“The Skin of Our Teeth”: did Thornton Wilder bite off more than he could chew?



The American Interest isn’t generally our thing – we’re hardly policy wonks at the Book Haven – but I was intrigued when Rachel Hostyk, the associate editor for the journal, wrote a thoughtful review of the Constellation Theatre Company‘s recent production of Thornton’ Wilder‘s The Skin of Our Teeth. Fortunately, her discussion of Wilder’s challenging, infrequently performed play popped up in my news feed. I’ve seen the long, allegorical play before, and found it problematic. Doesn’t everyone? The characters are, well, too allegorical to really come to life – a great contrast to his 1938 play Our Town, which finds humanity and meaning in the most trivial gestures of our lives. Wilder finished his ambitious play only a month after Pearl Harbor, and it was first produced in 1942. America was still recovering from the Depression, and had entered the second major war of the century. The play takes the Antrobus family from Adam and Eve, and prehistory, right up to the ever-moving present moment.

A few excerpts from Hostyk’s provocative review:

The first act of the play is its most effective, a gem almost worth the price of admission by itself. We are in mid-Ice Age, the glaciers sweeping across North America and freezing everything in their paths. In the midst of the chaos, Mr. Antrobus keeps trekking to the office every day to invent the wheel and compile the alphabet. (He’s particularly proud of “separating n from m.”) Mrs. Antrobus is a homemaker in charge of two unruly children, a pet mammoth and dinosaur, and a dark secret. Wilder made a clever choice in pairing the archetypal mid-century family, artificial in its own right, with the absurdity of a bureaucracy that invents letters. He emphasizes the rickety foundations of human civilization with sympathy, not condescension. And when deployed against a descending wall of ice, the chin-up attitude of wartime is especially poignant.


Malinda Kathleen Reese cuddles with her “pet,”  Ben Lauer (photo by Daniel Schwartz)

I can’t help but see the shadow of the 1940s, of a society tired of watching war and poverty ravage people who were no worse or better than their luckier neighbors. It’s a deus ex machina ending without deus. True, blind luck is often what saves people from disaster. Yet there are aspects to the Noah story that inspire even if you don’t believe in God—the fortitude of Noah’s family, their organizational capacity, their craftsmanship, the love and cooperation that see them through the near-total destruction of their world. Deprive the narrative of God, and you deprive humanity of its grandeur in rising to meet God’s expectations. Generally, what we find inspiring amid the carnage and despair of war are those people, religious and not, who prove so much better than their circumstances.


The Antrobuses make a choice in the face of certain death, as people freeze on the roads out of town. The glaciers are within sight of their house. Certainly, giving away food that could feed your children for another week or two is heart-wrenching—Mrs. Antrobus is against it at first. Yet selfishness is often borne of hope, and there is none here. Nor are there the logistics of a future to consider. In our times, immigration policy is made by those who face election next year, or who have to reknit a society made up of both newcomers and natives. We should still be kind and merciful, of course, and the Antrobuses’ generosity is inspiring. But the mercy of a new life is much more difficult to offer than the kindness of a last meal. An allegory that doesn’t wrestle with this fact is less useful for all of us. In certain ways, reality is sadder than Wilder lets on—and yet still, people do the decent thing.


The maid Sabina (Tonya Beckman) shares the news.

The lesson of this allegory is emphasized with a sledgehammer: Humans have survived and will keep surviving. With the help of books, they will restart society from the worst of ruins (Mr. Antrobus makes sure to save his volumes of Shakespeare). Yet after the initial and rather basic achievements of the wheel and the alphabet, we see nothing more of human inventiveness in action. The great philosophers are analogized to the hours in the day, as if they were simply features of existence like the passage of time. (Homer, the Muses, and Moses wander in with the refugees of the first act, but as humanity is still stuck at “n,” they seem more like natural resources than human achievements.) Yet it’s impossible to understand the great epochs of horror and survival independently of the knowledge gained (or not), or the cultures that endured and perpetrated them.

I can’t help but admire a play of such cleverness and ambition, especially in this splendid production. And perhaps it’s carping to suggest that Wilder bit off more than he could chew; no two-and-a-half-hour play is going to be the final word on human history. You might argue that the Antrobuses are average by definition. But if they are given to feats of cruelty like total warfare, why not other, nobler extremes of human behavior?

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 2/27: A comment from journalist Jeff Selbst that is a mini-review in itself: This is one of my favorite plays, a classic of absurdism. Sabina is an unforgettable creation: housemaid, temptress, fatalist, and yet an eternal American sort of optimist. The third act gets a bit heavy with the overt Cain-and-Abel references, but it has Wilder’s sometimes flinty New England scholarly poetics in its blood.”

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