Wilder, Thornton. The Skin of Our Teeth.
Wilder is discontent with the contemporary theatre. His aim is to make the audience "believe" a work of the imagination. This is what Plato calls "recollection": on encountering a work of art, the audience should be aware s/he knows the presented sentiments from her/his own experience. Wilder is influenced by J. Joyce's Ulysses, he believes every word of it.
Wilder believes that middle classes are harmful to culture. They want the theatre to be soothing; they prefer melodrama, sentimental drama, and comedies where the characters resemble someone else and not oneself. The individuality in experience may be achieved by specification and localization which prevent repetitive patterns to stand out. The aim of a play is to capture reality. Wilder gives an example of Chinese and Japanese drama which work with primitive scenes, yet succeed in capturing the reality.
The Skin of Our Teeth begins by making fun of old-fashioned playwriting. The play presents two times at once: prehistoric times and New Jersey commuters' suburb today. It shows events of our homely daily life against the vast dimension of time and place. It was written on the eve of the America's entrance into the war and so it comes most alive under conditions of crisis.
The play is indebted to J. Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Wilder calls himself not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods. He employs a number of parallels to the Bible: the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood, etc. One of the themes of the play is the repetition of the cycle of life.
Home, Excelsior, New Jersey. The theatre announcer presents News Events of the World. There are slides projected on a projection screen in the middle of the curtain. The sun rose at 6:32. The Society for Affirming the End of the World postponed the arrival of that event for twenty-four hours. By the cleaning of the theatre a wedding ring was found. It is inscribed: "To Eva, from Adam." A glacier is moving southwards across these countries. A modest suburban home of Mr and Mrs Antrobus. This typically American family is congratulated for its enterprise.
The curtain rises. Lily Sabina, the family maid, is dusting and worrying about her master's delay as if it were a matter of life and death: "In the midst of life we are in the midst of death, a truer word was never said." She wonders that the house has not fallen down yet. Suddenly pieces of walls fall on the ground or just disappear.
Sabina characterizes the members of the family in a witty and ironic way. Mr Antrobus is inventor of the lever, wheel, alphabet, multiplication table, and brewing of beer. Mrs Antrobus's only concern are her children. Henry Antrobus, the couple's son, is skilled in throwing stones and killed his older brother Abel accidentally. Sabina complains about the hard times: "we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth". Sabina reopens the act and starts her monologue from the beginning again.
A voice off stage urges Sabina to invent something for the play. Sabina and the voice discus the play. Sabina does not understand the play. The stage manager, Mr Fitzpatrick, calls to the person of Sabina in the actress's own name, Miss Somerset. Mrs Antrobus scolds Sabina for letting the fire go out and asks her whether she has milked the mammoth. Sabina replies: "I don't understand a word of this play. Yes, I've milked the mammoth." A fierce discussion between Mrs Antrobus and Sabina develops. Sabina doubts Mrs Antrobus's unrewarding position. Mrs Antrobus doubts Sabina's position as former lover of the master who however fell back to her original post in the kitchen.
A telegraph boy calls and with him the mammoth and the dinosaur slip into the house as pets, complaining of the cold. The telegram is from Mr Antrobus who urges his wife to keep the children warm: "burn everything except Shakespeare". Plus there is a congratulation to Eva on her wedding anniversary.
The couple's children appear on the stage. Henry is always running around with a stone. Gladys, Henry's sister, is always with her dress up. Henry complains about his teacher calling him by his original name of Cain. Mrs Antrobus is trying to cover the scarlet scar in the shape of C on his forehead with his hair because seeing the mark makes Mr Antrobus mad.
Mr Antrobus arrives at home and behaves as if he were drunk or mad. He brings some refugees with him, calling them his friends. They are a doctor, Judge Moses, and Homer. The latter two have their Hebrew and Greek line respectively. Their meaning is left unexplained. Homer plays guitar and the company was singing Jingle Bells when admitted to the house.
