Places: The Skin of Our Teeth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1942

First produced: 1942

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Phantasmagoric

Time of work: All human history

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedExcelsior

Excelsior. Skin of Our Teeth, TheFictional New Jersey city, whose very name implies upward striving, that is the home of the novel’s Antrobus family. Mother, daughter, son, maid, and pets await the return of the father, who is at his office. Mrs. Antrobus berates the maid, Sabina, for letting the fire go out in the suburban living room as the Ice Age is dawning. When Mr. Antrobus comes home, he brings along refugees whose talents he hopes to save, among them Moses, Homer, and several of the Muses. As the room fills up, a baby dinosaur and a little mammoth are ordered out into the cold. Nature is not humanity’s only enemy; viewers learn that the Antrobus son Henry has another name: Cain. As the ice grinds nearer, Sabina, the maid, includes the audience in the setting, asking them to contribute their chairs for firewood.

*Atlantic City

*Atlantic City. New Jersey resort city. Thornton Wilder’s Atlantic City offers that image of it well known to popular culture: the Boardwalk, the ocean, the beauty contests. A fortune-teller’s tent spotlights the chancy nature of survival. Sabina, now a pageant winner, confers with the gypsy about seducing George Antrobus, present as a conventioneer. The crone laughs darkly and predicts rain and the destruction of every living thing except two animals of every kind. Nature and tawdry humanity are again complicit in the erosion of civilization, which once more teeters on the brink. Suddenly the seafront playland has become an embarking stage for a modern ark. Storm warnings hang on the pier, and the family and the pairs of animals board the ship as the waters rise.

Antrobus house

Antrobus house. Having survived the flood, Sabina and Mrs. Antrobus crawl out of the wreckage of the Excelsior house. Walls tilt drunkenly, and fire burns in the distance. The daughter emerges from a trapdoor carrying a baby, and Henry, now identified as the enemy, staggers into the battered home to fall asleep, forgiven one more time. The back wall disappears to reveal an arching path across which actors parade, speaking words of wisdom. There is a blackout; then lights come up to show Sabina repeating her act 1 opening speech in a restored house as the cycle of renewal begins again.

BibliographyBurbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne, 1961. An excellent introduction to Wilder that emphasizes the humanism of his writings. Asserts The Skin of Our Teeth succeeds in communicating its message about human survival, but that “the mixture of comedy and seriousness does not always come off successfully.”Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. An effective brief introduction to Wilder and his works. The section on The Skin of Our Teeth distills information about the play’s writing and staging, interprets the themes, and evaluates the work’s strengths and weaknesses.Goldstone, Richard H., and Gary Anderson. Thornton Wilder: An Annotated Bibliography of Works, by and About Thornton Wilder. New York: AMS Press, 1982. An important starting place of finding sources for further reading about Wilder. Numerous bibliography entries concerning The Skin of Our Teeth.Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. Explores the philosophical, religious, and mythmaking dimensions of Wilder’s dramas. Carefully defends Wilder against the plagiarism issues surrounding The Skin of Our Teeth.Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. A highly readable source, providing contextual details regarding Wilder’s composition of The Skin of Our Teeth, as well as information about the play’s staging and reception.
Categories: Places