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,...
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