The Skin of Our Teeth

by Thornton Wilder
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

Absurdity
Much of the humor in The Skin of Our Teeth derives from Wilder's use of bizarre juxtapositions which place the characters in absurd situations and highlight the ludicrous aspects of seemingly ordinary events. Combining elements of twentieth-century suburban America with events from the historical and mythological past creates an odd world where a middle-class family can have a dinosaur and mammoth for pets, the Antrobuses can celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary, and the children can recite poems even though their father has only just invented the alphabet.

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American Exceptionalism
By presenting his allegorical parents of the human race as a conventional American middle-class couple, Wilder reinforces Americans' belief in the exceptional nature of their country and its citizens. Mr. Antrobus's virtues of inventiveness, resilience, and diligence are those of the ideal American entrepreneur, and the family's continued ability to start from nothing and achieve greatness is the essence of the American dream. The play suggests the best human characteristics are also the best American qualities.

Illusion vs. Reality
While traditional realistic plays try to create a "real" world on the stage, encouraging viewers to forget that they are watching actors play roles in a fictional drama, Wilder constantly interrupts this sort of theatrical illusion to remind the audience that they are watching a drama. When actors step out of their roles and speak directly to the audience, they highlight the fact that this is a performance taking place on a stage, a fictional world that can be altered and adapted by the ordinary people who are putting it together. Wilder repeatedly reminds the audience of the realities of sets, actors, and scripts, disrupting the conventions of naturalistic theater.

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Cycle of History
The Skin of Our Teeth emphasizes the repetitive nature of human history. The Antrobuses have faced disasters in the past, overcome more disasters during the course of the drama, and are ready to engage in further struggles at the performance's end. Wilder emphasizes the circular quality of the characters' lives, each act finds them starting over again. The play concludes with the exact same words and situation with which it began—another reminder that the cycle of history (and human existence) is on-going.

Family
Wilder's play both parodies and idealizes the image of the nuclear family. George and Maggie Antrobus are extreme examples of the masculine provider and the feminine caregiver. His enthusiasm for his inventions and books and her single-minded devotion to her children might be viewed as humorously exaggerated. Yet, their adherence to their stereotypical gender roles seems to contribute to the survival of the human race in each act, suggesting that the perpetuation of civilization depends upon the perpetuation of a traditional family structure in some form.

Good and Evil
The character of Henry, formerly known as Cain, emphasizes the constant presence of evil in the world. The angry and violent Henry is part of the human family—and appears in every act—suggesting that evil can never be left behind. Henry's fight with his father towards the end of the play illustrates the on-going struggle between good and evil. Wilder interrupts this fight, however, leaving it unresolved (as real world clashes between such forces often end). The play suggests that as humanity enters each new era, it always brings both its good and evil impulses along.

Human Condition
Wilder's characters exemplify basic human qualities and encounter basic human experiences. They illustrate the unchanging facts of die human condition. Representing in turn intelligence, maternal love, violence, lust, selfishness, and determination, the Antrobuses and Sabina endure work, betrayal, natural disaster, and war. In his depiction of them and their strangely timeless world, Wilder underscores the best and worst aspects of the human condition: humanity possesses the will and ability to survive and yet must repeatedly confront (and overcome) its own destructive tendencies.

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