Reading "The Skin of Our Teeth"

A Full-Length Play by Thornton Wilder

A Mammoth is a character in this play set in suburban New Jersey. Print Collector

It won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a prize awarded to “a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life,” but The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder is not the easiest play to read. It’s downright confusing at times, but if you know this going into it and you can just relax and see where the text takes you, you’ll find a lot to talk about and appreciate in this unusual script.

The play meets the first Pulitzer qualification requiring that its author be an American. Thornton Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1897 and lived predominantly in the United States for most of his life. The second qualification – that the play be preferably original in its source – was challenged in 1942 by writers who claimed that Wilder had plagiarized from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Wilder acknowledged that he had indeed been influenced by Joyce’s dense and difficult book, but he denied plagiarism because he felt that he only did what authors repeatedly do – take inspiration from the great authors they have read.

The Skin of Our Teeth meets the third aspect of the Pulitzer criteria because it deals with American life…well, sort of. The entire play is set in New Jersey. Acts One and Three are set in the fictitious suburban city of Excelsior, NJ. Act Two occurs in Atlantic City. The main characters – Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus and their children, Henry and Gladys, and the family’s maid, Sabina – all seem to be American, but as the play progresses, it becomes clear that really, they are the citizens of the relentlessly ongoing world.

They are the human beings that Time keeps creating and re-creating.

This fluid notion of Time and the repeating epochs of history become vaguely apparent at the start of the play. A broadcasting Announcer’s voice shares the “News Events of the World,” including a theatre’s lost and found notice about a wedding ring inscribed “To Eva from Adam.

Genesis11:18” and a weather forecast of a wall of ice strong enough to push a cathedral in Montreal into Vermont moving south in the current month of August.

The Announcer goes on to set the opening scene in the seven room house of George Antrobus, a former gardener and war veteran, who is credited with inventing the wheel and Mrs. Antrobus, inventor of the apron, and their children and maid.

The next clue that something is different in this script comes when Sabina, apparently talking to herself in a lengthy monologue, mentions a concern about dinosaurs trampling them to death. Then, she repeats one of her lines, pauses, gets flustered, and then goes back to the very beginning of the monologue she delivered to begin the scene. An offstage voice – the production’s stage manager - urges her to “make up something” as if she needs to cover for another actor who missed an entrance.

The actor playing Sabina then “breaks the fourth wall” and complains directly to the audience. “I can’t invent any words for this play, and I’m glad I can’t. I hate this play and every word in it.”

Another literary influence on Wilder was playwright Bertolt Brecht who believed that theatre should not try to represent events on stage so realistically that the audience comes close to believing that they are real.

He felt strongly that audiences should always be aware that what they are watching is a play put on by actors. Wilder embraced this notion and employed it also in his first Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town.

So, approach the reading of this play with the understanding that there will be multiple anachronisms – a dinosaur and a mammoth who enter the Antrobus home to stay warm, for example – and impossibilities – Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are celebrating their five thousandth wedding anniversary, for example – and references to Biblical and historical calamities as if they just recently happened or are about to happen. Actors will drop out of character and interact with the audience and one another as actors in the midst of performing or rehearsing a play.

Try not to make too much sense of what’s happening as you read this script for the first time.

Just read on and try to enjoy it with the belief that everything will make a little more sense if you get through it without over-analyzing and treating the play as realistic and plausible.

Then see if you agree with this 1942 New York Times review of the play that calls it “…the best play the Forties have seen in many months – the best pure theatre.”