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Theatre / The Skin of Our Teeth

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"I hate this play and every word in it. As for me, I don't understand a single word of it, anyway,ó all about the troubles the human race has gone through, thereís a subject for you. Besides, the author hasnít made up his silly mind as to whether weíre all living back in caves or in New Jersey today, and thatís the way it is all the way through."

The Skin of Our Teeth is a 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Thornton Wilder, a writer most famous for his previous play, Our Town. It follows the Antrobus family through thousands of years of existence, moving from an ice age to the biblical Flood to the aftermath of a war much like World War II but worse, mostly without leaving the fictional suburban town of Excelsior, New Jersey. The main characters—George and Maggie Antrobus, their children Henry and Gladys, and maid Sabina—are frequently utilized as allegories for biblical figures and archetypes, and are visited by historical figures and mythical or historical events. Needless to say, the whole play is swimming in an Anachronism Stew.

The original Broadway production was directed by Elia Kazan and featured Fredric March as George Antrobus, Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina, and Montgomery Clift (still six years away from his movie debut) as Henry.

This play provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: George Antrobus has no qualms about hitting his son Henry, especially when he's in a temper.
  • Actor Allusion: Miss Somerset, the "actress" playing Sabina, mentions bitterly that she starred in other, better plays, like Rain. Tallulah Bankhead, who originated the role on Broadway, actually had starred in a production of Rain.
  • Anachronism Stew: Almost too many examples in the first two acts to list, but here's a good one from Act I: Despite the fact that George Antrobus just invented the alphabet recently, a poem by Longfellow is referenced. And then there's the fact that while the world is in the midst of one of the ice ages—Mammoths and all—the U.S. and all its cities exist in full, as do modern houses. And yet Moses and Homer and some Muses come to the Antrobus house seeking shelter from a glacier.
  • As the Good Book Says...: This title is taken from Job 19:20, about Job escaping only "by the skin of my teeth."
  • Cain and Abel: Literally. Henry was named Cain until he killed his brother Abel, after which his name was changed by their parents to protect him from a bad reputation. Not that it did that much good.
  • Daddy's Girl: Because Henry is forever tainted in his father's eyes by the murder of his elder brother, most of Mr. Antrobus' affection is spent on his daughter Gladys.
  • Delinquents: Henry, although this just scratches the surface of his character.
  • Foreshadowing: Sabina's offhand mention in the opening scene of Henry's skill at throwing rocks at an older brother. Turns out Henry killed his older brother.
  • Fortune Teller: One figures prominently in the second act, frequently visited by Sabina and also repeatedly trying to warn everyone that the great flood is coming.
  • Mama Bear: Mrs. Antrobus, who'd "see us all laid out dead" if it would spare her children any discomfort.
  • Meaningful Name: The main family's name sounds a lot like "anthro" (Latin for "human"). Fitting for a group that symbolically represents the family of man.
  • No Ending: The fight between Mr. Antrobus and Henry is the climax of the third act, but Miss Somerset (Sabina) interrupts the fight because of dangerous incidents in the past, and we never find out the outcome of the confrontation.
  • No Fourth Wall: Sabina, or rather Miss Somerset, the actress playing Sabina, is the main offender here, frequently complaining about and apologizing for the ridiculousness of the play and even refusing to play the scene in the second act where she attempts to seduce George Antrobus away from his wife. When she describes her objection to the scene because she knew a woman whose husband was seduced in a similar manner, a plant in the audience actually starts crying and runs out. And then of course, there's the stage manager who keeps appearing, and... well, there's really too much to list here.
  • Offing the Offspring: A huge part of Act III, when George and Henry have come home from war as leaders of opposing armies.
  • Our Acts Are Different: Like Our Town, the play is in three acts of roughly the same length, with Intermission taken between each.
  • Shout-Out: The play is full of shout-outs to James Joyce's avant-garde novel Finnegans Wake, which Wilder greatly admired when it was published a few years earlier. One article claimed to find two hundred and fifty different references to Joyce's book and accused Wilder of plagiarism, though the two works are actually very different.
  • Show Within a Show: Directly connected to No Fourth Wall, the show is framed as actors (who therefore are themselves fictional characters) in a performance of The Skin of Our Teeth. It comes to the fore in the beginning of Act III, where several of the actors have come down with food poisoning and are replaced in a symbolic time-filling scene by members of the backstage crew.
  • That's All, Folks!
  • Title Drop: Sabina in the first act. It's part of a cue line that the actress playing Mrs. Antrobus is supposed to enter on, but doesn't, bringing about the first major breaking of the Fourth Wall by the character.
  • World of No Grandparents: As much notice as is given to family relations, the only mention of a grandparent is a brief reference by Mr. Antrobus to his parents.