The Skin of Our Teeth

by Thornton Wilder

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Places Discussed

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Excelsior. Fictional New Jersey city, whose very name implies upward striving, that is the home of the novel’s Antrobus family. Mother, daughter, son, maid, and pets await the return of the father, who is at his office. Mrs. Antrobus berates the maid, Sabina, for letting the fire go out in the suburban living room as the Ice Age is dawning. When Mr. Antrobus comes home, he brings along refugees whose talents he hopes to save, among them Moses, Homer, and several of the Muses. As the room fills up, a baby dinosaur and a little mammoth are ordered out into the cold. Nature is not humanity’s only enemy; viewers learn that the Antrobus son Henry has another name: Cain. As the ice grinds nearer, Sabina, the maid, includes the audience in the setting, asking them to contribute their chairs for firewood.

*Atlantic City

*Atlantic City. New Jersey resort city. Thornton Wilder’s Atlantic City offers that image of it well known to popular culture: the Boardwalk, the ocean, the beauty contests. A fortune-teller’s tent spotlights the chancy nature of survival. Sabina, now a pageant winner, confers with the gypsy about seducing George Antrobus, present as a conventioneer. The crone laughs darkly and predicts rain and the destruction of every living thing except two animals of every kind. Nature and tawdry humanity are again complicit in the erosion of civilization, which once more teeters on the brink. Suddenly the seafront playland has become an embarking stage for a modern ark. Storm warnings hang on the pier, and the family and the pairs of animals board the ship as the waters rise.

Antrobus house

Antrobus house. Having survived the flood, Sabina and Mrs. Antrobus crawl out of the wreckage of the Excelsior house. Walls tilt drunkenly, and fire burns in the distance. The daughter emerges from a trapdoor carrying a baby, and Henry, now identified as the enemy, staggers into the battered home to fall asleep, forgiven one more time. The back wall disappears to reveal an arching path across which actors parade, speaking words of wisdom. There is a blackout; then lights come up to show Sabina repeating her act 1 opening speech in a restored house as the cycle of renewal begins again.

Historical Context

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Wilder began writing The Skin of Our Teeth in 1940 at a time of great political and cultural change. As the 1930s drew to a close, Americans found themselves in an increasingly urban and secular world where market forces took precedence over moral ideals and psychology took the place of religion. The ideas of Sigmund Freud, a German psychologist who argued that the unconscious mind significantly impacted human behavior, greatly influenced the art of the era. Experimental movements in visual art, such as surrealism, reflected artists' attempts to move beyond traditional aesthetic standards they felt did not do justice to the imaginative resources of the human unconscious. Many writers and musicians engaged in similar experiments during the following decades, altering conventional forms so as to better express human consciousness and experience.

Although open to cultural influences from abroad, America had followed a policy of political isolationism throughout the 1930s. In Europe, Adolf Hitler's army attacked Poland in September of 1939, beginning World War n. The United States stayed out of the war even as the Germans continued their offensive, invading Norway, Denmark, and France in the spring and summer of 1940. As the situation worsened, President Franklin Roosevelt did encourage Congress to pass, in March of 1941, the American Lend-Lease Act which gave money and supplies to the Allied nations (England, France, and Russia)...

(This entire section contains 488 words.)

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fighting against the Germans. But America did not officially enter the war until the Japanese air attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7,1941. This event, followed by Germany's declaration of war against the United States days later on December 11, made further isolationism impossible.

When Wilder finished his play in January of 1942, the United States had joined the Allied forces and was engaged in a global war. Battles raged in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific with only four countries remaining neutral (Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland). In early 1942 things still looked bleak for the Allies, but three decisive battles that year would alter the course of the conflict. In February, the six-month-long battle for control of Stalingrad, Russia, finally ended with the Russian forces outlasting the demoralized German invaders. In June, the battle of Midway Island would leave the Japanese fleet permanently crippled. And in November, the British victory at the battle of El Alamein would turn the tide in Africa. Meanwhile, American forces were gradually gaining command of the Atlantic.

At home, Americans were closely following these military events and doing what they could to aid the war effort. Stateside industrial plants began to shift from producing commercial goods to producing war supplies; rubber and gasoline were rationed and families were encouraged to grow their own food in "Victory Gardens." Audiences who went to see the first production of The Skin of Our Teeth, although hardly suffering the hardship and starvation that afflicted the populations of Europe, still would have related to the images of war-induced sacrifice and destruction depicted in Wilder's play.

Literary Style

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An allegory is a narrative in which the characters and events can be read both literally and figuratively. In the case of The Skin of Our Teeth, the Antrobuses can be read as ordinary people (a middle-class American couple) and as allegorical figures (Adam and Eve, the progenitors of humankind). The action of the play can be viewed literally, as the experiences of a particular family, and allegorically, as the story of human history. Wilder, with both character names (such as Henry a.k.a. Cain and Sabina) and explicit comments, emphasizes the allegorical nature of his play.

