The Skin of Our Teeth: A Review

By Martin Morse Wooster: Name this play:  It’s probably one of the greatest fantasy plays ever written.  It’s one of the few outright fantasies to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The likelihood you’ve seen this play is vanishingly small.

The answer is Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, which won the Pulitzer in 1943.  As far as I can tell from IMDB, the last time anyone tried to film it was an Australian Broadcasting production in 1959.  But it’s a play that is undoubtedly fantasy.  It isn’t staged much, in part because plays from the 1940s don’t get revived very often, but more likely because the play has about 35 speaking parts, and few theaters these days can pay such a large cast.  However, it was revived on Broadway last year, and the Constellation Theatre Company has revived it with a cast of thirteen and a lot of doubling.  I was very happy to have seen it.

Wilder (1897-1975) wrote that he decided to write The Skin of Our Teeth in part as a reaction to the “well-made” plays of the previous generation. “Towards the end of the ‘twenties, I felt far less pleasure in going to the theater,” Wilder wrote in 1956.  “I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there.”  He said that in the plays he saw he couldn’t feel “overwhelmed by an artistic creation.”

So The Skin of Our Teeth has a lot of what used to be called “breaking the fourth wall” and we call “snark.”  There’s one seduction scene, for example, where the actress who is supposed to play it suddenly announces she can’t because it would upset a friend in the audience who has undergone trauma.  A second scene in the third act isn’t performed because we are told that seven members of the cast have all gotten ptomaine poisoning from bad lemon meringue pie.

I thought these were ironic commentaries by today’s theatres on an antique text, but I dutifully read the script and these interruptions are in it.  In fact, I thought Mary Hall Surface’s direction was reasonably straightforward with minimal updating, although of course The Skin of Our Teeth is now a historical play set in the 1940s.

It’s also, like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, very much an apocalyptic fantasy that is the product of when it was written—just before World War II.  Wilder said The Skin of Our Teeth “was written on the eve of our entrance into the war and under strong emotion and I think it mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.”  He added that he was moved seeing productions in Germany in the late 1940s, “in the shattered churches and beerhalls that were serving as theaters,” where people would choose to skip meals to buy theatre tickets.

As for the plot:  We begin in the comfy home of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus at 216 Cedar Street, Excelsior, New Jersey.  It seems like we’re in one of those dramas where characters take the 5:56 to Chappaqua every evening except that the Antrobus family is really five thousand years old, and a giant ice sheet is coming down from Canada.  Oh, and the refugees pounding their door asking for food are really Moses, the Muses, and other mythical characters.  And the Antrobus’s have a mammoth they milk and a pet dinosaur named Frederick.

It turns out there are more environmental disasters in this play than in three Kim Stanley Robinson novels.  The second act has the characters in Atlantic City, where Mr. Antrobus is about to win an award for being a superior human.  But then he has to face a titanic flood.  The third act has the Antrobuses surviving a major war in the U.S. that pits Mr. Antrobus’s son (who could be the Biblical Cain) against his father.

I’m not sure that this play works today.  It’s a different flavor than the sort of plays I enjoy.  But I respect Wilder’s intelligence and imagination, and I was very glad to have seen this play.  The Skin of Our Teeth is a classic that fantasy lovers need to have seen.

I thought the cast was fine, with Steven Carpenter as Mr. Antrobus and Tonya Beckman as Sabina giving the best performances.  But the standout to me were the costumes of Frank Labovitz, who both provided some ridiculous dresses for Atlantic City patrons and also created the dinosaur and mammoth costumes.  The mammoth looked like a walking throw rug, and was charming.

The Constellation Theatre Company deserves credit for reviving an important—and neglected—fantasy.

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19 thoughts on “The Skin of Our Teeth: A Review

  1. I saw this play when I was in college (John Houseman’s Acting Company) in the 1980s – I remember blowing off studying for a major test to see it, and I loved it (and did well on the test too – the play’s the thing!). “We’ve always had two children.” is a line that’s stuck with me.

  2. I’ve seen it a couple of times and love it. Always on the lookout for a revival I can get to. A television version aired on American Playhouse back in 1983 which starred Harold Gould as Mr. Antrobus. Occasionally it gets re-run and may be available for streaming or on DVD.

  3. I saw it because my high school staged it in the mid 1970s. It was hilarious to watch one of my classmates tell the audience that, yes, tomatoes are actually edible. Our teacher remarked on it the next day, saying that wasn’t a silly line. People used to think tomatoes were poisonous, like all the other members of the nightshade family, and grew them for the color of the berries. Now, of course, we know different.

  4. @Bruce A: What criteria do you use to determine if an ephemeral live action performance from 1942 would be worthy of a Hugo nomination?

  5. I also saw this play in a high school production —- in the early 1970’s in suburban Chicago, when Wilder was still living. Now I need to see it again.

  6. I was going to say that it is frequently revived at high schools and colleges (I think I’ve seen three or four college productions over the years) but everyone with memories of their own high schools has beat me to the punch on that part, anyway. But it really is often done at colleges. It’s a chance for the designers to go a little crazy and they seem to like that.

    You can see some pictures and video of last year’s off-Broadway production at Theater for a New Audience, which was well-received.. Hey, it won two Obies.

  7. It also receives a call-out in “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” by the Firesign Theatre. “And on this date, in 1-9-3-8… BC, that is… Mr. George Antrobus invented the wheel.”

    My high school did it too, before I was there. The poster was still on the Big Wall O’ Posters in the backstage area.

  8. My mother played Mrs Antrobus when she went back to college when I was in grade school. I loved it but don’t remember much about the play all these years later

  9. I suppose there’s no film available for the (off/on) Broadway presentations in 1942. I estimate the play’s word count is around 22,000 words. The play itself might be eligible for a Novella or Best Related Work.

  10. Just saw this article. It was for a long time my favorite 20th century play and still is a favorite. I’m on the last weekend of playing Mr. Antrobus for a community theater production, down here in Gainesville, FL (cast size 11) and in the 11 years since my kids got me active in theater, it’s my favorite role, so far.

    There are moments where it creaks of the 1940s … Then there are moments where it seems so relevant.

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