The Skin of Our Teeth

by Thornton Wilder

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The Style of The Skin of Our Teeth

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The Skin of Our Teeth is a play full of paradoxes When audiences first viewed Thornton Wilder's comedy in 1942, they were confronted by events which seemed to take place both in the distant past and the immediate present, characters who were both age-old allegorical figures and contemporary actors, and dialogue that was both irreverent and philosophical. Wilder's theatrical techniques were undeniably innovative for his time; he broke with the conventions of naturalistic theater that had guided previous generations of American playwrights. But perhaps the central irony of the play is that it uses these progressive techniques to present an extremely traditional message. In The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder pairs modern form with classical content, disrupting viewers' assumptions about the nature of theater, while also reinforcing their beliefs about the nature of humanity.

Accustomed to plays which sought to create the illusion that events on stage were really happening, 1940s audiences were caught off guard by Wilder's disregard for such theatrical convention. They recognized, in the opening minutes of The Skin of Our Teeth when "Miss Somerset" stops speaking in the character of Sabina and starts complaining about her lines, that they were viewing a different kind of play. They were not used to actors breaking the proscenium barrier—the imaginary divide between the people on stage and the people in the audience— and asking the viewer to participate in events on stage by, for example, passing up their chairs at the end of Act I to fuel the fire that will "save the human race."

Wilder anticipated theatergoers' surprise, and knew, as he wrote in a journal entry for October 26, 1940, that "twenty years from now ... audiences will be accustomed to such liberties and the impact of the method will no longer be so great'' (published in The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961). But in 1942, he felt American drama needed some shaking up. Theater, he explained in his 1957 preface to Three Plays, had “become a minor art," "an in consequential diversion." In the plays of the 1920s and '30s, "the tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility." So Wilder decided to try a new approach; he began writing plays "that tried to capture not verisimilitude but reality."

Wilder's desire to present a different kind of reality on stage resulted in plays, like The Skin of Our Teeth, which can be classified as anti-illusion theater. Originating with European playwrights like Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera) and Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author), this type of drama emphasizes the artificiality of performance while highlighting the actuality of performers. As Brecht explained the theory, in an essay collected in John Willett's anthology Brecht on Theatre,"the audience must not be able to think that it has been transported to the scene of the story but must be invited to take part" in the events on stage.

Anti-illusion dramatists, Thomas Adler explained in an essay in Claudel Studies, "write plays about plays... taking as their subjects the nature of the theatre and the act of going to the theatre and demanding that their audiences consciously think of themselves as an audience." (This self-referential technique is often referred to as meta-drama.) A play like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author (1921), in Adler's view, requires "absolutely no make-believe... in viewing it: the theatre is the theatre, the audience is the audience, the stage is the stage, the characters are the characters, and so forth." Although "ordinarily,...

(This entire section contains 2198 words.)

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we call a play realistic when what we see on stage presents ... [a] convincing illusion that what we are seeing is a faithful representation of reality; and when we in the audience are separated from what is happening on stage by an imaginary fourth wall," Adler argued that this type of play is actually un-realistic because it asks audience to “make believe that [they] are not making believe." A play that breaks through the fourth wall actually emphasizes the true realities of performance: the fact of sitting in a theater watching a production put on by living people.

Wilder's use of anti-illusion techniques in The Skin of Our Teeth is both surprising and fun. Disrupting audience expectations might alienate or confuse theatergoers, but Wilder anticipates such resistance and cleverly uses the actors' asides to articulate and diffuse viewers' objections. Miss Somerset often speaks for the sort of theatergoer who does not want to tackle tough questions. She will express annoyance at the playwright's subject matter and then at other points exclaim: "Oh, I see what this part of the play means now!" Yet not entirely won over, she still refuses to ponder the big issues: “I’ll say the lines, but I won't think about the play." Like the middle-class theatergoer who seeks escapist entertainment—the sort of person Wilder wanted to jolt out of their complacency—Miss Somerset thinks plays should be pleasant and predictable. She does not "think the theatre is a place where people's feelings ought to be hurt.'' Wilder is definitely poking fun at such timid responses to theater—but he is also giving the ordinary person a voice, a voice given some credence because it is associated with the most sympathetic and amusing figure in the play.