Miss Somerset says the worst line she has to say as Sabina: "The Ten Commandments FAUGH!!" Gladys wants to recite Mr Antrobus a poem "The Star" by H. W. Longfellow. Mr Antrobus repeats the multiplication table with Henry. Mr Antrobus urges Mrs Antrobus to teach Gladys the beginnings of the Bible. The ice block moving southwards is a great tread. Sabina addresses the audience, asking them to start handing up their chairs to feed the fire and save the human race.
Atlantic City Boardwalk. The announcer's voice reports that there is a celebration of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, subdivision Humans. Mr Antrobus delivers a speech. He claims that while the original watchword was "Work", the watchword for the future is "Enjoy Yourselves". Mrs Antrobus gives a speech as a president of Women's Auxiliary Bed and Board Society. The dinosaur is extinct, the ice has retreated. The five thousandth wedding anniversary of the Antrobuses is celebrated.
The curtain rises. The audience finds itself sitting in the ocean. There are shops on the stage represented by cardboard cut-outs. There is a fortune teller, bingo parlor, etc. Sabina, winner of the Beauty Contest of Atlantic City, visits the fortune teller who however refuses to tell her future. Sabina tells it herself. She intends to tempt the new president elect, Mr Antrobus, away from his wife.
The gypsy Esmeralda appears. She says it is easy to tell one's future from one's face, but it is impossible to tell one's past. She talks about a narrow escape and survival of the handful from destruction. She ushers the Antrobuses as "your selves". Henry with a slingshot threatens one of the Negroes who are pushing roller-chairs from one side of the stage to another.
Sabina, supported and given pieces of advice by the fortune teller, tries to seduce Mr Antrobus. Miss Somerset refuses to play the scene and skips it. The stage manager enters the stage and together with Mr Antrobus they discuss the reasons. Miss Somerset does not want to hurt the feelings of her friend who is present in the audience. Sabina says life today is nothing but pleasure and power.
Mr Antrobus agrees to have his divorce. A broadcast official urges Mr Antrobus to prepare himself for the broadcast to his order and to all the other orders. At the same time Mr Antrobus tries to tell his wife about the divorce. Sabina advises him how to handle the matter. Mrs Antrobus believes that it is not love or anything else what makes a marriage, but a promise. The man is not what he is suggested to be by advertisements, movies, etc. "We're ourselves," she claims.
The end of the world is approaching. The fortune teller urges the Antrobuses to get on the boat and take two of each kind of animals on board. Sabina pleads to be taken with and agrees to regain her post in the kitchen again. A new world is to be made.
Home, Excelsior, New Jersey. Sabina, dressed as a Napoleonic camp follower, says the war is over. The stage manager appears and announces that seven actors were taken ill by wrong food. Volunteers who know the text because they attended rehearsals will finish the play, acting in their normal clothes. There is a discussion between the stage manager and Sabina about what the author meant by the hours of night. The hours of night are represented by philosophers who are played by the volunteers. There should be also planets, but the audience must only imagine them.
Gladys with a baby appears. Henry appears, not a misguided man, but a representation of strong unreconciled evil. Sabina complains that she is always beginning again: dog-eat-dog has been the rule and it is still. Mrs Antrobus is reconciled with the new beginning. She does not care how much she would suffer, she only wants back the promise. Mr Antrobus does not want to begin again. He has worked only and not lived.
Henry begins an argument with Mr Antrobus. Sabina stops them and urges them not to play the scene, as last night the fight almost ended up with strangling Mr Antrobus. Henry explains that emptiness must be filled up with violence, otherwise one would kill oneself.
The end of the play is not written yet. Sabina delivers a message of good night from the Antrabuses, who have their heads full of plans as the first day they began.
AuthorWilder, Thornton. (1897 - 1975).
Full TitleThe Skin of Our Teeth.
First PerformedNew Haven: Shubert Theatre, 1942.
Wilder, Thornton. The Skin of Our Teeth. (1942). Three Plays. NY: Bantam, 1961.