The Skin of Our Teeth

by Thornton Wilder

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Critical Evaluation

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To American audiences who saw the original production of The Skin of Our Teeth, the play seemed mad and incomprehensible, but highly entertaining. Their reaction was understandable, for few American playwrights have employed such bizarre forms to convey serious content. “Dream plays,” German expressionism, the comic strip, musical comedy—Thornton Wilder once listed these as his sources of dramaturgical inspiration. The play is, however, basically a parody of old-fashioned American stock-company productions and vaudeville. European audiences, for whom the play was performed in bomb-scarred churches and beer halls, had less difficulty in grasping Wilder’s message. As the dramatist observed, the play “mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.” Since depressions, Ice Ages, and wars have hardly vanished from the scene, The Skin of Our Teeth promises to remain a vital part of the world’s theater experience.

Despite their range and complexity, Wilder’s main ideas can be briefly summarized. In Sabina’s first direct address to the audience, Wilder does this. The play is, she says, “all about the troubles the human race has gone through.” Such troubles are of two kinds: those caused by nature and those caused by people themselves. The Ice Age and the Flood are examples of the first type, although Wilder makes it plain that the real source of catastrophe in act 2 is not the weather but the disordered passions of the individual. Depression and war are clearly human creations. The human race is not, for Wilder, a disconnected assemblage of discrete cultures and generations. Rather, it is a being—a living person who experiences, remembers, and matures. The name Antrobus expresses this concept, being derived from the Greek word “for man.”

As one learns from the closing philosophic quotations, humanity’s best hope for “getting by” lies in the intellect. The first priority for the human race is to establish order in the individual by means of the discipline of reason. In doing so, humanity avails itself of a special energy that Aristotle considered divine. This holy energy is ultimately related to the force that created the heavens and the earth. The greatest threat to human survival is not merely the ego’s unruly animal nature, which brings disorder to the soul. The more serious threat is an inclination toward evil, which infects the individual’s rational faculties. To counter this threat, people may draw upon their capacity for love as well as upon the accumulated wisdom that history provides.

This set of ideas shapes all aspects of the drama. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus stand for reason, which has masculine and feminine dimensions. Sabina, the maid, represents the passions, especially those seeking erotic pleasure and social power. Henry, their son, says Wilder, embodies “strong unreconciled evil.” Like Sabina, he resists the rule of law in himself and society. His murderous nature reveals a far graver sort of wickedness. Like Cain, he despises God and longs to overthrow his order. Wilder’s characters are not merely allegorical types, however. Mr. Antrobus shows himself capable of homicidal intent, and because he loves his theories and machines too much, he is partly to blame for Henry’s behavior. Sabina speaks for Wilder when she exclaims, “We’re all just as wicked as we can be, and that’s God’s truth.”

No single character symbolizes love in The Skin of Our Teeth . Rather this function is fulfilled by the Antrobus family as a whole. In act 1, they share their hearth with the refugees. In act 2, they refuse to enter the ship without Henry. In the final act they readmit Henry to their circle. Since the Antrobuses are a metaphor for humankind, their gestures have...

(This entire section contains 1006 words.)

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wider significance. The refugees are not strangers but relatives. So are members of the audience, a fact that the invitation to “Pass up your chairs, everybody” conveys. Wilder symbolizes this condition by making the father of Gladys’s beloved baby an anonymous someone, an Everyman. The final acceptance of Henry is the most powerful moment in the play. Despite Henry’s evil, Mr. Antrobus grudgingly must acknowledge that “Oh, you’re related, all right.” Thus Henry may take his place in a family where all belong.

If the human race is actually one, there is finally only one experience and one memory. Wilder dramatizes this concept in a variety of ingenious ways, all of which involve seeing time as an eternal present. Dinosaurs, biblical personages, and figures from Greek mythology crowd into the Antrobuses’s living room. Each advance in technology requires a remembering of all previous discoveries, so Wilder has the invention of the alphabet “occur” during the era of telegraphic communication. Sabina is, simultaneously, a figure from classical history, a “Napoleonic camp follower,” and a contemporary American. The constant interruptions of the action force the audience to dwell in a single time dimension—the present, in which are contained both past and future as well as “real” and “imaginary time.”

By these means Wilder also reinforces the notion that the human race is what it is because of the experiences of its forebears. More exactly, human nature developed in certain ways because humanity inherited certain principles of interpretation. These principles are found in clearest form in the great books of history. Insofar as such principles shape human thought, the thinkers who expressed them live on. People can forget or ignore the education that history afforded them and become animals again. Books are instruments of humanization. In this sense, Mr. Antrobus is entirely correct when he says to the book-burning Henry, “You are my deadly enemy.” Part of Wilder’s optimism about humanity’s future stems from the mere existence of books and libraries.

The seriousness and profundity of Wilder’s themes tend, unfortunately, to escape most audiences. Indeed, the play’s rapid pace and dramaturgical gimmicks draw attention away from its key symbols. Invited to participate on a superficial level, the typical viewer may feel puzzled and a bit resentful when, in the third act, the drama suddenly becomes very somber and too heavily philosophical.


Critical Overview