In addition to reassuring the audience and providing comic relief, Sabina/Somerset's out-of-character comments contribute to Wilder's goal of capturing the "reality" of theater. Early on, Somerset complains "I hate this play and every word in it," confessing she only took "this hateful job" out of necessity. Before viewers have a chance to connect with the character of the sexy maid Sabina, their attention shifts to the actress playing the part and the circumstances of her employment. Although Somerset's comment that “for two years I've sat up in my room living on a sandwich and a cup of tea a day waiting for better times in the theater" breaks the illusion that the woman speaking on stage is actually Sabina, it builds awareness of behind-the-scenes realities. Similarly, the "rehearsal" at the beginning of Act n brings backstage workers out front, emphasizing the labor that goes into producing a play. Other illusion-breaking moments— such as the Act III confession of the actor who plays Henry, who reveals he feels the same violent rage as his character—emphasize that hardship and passionate emotions are part of * 'real life'' just as much as they are part of dramatic performance.

These moments in which the actors' and characters' experiences intersect illustrate Wilder's belief, expressed in his Three Plays preface, that theater "has one foot planted firmly in the particular, since each actor before us ... is indubitably a living, breathing 'one'; yet it tends and strains to exhibit a general truth" as well. To get at this truth, Mr. Antrobus is once again tempted by the charms of Sabina
Wilder emphasized general traits in his characterizations, another technique of anti-illusion theater. The play's characters are not psychologically developed and individualized but rather are broadly defined as common types, the sort of one-dimensional allegorical figures often found in myth. Despite their suburban setting, the main characters are presented as archetypes (age-old models of basic human roles such as the Great Mother, the Hero, the Fallen Woman). Each person on stage, when speaking in character, represents as essential human quality—intellect (Mr. Antrobus), nurture (Mrs. Antrobus), sexuality (Sabina and Gladys), violence (Henry)—-and these qualities appear in every historical epoch.

Although such allegorical characterizations were a departure from the dramatic practices common in the era immediately preceding the composition of The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder's approach to character was not new. He had, in fact, returned to very old ideas, reclaiming classical Greek dramatic forms. In his essay "Some Thoughts on Play writing" (published in Playwrights on Playwriting), Wilder gave an example of the theatrical philosophy behind the staging of a classical play such as Euripides's Medea (c. 431 B.C.). In such plays, the actors wore large masks and spoke their lines loudly without significant inflection. "For the Greeks," Wilder argued, "there was no pretense that Medea was on the stage." They saw "the mask, the costume, the mode of declamation" as a "series of signs which the spectator interpreted and reassembled in his own mind." These ancient viewers were active participants in the theatrical experience, assembling in their own minds the ideas and images presented on stage. Wilder wanted his twentieth century audiences to be just as active.

By the time Wilder began writing for the stage, Modern Drama had moved away from the staging techniques of Euripides and Sophocles (Antigone), In post-Sophoclean drama, as German writer Frederic Nietzsche explained it in The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals,"the spectator ceases to be aware of the myth at all and comes to focus on the amazing lifelikeness of the characters and the artists power of imitation." But, as noted above, Wilder did not concern himself with this modern focus on "lifelikeness" and instead wished to regenerate awareness of the myth. He made his intent clear in an October 26, 1940, journal passage, complaining of the difficulties of his "attempt to do a play in which the protagonist is a twenty-thousand-year-old man and whose heroine is a twenty-thousand-year-old woman and eight thousand years a wife." His "challenge" was to "represent Man and Woman." And he believed that "by shattering the ossified conventions of the well-made play [the] characters [would] emerge ... as generalized beings." His "favorite principle" he wrote in another journal entry on October 29, 1940, was "that the characters on the stage tend to figure as generalizations, that the stage burns and longs to express a timeless individualized Symbol."