Anti-Illusion Theater
Anti-Illusion theater was pioneered by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera), who believed an audience should remain conscious of the physical realities of performance and not give into the illusion that events depicted on stage are real. Like Brecht and Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author), Wilder uses various techniques to break the theatrical illusion. Both by presenting actors who drop out of character, comment on their lines, and speak directly to the audience and by bringing "backstage" figures in front of the curtain, he calls attention to the efforts that go into producing a theatrical work, prompting viewers to think about how and why a story is told in a certain way. In so doing, Wilder engages in meta-theater, creating a play that comments on the process of creating a play. (Meta is a prefix placed before any creative work that is self-referential; metafiction is perhaps the best-known of this form, with the writings of John Barth exemplifying the genre.)

Wilder does not try to present complex multi-faceted characters in The Skin of Our Teeth but instead presents each person on stage as a generalized type. Every character is easily identified with an archetypal role—the mother/nurturer (Mrs. Antrobus), the temptress (Sabina), the provider (Mr. Antrobus)—and exhibits the personality traits traditionally associated with this role. These simple and flat characterizations, along with the technique of having actors interrupt the action and comment about the nature of the play, keeps the audience from identifying with the characters and destroys the illusion that the Antrobuses are "real" people. It is interesting to note, however, that even though the "actors'' playing the roles in The Skin of Our Teeth do break character and address the audience—presenting themselves as real people—they themselves are characters created for the purpose of anti-illusion theatre. While Miss Somerset may seem a more tangible person than Sabina, she is in fact just another character created by Wilder. The playwright's purpose, however, is not to provide the

Wilder's play employs many elements of farce— a comedic theatrical form characterized by broadly drawn characters, improbable situations, and physical humor. Sabina's character of the seductive, inefficient, wise-cracking maid is a stock figure in farce. Similarly, incongruous images such as a pet dinosaur curled up in front of the family fireplace, reflect staging characteristic of farce. Other farcical elements include Henry's violent tendencies (he is constantly warned against committing violent acts) and Gladys's nymphomania (in the first act her mother yells at her to lower her skirt, an action she presumably undertakes to attract men to have sex with her).

Throughout the play Wilder juxtaposes the modern and the ancient, the momentous and the insignificant, the serious and the silly. These ludicrously opposed images and ideas both produce humor and emphasize the simultaneous greatness and absurdity of humankind. A good example of this is found in Mr. Antrobus's qualities as an inventor and an educated man. The newsreel at the play's opening informs the audience that George Antrobus has just invented the wheel and the alphabet despite the obvious fact that the society in which he lives has already lived with archetypal inventions such as these for many years.

Wilder plays with audiences' notion of linear time by setting his play in past historical epochs and in 1940s New Jersey simultaneously. The three acts take place during the Ice Age, the Great Flood, and the Napoleonic Wars respectively, yet the characters dress and act like twentieth-century Americans. The play's notion of time is further complicated by the Antrobus's apparent agelessness (they have been married 5,000 years) as well as the repetitive cycle of events (at the end the play starts over where it began). This use of time emphasizes the play's message about humanity's ability to endure through the ages, while also contributing to Wilder's goal of reminding the audience of the non-reality of the staged events.

Compare and Contrast

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1942: German leader Adolf Hitler begins the methodical annihilation of millions of European Jews in what he calls the "final solution" and history will term the Holocaust. In July, Paris police, under the command of occupying German forces, gather 30,000 Jews and send them to German concentration camps, where all but thirty will die.

Today: On September 30,1997, Roman Catholic bishops in France offer the Church's first public apology to the Jewish people for its silence during the French participation in the Holocaust. Earlier in the year, the French medical association and the French police offer similar public apologies; while in Switzerland, the government finally responds to years of protests, creating a fund to reimburse survivors and relatives of Holocaust victims whose bank accounts and assets were kept by Swiss financial institutions after World War II.

1942: German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun launches the first surface-to-surface guided missile.

Today: Highly sophisticated guided missiles, as seen in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, play an important role in late-twentieth-century warfare. The United States military arsenal includes computer-guided missiles such as the Tomahawk cruise missile.

1942: Congress establishes the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), bringing women into the United States armed services in an official, but limited, capacity.

Today: Women are active in all branches of the American armed services. In the U.S. Army, for example, women make up 14% of the personnel. These 69,000 female soldiers, however, are still excluded from thousands of combat positions as well as the senior leadership roles attained through serving in combat jobs. Questions about women's equal participation in combat, as well as highly publicized reports of sexual misconduct and harassment on military bases during the late-1990s, continue to fuel debate about the role of women in the military.

1942: The government asks Americans to grow vegetables in "Victory Gardens" to help alleviate war-time food shortages. Forty percent of U.S. vegetables will be grown in such gardens in 1942, but this percentage decreases in succeeding years as public interest wanes.

Today: Agriculture in America is big business, and the United States possesses the world's largest food surplus. The United States exports double the amount of food it imports. While Americans still grow some of the food they eat, it is more of a leisure pursuit than an economic necessity.

