The Skin of Our Teeth: Themes & Style
"The Skin of Our Teeth stands head and shoulders above the monotonous plane of our moribund theatre--an original, gay-hearted play that is now and again profoundly moving, as a genuine comedy should be" (Northeastern Illinois University). This was what Brooke Atkinson wrote in New York Times upon the agreement of most reviewers that Thorton Wilder had produced a work that would revitalize American theatre. Disrupting traditional notions of linear time, Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) tells the story of the twentieth-century American Antrobus family in three acts. These acts record events such as the very beginning of the Ice Age, the start of Great Flood, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Yet, the characters dress and act like twentieth-century Americans. Ending exactly as it began, the play illustrates the cyclical nature of existence, celebrating humanity's resilience, inventiveness, and will to survive. The message of the play is not a new one. It mentions the cyclic nature of human existence. Yet, the quality of the play which makes it one of the most extraordinary plays is its untraditional form. Rejecting the conventions of naturalistic drama, the play provides its audience with an entertaining journey. The characters appear to be middleclass Americans and allegorical figures, and they also drop out of character and speak directly to the audience. As was experienced in Wilder’s earlier play Our Town (1938), this technique breaks theatrical illusion and reminds the viewers that they are watching a play. Along with Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth is considered Wilder's theatrical masterpiece and an invaluable cornerstone of modern American drama. A. THEMES
Cycle of History:
The Skin of Our Teeth emphasizes the repetitive nature of human history. Having experienced disasters in the past, The Antrobus family overcome more disasters during the play, and are ready to face further struggles at the end of the performance. Wilder emphasizes the circular quality of the lives of the characters. In every act, the audience finds them starting
over again. Sabina, the housemaid, summarizes this issue towards the end of Act III: “That’s all we do – always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again” (167). Besides, the exactly the same opening words are uttered at the end of the play and it ends how it began. This is an obvious reference to the continual cycle of history on earth. Absurdity:
Wilder's use of bizarre juxtapositions placing the characters in absurd situations adds to the humour of The Skin of Our Teeth. He combines the elements of twentieth-century suburban America with events from the historical and mythological past such as the characters of Homer (Act I, 119) and Nine Muses (Act I, 120). This technique creates an odd world where a middle-class family can have a dinosaur and mammoth for pets. Likewise, the Antrobuses’ little boy Henry is “only four thousand years old” (Act I, 123) Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus can celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary (Act II, 131), their children can recite poems even though their father has only just invented the alphabet (Act I, 124) and the Annual Convention counts for its “sixth hundred thousandth” time (Act II, 127). Illusion Vs. Reality:
While traditional realistic plays try to create a "real" world on the stage, encouraging viewers to forget that they are watching actors play roles in a fictional drama, Wilder constantly interrupts this sort of theatrical illusion to remind the audience that they are watching a drama. When actors step out of their roles and speak directly to the audience, they highlight the fact that this is a performance taking place on a stage. They make the audience see that it is a fictional world that can be altered and adapted by the ordinary people. For instance in Act I, Sabina drops out of her character twice and starts to utter words as if...
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