In addition to its symbolic characters, Wilder's play contains other elements of classical drama. Both the structure and content of the work emphasize the cycle of history often depicted in myth. Sabina's comment early in Act I emphasizes the cyclical nature of the Antrobuses' existence, as well as its ambivalence and uncertainty: "Each new child that's born to the Antrobuses seems to them to be sufficient reason for the whole universe's being set in motion; and each new child that dies seems to have been spared a whole world of sorrow, and what the end of it will be is still very much open to question." Throughout the rest of the play, characters will frequently refer to the repetition in their lives—"always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again."—demonstrating how things circle around and return to the same place rather than progressing forward. Each Act finds the same characters having come through another disaster, essentially unchanged. The end of Act III finds Sabina exactly in the same place she was at the play's outset, speaking the same lines once more and only pausing briefly to tell the audience to go ahead and leave since the Antrobuses have to go on for ages and ages yet.''

Wilder's mythic vision, however, is less fatalistic than that of the classical works from which he drew inspiration. He did not want to portray humanity's helplessness in the face of adversity but rather wished to convince the audience of humanity's fortitude and strength. He wondered, in a December, 1941, journal entry, "what does one offer the audience as explanation of man's endurance, aim, and consolation?" He hoped his play would show that the representative man finds "adequate direction and stimulation" in "the existence of his children," "the inventive activity of his mind," and "the ideas contained in the great books of his predecessors." His image of the persevering ordinary man reflected the optimistic ideals of American democracy. Although the ancient Greeks—as Winifred Dusenbury commented in Modern Drama—created "no myth which symbolizes free men governing themselves." Two thousand years later, Americans have begun to write a “mythology of the Common Man." A figure such as Mr. Antrobus, the inventive businessman and loving father, is an ordinary hero worthy of a democratic mythology. This Everyman—despite his flaws, failures, and crises of confidence—is a leader. His ingenuity ensures that his family—the human family—will get through more wars and more walls of ice and floods and earthquakes, even if they only make it through by the skin of their teeth. The play's concluding message, much like the optimistic outlook of other democratic American narratives, is that not only will people always come through such crises but they will learn something and start to get better.

The Antrobuses, the Fortune Teller informs the audience in Act II, are: "Your hope. Your despair. Your selves." They represent the best and worst of humanity—and in Wilder's comic formulation perhaps offer a good deal more hope than despair. With his depiction of this typically suburban and yet archetypically mythic family, Wilder transformed the American theatrical landscape of the 1940s. He will certainly be remembered as an innovator in twentieth century drama, though he would have classified himself as a traditionalist, as he wrote in the preface to Three Plays, "I am not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrusive bric-a-brac.''

Source: Erika M. Kreger, Drama for Students, Gale, 1998

Review of The Skin of Our Teeth

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A few seasons ago Thornton Wilder increased the stature of the theatre with Our Town and now that November again lies heavy over Broadway he has done it once more. For in The Skin of Our Teeth, which Michael Myerberg brought last evening to the Plymouth, he has written a comedy about man which is the best play the Forties have seen in many months, the best pure theatre.

Mr. Wilder is no pedantic philosopher, setting down the laws of the schoolmaster; when he is writing for the theatre he uses all of its arts. His story of man's constant struggle for survival, and his wonderment over why he so struggles, is presented with pathos and broad comedy, with gentle irony and sometimes a sly self-raillery. He does not believe the footlights should separate his players from his audience; his actors now and then step out of their characters to discuss the progress of the play, to comment on what it means or what it does not mean.

