Wilder’s last great play was The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened on Broadway on November 18, 1942. The play, with its allegorical mixture of contemporary and biblical events, confused some of the critics but proved delightful to audiences and ran for 355 performances. The play has been revived frequently and in 1961 was given an international tour by the U.S. State Department with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin in the leading roles.
What Wilder dramatizes in The Skin of Our Teeth is the struggle of humankind to survive, a conceit much appreciated by wartime audiences. Again the author focuses on the family unit to make his point—in this case, the Antrobus (anthropos meaning story of humans) family living in Excelsior, New Jersey. The play does not have a continuous action. Although the settings are contemporary, each act is structured around a historic catastrophe: the Ice Age, the Flood, and modern war. Respectively, humans must pit themselves against nature, the moral order, and, finally, themselves. Wilder’s play can also be seen as units of time: geologic, biblical, and recorded.
Wilder’s characters in The Skin of Our Teeth are all allegorical figures and exist on three planes: American, biblical, and universal. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are the simultaneous embodiment of Adam and Eve, Everyman and Everywoman, and an average American couple. Mr. Antrobus has created the wheel, the alphabet, and the lever; his spouse has contributed the apron. They keep as pets a dinosaur and mammoth. Their motto is Save the Family. Daughter Gladys becomes increasingly sluttish and by play’s end has an illegitimate baby. Son Henry (his name had been Cain but it was changed) accidentally kills his brother and now combs his hair to hide the mark on his forehead. In opposition to the Antrobus family is Lily Sabina (combination of Lilith and the Sabine women), who moves in and out of their lives in a variety of roles including that of a servant, a beauty contestant, and a Jezebel out to snare Mr. Antrobus.
As he did in Our Town, Wilder is able to employ in The Skin of Our Teeth a nontraditional, theatrical approach. By this device, the playwright draws the audience directly to the characters as individuals, at the same time making them function as representatives of the human race. To achieve this effect, Wilder has the characters drop their characterizations from time to time and reveal the performers hired to play the roles. He is thus able to present various personalities within each character.
The Skin of Our Teeth generally received favorable reviews, particularly for the acting of Tallulah Bankhead, who played Sabina. Unfortunately, the play also plunged Wilder into an unpleasant controversy. Three months after the play opened, Joseph Campbell and Henry M. Robinson wrote “The Skin of Whose Teeth?” in The Saturday Review of Literature, charging in the article that Wilder had borrowed the theme and technique of his play from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, thus accusing him of plagiarism. Many writers and critics came to Wilder’s defense, and Time magazine, while not liking the play, asserted the attackers were “trying to make headlines out of what should have been footnotes.” Wilder said nothing at the time, but in the 1957 edition of Three Plays, he admitted in the preface that he owed a debt to Joyce and slyly noted that he hoped “some author should feel similarly indebted to any work of mine.”
As in other works, Wilder demonstrates an appreciative view of life in The Skin of Our Teeth. He shows how the human race can survive disasters, both natural and human-made. It is Wilder’s humanity ending in faith that suffuses the entire play. Again, Wilder concentrates on the family, an emphasis technique found in his plays but not his other work. He skillfully juggles the serious and comic elements, telescopes time, and conveys his philosophic and poetic ideas. Wilder presents truth through the use of artifice and theatricality.
A great wall of ice...
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