Since its premiere, The Skin of Our Teeth has maintained a solid critical reputation, earning consistent critical acclaim and winning over new generations of Americans with its frequent revivals.
The original Broadway production, which opened on November 18,1942, prompted reviewers like the New York Daily Telegraph's George Freedley to comment both that "Wilder certainly has the most vivid imagination in the theater today," and that the play is "a perfect piece of theater.'' Although a few critics complained that the work lacked substance and that Wilder's anti-illusion staging devices were awkward, such voices were distinctly in the minority.
The play did generate some controversy when two authors, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, published an article in the Saturday Review of Literature claiming that Wilder had plagiarized James Joyce's novel Finnegan 's Wake (1939). Campbell and Robinson carefully pointed out the similarities in plot, theme, and presentation between the two works. Wilder, who freely admitted Joyce's influence on his play, did not directly answer the charges but merely encouraged critics to read both texts and judge for themselves. A small flurry of articles on the issue followed, some poked fun at Campbell and Robinson while most acknowledged that Wilder's use of Joyce's novel was no different than many other dramatists' creative use of their sources. Although this controversy may have prevented the New York drama critics from naming it the year's best play, The Skin of Our Teeth still won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1942 and ran for 355 performances.
In 1945, a London production starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier was also a success. Though the Soviet Union banned performances of Wilder's plays, other European countries responded favorably to The Skin of Our Teeth; performances in Amsterdam and Bavaria, as well as a 1946 London revival, were well-attended and positively reviewed. German theatergoers particularly loved the play, which offered hope for revitalization to a broken people. In years to come, the play would become even more highly regarded—and receive more critical attention—in German-speaking countries than in the United States.
By the 1950s, the play's reputation was solidly established. In 1952, Sheldon Cheney, in his survey of the history of theater The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting, and Stagecraft, would pronounce The Skin of Our Teeth"the most notable event of the forties." Two years later Frank M. Whiting's An Introduction to the Theater would tell readers that "any survey of American play writing must recognize the importance of Thornton Wilder." By 1956, several academic articles about The Skin of Our Teeth were published, and the work was discussed in three books on drama. Scholars continued to praise Wilder's theatrical technique and began to associate his work with Brechtian epic-theater. Critics also noted Wilder's influence on European absurdist drama.
In 1961, Rex Burbank published the first book entirely devoted to Wilder's work. Though this text would be followed by several other full-length studies in succeeding decades, and Wilder would continue to hold the status of a respected literary figure, his writings would not receive as much academic attention as some of the dramatists of the next generation like Arthur Miller (
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