In The Skin of Our Teeth the scenery bounces up and down, the players carry on rehearsals, at one point there is a call to the audience to send along its chairs to keep the fire going against the advancing Ice Age. Everywhere in both the dialogue and the properties that surround it are a series of anachronisms, so beautifully blended as to make Excelsior, N. J., quite properly a hold-but against the Ice Age, and Atlantic City the point from which the ark took off against the flood.

The first act is Excelsior, and Mr. Antrobus— played by Fredric March—has had a considerable day in town: He has fixed up the alphabet by separating em from en, he has brought the multiplication table up to the hundreds, he has invented the wheel. But in August at Excelsior it is growing colder, so cold the "dogs are sticking to the sidewalk," and obviously the ice is coming down from Vermont. The neighbors come in—Homer, Moses, others—and Mr. Antrobus and his wife, after wondering if it's all worth while, begin cramming their children with knowledge, in the hope they will survive somehow and can build again on the other side.

The second act is Atlantic City, at the convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans, where Mr. Antrobus, pompous with power and tired of his wife, again almost falls to disaster. The third is at the end of the war—any war—when Mr. Antrobus is properly beaten, but finally decides to start off again. This time the things he sees as reasons are "the voice of the people in their confusion and need," his wife, children and home, knowledge. He goes on, having gotten by only by the skin of his teeth.

The cast Mr. Myerberg has assembled should always fill Mr. Wilder's plays. First, there is Tallulah Bankhead, in the role of Sabina, who is variously the Antrobus maid, the bathing beauty, the camp follower who has been off to the wars for seven years. Her role is the eternal Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, who wanders off on her own affairs when all is quiet, who comes home and helps out when the going is rough. Miss Bankhead is magnificent— breezy, hard, practical by turns. She can strut and posture in broad comedy, she can be calmly serene. It is she who steps out of character to discuss the play, marvelous interludes all of them.

As Mr. Antrobus, Mr. March is at first the roaring, blustering inventor and amasser of knowledge, bringing home his new wheel with a loud whoop; then the pontifical new president of the Mammals in convention assembled; finally the war-weary and discouraged soldier coming home from battle. Florence Eldridge is Mrs. Antrobus, the mother and home-builder, the steadying influence who, in the Atlantic City period, is out of place, too. Miss Eldridge can be either the steady housekeeper or a Helen Hokinson drawing. Each of the Marches has every reason to be proud of the other.

And there are others: Montgomery Clift, as Henry, the son, the Henry who used to be called Cain and has a scar on his forehead; and Frances Heflin, as Gladys, daughter of the Antrobuses. There also in Florence Reed as a cynical, surly, contemptuous fortune-teller, and Dickie Van Patten as a telegraph boy and E. G. Marshall as the stage manager, who grows more and more harassed as the evening goes on. Eha Kazan directed in the mood meant by Mr. Wilder, and Albert Johnson has provided the informal settings that tilt and slide as a perfect cover to the play.

As of last evening the theatre was looking up. Definitely.

Source: Lewis Nichols, review of The Skin, of Our Teeth (1942) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 242-243.

Review of The Skin of Our Teeth

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It is by the skin of our teeth, the author very plausibly asserts, that the human race escapes the consequences of its own proclivities for self-destruction. He calls his morality play "a history of mankind in comic strip," and though the history is allusive and surrealist the strip is undeniably comic. Nothing, in fact, could be less ponderous than Mr. Thornton Wilder's approach to his weighty theme. It is nevertheless truly philosophical.

Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus represent Homo Sapiens down the ages. They have a son and a daughter, and in the son germinate the seeds of what the Russians call "deviationism"—the itch first to break away from and then to overthrow the established order. The pert and lovely Sabina is their servant, feckless yet oddly faithful, shallow but percipient. Jabberwockian is the only word with which to describe the pattern of their vicissitudes. Some slight idea of the dramatist's technique may be conveyed by recalling that Moses and Homer are among refugees fleeing from the Ice Age who seek asylum in the Antrobus's New Jersey home, which already shelters a dinosaur and a mammoth. Nor is chronology the only convention which Mr. Thornton Wilder, with an engaging insouciance, defies. At frequent intervals the actors, and in particular Sabina, step outside the play and make their own adverse comments on it, so that a harassed stage-manager has to intervene to restore order. In short, the tactics of the' Crazy Gang are employed in an attempt to solve the ultimate riddle of human destiny.

