Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Excelsior. Fictional New Jersey city, whose very name implies upward striving, that is the home of the novel’s Antrobus family. Mother, daughter, son, maid, and pets await the return of the father, who is at his office. Mrs. Antrobus berates the maid, Sabina, for letting the fire go out in the suburban living room as the Ice Age is dawning. When Mr. Antrobus comes home, he brings along refugees whose talents he hopes to save, among them Moses, Homer, and several of the Muses. As the room fills up, a baby dinosaur and a little mammoth are ordered out into the cold. Nature is not humanity’s only enemy; viewers learn that the Antrobus son Henry has another name: Cain. As the ice grinds nearer, Sabina, the maid, includes the audience in the setting, asking them to contribute their chairs for firewood.
*Atlantic City. New Jersey resort city. Thornton Wilder’s Atlantic City offers that image of it well known to popular culture: the Boardwalk, the ocean, the beauty contests. A fortune-teller’s tent spotlights the chancy nature of survival. Sabina, now a pageant winner, confers with the gypsy about seducing George Antrobus, present as a conventioneer. The crone laughs darkly and predicts rain and the destruction of every living thing except two animals of every kind. Nature and tawdry humanity are again complicit in the erosion of civilization, which once more teeters on the brink. Suddenly...
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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 n. 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...
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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, with 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 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...
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Compare and 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...
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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 / am Legend (1954), or a movie-like The Road Warrior (1982) or The Day After (1983). Then compare your chosen work's setting and...
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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.
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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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adler, Thomas P. "Theater Looking at Theater. A Self-image of Post-World War H 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, Fredrich. 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.
Bigsby, C. W. E A...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Burbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne, 1961. An excellent introduction to Wilder that emphasizes the humanism of his writings. Asserts The Skin of Our Teeth succeeds in communicating its message about human survival, but that “the mixture of comedy and seriousness does not always come off successfully.”
Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. An effective brief introduction to Wilder and his works. The section on The Skin of Our Teeth distills information about the play’s writing and staging, interprets the themes, and evaluates the work’s strengths and weaknesses.
Goldstone, Richard H., and Gary Anderson. Thornton Wilder: An Annotated Bibliography of Works, by and About Thornton Wilder. New York: AMS Press, 1982. An important starting place of finding sources for further reading about Wilder. Numerous bibliography entries concerning The Skin of Our Teeth.
Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. Explores the philosophical, religious, and mythmaking dimensions of Wilder’s dramas. Carefully defends Wilder against the plagiarism issues surrounding The Skin of Our Teeth.
Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of...
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