Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Wilder’s last great play was The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened on Broadway on November 18, 1942. The play, with its allegorical mixture of contemporary and biblical events, confused some of the critics but proved delightful to audiences and ran for 355 performances. The play has been revived frequently and in 1961 was given an international tour by the U.S. State Department with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin in the leading roles.
What Wilder dramatizes in The Skin of Our Teeth is the struggle of humankind to survive, a conceit much appreciated by wartime audiences. Again the author focuses on the family unit to make his point—in this case, the Antrobus (anthropos meaning story of humans) family living in Excelsior, New Jersey. The play does not have a continuous action. Although the settings are contemporary, each act is structured around a historic catastrophe: the Ice Age, the Flood, and modern war. Respectively, humans must pit themselves against nature, the moral order, and, finally, themselves. Wilder’s play can also be seen as units of time: geologic, biblical, and recorded.
Wilder’s characters in The Skin of Our Teeth are all allegorical figures and exist on three planes: American, biblical, and universal. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are the simultaneous embodiment of Adam and Eve, Everyman and Everywoman, and an average American couple. Mr. Antrobus has created the wheel, the alphabet, and the lever; his spouse has contributed the apron. They keep as pets a dinosaur and mammoth. Their motto is Save the Family. Daughter Gladys becomes increasingly...
(The entire section is 662 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Skin of Our Teeth Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A great wall of ice is moving southward over the land, bringing with it an unprecedented cold spell in August. In Hartford they are burning pianos, and it is impossible to reach Boston by telegraph. The people do nothing but talk about the looming catastrophe. So far, only the extreme cold reaches Excelsior, New Jersey, where Mr. and Mrs. George Antrobus live in an attractive suburban residence. Their rather commonplace lives are to be greatly changed by the extreme form that the weather takes.
Mr. Antrobus is a fine man, a sterling example for his community. He invented the wheel, the alphabet, and the multiplication table. Mrs. Antrobus is the picture of the middle-class mother, with the best interests of her children at heart. Their daughter Gladys is much like her mother, but their son is atypical. His name was Cain until an unfortunate accident occurred in which he hit his brother with a stone and killed him. As the result of that thoughtless action, his name was changed to Henry, and Mrs. Antrobus goes to some pains to keep his past history a secret. Members of the Antrobus household also include Sabina, the maid, a baby dinosaur, and a mammoth.
On this particular day in August, everyone is freezing and the dogs’ paws are sticking to the sidewalk because it is so cold. Sabina is in an agitated state because nothing seems to be going properly. She milks the mammoth, but she let the only fire in the house go out. Her plight is doubly humiliating because her career in the Antrobus house began when Mr. Antrobus brought her back from the Sabine rape. He gave her a life of luxury until he tired of her; now she is relegated to the kitchen. She, however, is a canny and observant individual, an apex to an age-old triangle.
She is waiting nervously for the return of Mr. Antrobus when a domestic altercation with Mrs. Antrobus prompts her to give a two-week notice. Later a telegram announcing the arrival of Mr. Antrobus and some salvation from the cold causes her to change her mind for the time being. When he arrives, Mr. Antrobus brings news that most of the outside world is freezing and that there is probably nothing they can do to escape the same fate. When some tramps and refugees from the ice come to the house for warmth and food, Mrs. Antrobus is not in favor of admitting them, but Mr. Antrobus insists. Mrs. Antrobus agrees, but only after the dinosaur and the mammoth are evicted. The refugees include a judge, named Moses; a blind beggar with a guitar, named Homer; and the Misses E., T., and M. Muse. The Antrobus family attempts to keep up some...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)