The result is astonishingly successful One merit of the author's capricious (to put it mildly) methods is that they engender a very high degree of suspense; with no possible means of telling what is going to happen next on or, for that matter, off the stage, the audience has no choice but to remain alert and curious. But the play has solider virtues than this. Its theme is the invincibility of the human spirit, and despite the atmosphere of harlequinade there is something moving and noble in the spectacle of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, though conscious of their own follies and failings, and aware that each renewal of hope after a hard-won victory will be cheated by fresh disasters, refusing to admit defeat. The author takes every conceivable kind of risk—save only that of being pompous. Never was a message put across with less solemnity: and seldom with greater success.

The play unquestionably owes much to its producer, Mr. Laurence Olivier, who has imposed a tremendous pace on its zany symbolism. It is also deeply in debt to his wife, Miss Vivien Leigh, whose enchantingly detached Sabina is a very fine piece of comic acting. Mr. George Devine's rugged and impressive Antrobus is well matched by Miss Esther Somers's quiet but powerful portrait of his wife. I also liked very much poor Mr. Fitzpatrick, whoever he was; he does not appear on the programme, but he was frequently on the stage, composing with a dire embarrassment recurrent mutinies among the cast. The Skin of our Teeth is as topical as Mr. Molotov's liver, and is well worth going to see.

Source: Peter Fleming, review of The Skin of Our Teeth in the Spectator, Volume 177, no 6169, September 20, 1946 , p 287

Review of the Original Broadway Production of Wilder's Play

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Thornton Wilder in his new play has preached a sermon in a style joining asides like those of Saint Bernard with jarring juxtapositions like those of T. S. Eliot. Life, he wants to say, is struggle to discover truth, to build material conditions in the image of truth and above all to subdue natural forces and human anger, lust and unreason. Within himself and without, everyman meets such forces—inexhaustible supplies of arrogant energy blindly seeking his moral and material destruction. Working day and night they make moral and physical development a process ever balanced on the "razor edge of danger." Wilder says through this play that the unhuman irrational principles give us in man everything from bingo to war: everything sordid, dull, vulgar, carnal and murderous. In nature these principles develop a slow, unending series of frightful catastrophes from ice packs to hurricanes. Thus it has always been and so it will be always. Nevertheless we live, and rightly, with hope and faith because God has announced that our general conditions shall be permanently improved by thought, orderliness and the achievement of moral integrity.

The story is told of George Antrobus, his wife and two children. Antrobus, a kind of Adam, is the inventive, practical, home-building man. In the end he lives by thought and spirit despite momentary falls from grace. He is tried by nature, by lust and by the. rebellion of his own son, but he survives because within him is an undying determination to begin anew the construction of the perfect world.

To preach his sermon Wilder has the advantage of the superlative talent of Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. Tallulah Bankhead supplies the comic touch and carnal intimations—with modest success, I should say. Florence Reed as the Fortune Teller charged with ominous passages regarding the unknowability of the human past is superb.

Had the play been placed in less capable hands it might have been a grotesque failure. It lacks enchantment The device, freely employed, of bringing the audience into the play need not destroy continuity of audience feeling as Mr. Wilder in Our Town proved. But the same technique fails in the present play because it is too overt, too garish, too sensational in the literal sense. The reception of the audience was tepid.

Source: James N. Vaughn, review of The Skin of Our Teeth in Commonweal, Volume XXXVII, no 7, December 4, 1942, pp. 175-76.


Critical Overview