t forget our ability to think and do wonderful things.

Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni and I have long been enthralled by The Skin of Our Teeth and its ultimate claims about humanity. As we prepare our production at the Yale School of Drama, we are thrilled by the challenge of staging Wilder’s vision. Though as of this writing we are still two weeks from beginning rehearsal, we are already guided by the playwright’s own concerns. Fearful of ” ‘making up’ emotion [or] contriving earnestness,” for example, he strove to write in the proper tone—which he described as a blend of “the comic, the grotesque, and the myth as mock heroic”—and we are similarly dedicated to letting this towering work remain a comedy. We are also mindful of the playwright’s following journal entry: “This being the most ambitious subject I have ever approached, I am faced as never consciously before with the question: do I mean it?” With that, Wilder challenged himself to fully believe in all of the ideas his play was presenting. Ultimately, he answered his own query with a “yes,” and it is our mission to be certain we can do the same.

In asking ourselves if we “mean it”—if we can stand behind all the conclusions our production suggests—Kara-Lynn and I have begun challenging certain elements of Wilder’s script. We live with problems and achievements he could not have predicted, and we want his still-relevant play to address them. Therefore, in deference to Wilder’s own conclusion that ideas are the cornerstone of human survival, we are considering several changes to the text that will make room for the modern world.

At present, our most significant amendments may occur in Act III, which opens at the end of a great war. The script calls for the Antrobus living room of Act I to be recreated, only with some of the walls missing or leaning “helter skelter.” Things return to normal, however, when Sabina pulls an onstage rope that sets the walls in place. Finally, once the entire family observes the procession of great ideas, a character says, “Let there be light.” After a brief blackout, the play starts over, with no changes. But is that feasible? Humanity may operate in a cycle, but don’t we occasionally alter our routine? Our production team feels that we do. Nuclear war, the environmental crisis, and the women’s and civil rights movements are just a few of the reasons we are not living as before, no matter how much we see ourselves in the past. As artists, we are asking difficult questions about how these changes impact the play. What is the present-day implication, for example, of a stage that sinks into darkness after someone calls for light? Should it remind us of how close our own inventions have brought us to destruction? More importantly, can the Antrobuses return to their pleasant home, or should the stage bear the scars of all that has occurred? When the play begins anew, how stable are the walls that keep out the world?

We are also questioning whether everyone in the family would willingly start over. What would happen if a character revolted against her station? Consider Gladys: she exists primarily to pacify her father with kindness, terrify her mother with burgeoning sexuality, and propagate the race with babies. However, while women still wrestle with questions of sexuality and procreation, they have an unparalleled freedom to disavow what is expected of them. Couldn’t Gladys represent this freedom? Even as she adopts the traditional mother role, couldn’t she also assert her independence?

Such independence is crucial in arguing that humanity’s patterns can alter. Our production rests on this notion—the belief that just as our capacity for destruction keeps growing, so does our ability to find renewal. As we discover ways to address our convictions onstage, we hope to honor The Skin of Our Teeth by approaching it with fresh ideas.


For further discussions of The Skin of Our Teeth, please visit the Bibliography.

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