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...
(The entire section is 662 words.)
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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...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)
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 fact Sabina has let the fire go out, Mrs. Antrobus' 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....
(The entire section is 1421 words.)