1942: Oxford University scholar Gilbert Murray founds the organization Oxfam to fight world famine. Millions of Europeans in German-occupied countries such as Greece, Poland, and Yugoslavia suffer from starvation as the war cuts off food supplies.

Today: Oxfam International has grown into a confederation of ten Oxfam agencies that direct projects in more than one hundred countries. Oxfam America, founded in 1970, fights against global poverty, hunger, and social injustice in the United States as well as in countries such as North Korea, where over 100,000 people died of starvation in 1996.

Media Adaptations

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In 1950, Decca Records put out the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) Album of Stars: Great Moments of Great Plays Volume I, which included sound recordings of selections from The Skin of Our Teeth performed by Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, and Alan Hewitt.

On September 11, 1955, NBC televised a production of The Skin of Our Teeth starring Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, and George Abbott.

Another production of The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Vivien Leigh, was televised live in London in March of 1959.

In 1968, as the twelfth episode of its One to One television series, WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., aired "Armchair Theater: The Skin of Our Teeth'' produced by Cherrill Anson and directed by David Powell. This episode, available on video, includes excerpts of the play performed by Jack Burn, Mary Lou Groom, Judy Margolis, and Ruth Mintz, followed by discussion.

A video recording of the play, presented by the Kennedy Center and Xerox Corporation as part of the American Bicentennial Theater series in 1975, had a teleplay adapted by Douglas Scott and set design by Robert Kelsey.

A sound recording of the play was produced by the Sydney A.B.C. company in 1979 as part of its World Theater series.

As part of the "American Playhouse" series, PBS produced a live version of the play under the direction of Jack O'Brien in January, 1983.

A production recorded on May 19, 1988 is available on video from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN.

The Readings for the Blind series (Southfield, Michigan, 1994) includes a sound recording of Three Plays by Thornton Wilder.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Adler, Thomas P. "Theater Looking at Theater. A Self-image of Post-World War H American Drama" in Claudel Studies, Volume 9, number 1,1982, pp. 31,40.

Atkinson, Brooks. "The Skin of Our Teeth—Thornton Wilder Writes a Wise and Frisky Comedy about People'' in the New York Times, November 22,1942, section 8, p. 1.

Cheney, Sheldon. The Theatre Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting, and Stagecraft, Longmans, Green, 1952, p. 570.

Dusenbury, Winifred. "Myth in American Drama between the Wars" in Modern Drama, Volume 6,1963, p. 298.

Freedley, George. "The Stage Today" in the New York Morning Telegraph, November 20,1942, p 2.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, Doubleday, 1956, p. 106.

Whiting, Frank M. An Introduction to. The Theatre, Harper & Brothers, 1954, p. 106.

Wilder, Thornton. The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961, Yale University Press, 1985, pp 22,24,37.

Wilder, Thornton. Preface to Three Plays, Harper & Row, 1957, pp viii, xi-xiv.

Wilder, Thornton. "Some Thoughts on Playwriting" in Playwrights on Playwriting, edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, 1960, p 108.

Willett, John, Editor. Brecht on Theatre, Hill and Wang, 1964, p 212.

Further Reading
Bigsby, C. W. E A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama; Volume One, 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, 1982. A good overview of American theater before World War IE, this discussion devotes a full chapter to Wilder.

Blank, Martin, Editor Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, G.K. Hall, 1996. This is a good recent collection of articles on Wilder's work.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast A Life of Thornton Wilder, Ticknor and Fields, 1983. This biography, which makes use of Wilder's papers at the Yale University Bemecke Library, includes many excerpts from unpublished journals and notebooks that illuminate Wilder's troubled personal life.

Walsh, Claudette. Thornton Wilder A Reference Guide, 1926-1990, G.K. Hall, 1993. This comprehensive annotated bibliography of works by and about Wilder is an invaluable resource for anyone studying his writings


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Burbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne, 1961. An excellent introduction to Wilder that emphasizes the humanism of his writings. Asserts The Skin of Our Teeth succeeds in communicating its message about human survival, but that “the mixture of comedy and seriousness does not always come off successfully.”

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. An effective brief introduction to Wilder and his works. The section on The Skin of Our Teeth distills information about the play’s writing and staging, interprets the themes, and evaluates the work’s strengths and weaknesses.

Goldstone, Richard H., and Gary Anderson. Thornton Wilder: An Annotated Bibliography of Works, by and About Thornton Wilder. New York: AMS Press, 1982. An important starting place of finding sources for further reading about Wilder. Numerous bibliography entries concerning The Skin of Our Teeth.

Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. Explores the philosophical, religious, and mythmaking dimensions of Wilder’s dramas. Carefully defends Wilder against the plagiarism issues surrounding The Skin of Our Teeth.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. A highly readable source, providing contextual details regarding Wilder’s composition of The Skin of Our Teeth, as well as information about the play’s staging and reception.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide