in Space, Time, and the Imagination
Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth and American Arduousness in Sombre Comedy
From Chapter 16, “The Comedy of Ultimate Assertion,” Comedy in Space, Time and the Imagination, pp. 259-264.
When Skin of Our Teeth opened three years after The Time of Your Life, America had moved from the end of the Depression to the middle of a war. Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for Skin of Our Teeth just as Saroyan had for Time of Your Life. Like Saroyan, Wilder has been less than thronged by critics since. A typical reaction to Skin of Our Teeth is Block and Shedd’s assessment in Masters of Modern Drama, a collection that ignores Skin to choose The Matchmaker as representative of Wilder’s genius: “The only serious charge brought against The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town concerns the jarring juxtaposition of comedy and an essentially tragic view of man.”[i]
There is a certain irony in saying that this is “the only serious charge” against Skin; the charge challenges the direction and the value of the whole play. The problem here, however, is not with Wilder but with a criticism that can accept sombre comedy as long as it is thoroughly pessimistic but that has no tools for understanding sombre comedy, or even for distinguishing it from tragedy when it proceeds from positive philosophical premises. In Skin of our Teeth, Wilder presents us with the most devastating continuing costs of human survival. But transcending that portrayals of continual cost is an optimism that precludes the possibility of tragedy and celebrates with a pattern of joyful emotional response humanity’s destined survival throughout an indefinite virtual future.
The most memorable aspect of Skin of Our Teeth is probably not its comedic structure. Perhaps most striking is its daring experimentalism of stage device and dramatic storytelling with a vast imposition of symbolic elements in the midst of a tenuously connected, kaleidoscopic vision of world history. As the play opens, the Antrobus family maid, Sabina (who is also Mr. Antrobus’s erstwhile mistress) is waiting expectantly at the door of a modest suburban home in Excelsior, New Jersey. The time is the Ice Age, Mr. Antrobus having invented the wheel and the alphabet just in time to consider the problems of a glacier in the front yard. During Act I, everything movable is burned to stave off the cold. Mr. Antrobus, however, insists that the house, its provisions, and its fire be shared with figures representing Homer, Moses, and the three poetic muses.
Act II finds Mr. Antrobus elected president of the Fraternal Order of Humans, seduced by Sabina (now masquerading as Miss Fairweather), giving his acceptance speech, and escaping the deluge. He is accompanied in his escape by his family, which included his wife (whose name is sometimes Eva and sometimes Maggie), hid son (whose old name is Cain and whose new name is Henry), and his daughter, Gladys. His family is followed to the ark, conveniently parked at Atlantic City for the convention, by Sabina, again assuming the role of maid, and by two of every kind of animal, representatives of the other fraternal orders at the convention.
Act II finds Sabina coming home from a war to end all wars, “the fille du regiment,” as Wilder puts it. Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys have been hiding in the cellar, Gladys has a new baby (origin unknown), and Mr. Antrobus is reported home from the wars. It turns out that the enemy has been none other than Henry-Cain himself. Henry arrives home before his father, so exhausted that he falls asleep on the living room couch and is disarmed by his mother. Mr. Antrobus comes home, sees Henry on the couch, considers killing this universal war-monger once and for all. Instead, he tosses his own gun away and tries to reason Henry back into the civilized world.
When Henry goes off to his room, unrepentant and petulant, Mr. Antrobus seems to have lost the zest for life that has made him the inventor of the wheel, the alphabet, the lever, and all the other products by which human beings supposedly lifted themselves from the mud. At the crucial moment, Mrs. Antrobus reminds him of his books, the needs of others for his services—and Sabina reminds him of romance, beauty, and his ideal for himself.
Mr. Antrobus then picks up the burden of great ability, which he has carried since he was first Adam (or, as he says, since his parents first told him to stand on his own two feet). Mrs. Antrobus has already set the house partly back in order, pulling cockeyed walls back into place, replacing furniture, and getting sandwiches for everyone. The play ends with Sabina, exactly as she was in Act I, awaiting Mr. Antrobus’s return home from work:
Oh, oh, oh, six o’clock and the master not home yet. Pray God nothing serious has happened to him crossing the Hudson River. But I wouldn’t be surprised. The whole world’s at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me.”[ii]
Unlike Saroyan’s play, which seems to get lost in its many picture-cameo subplots, Wilder’s is full of singly directed action aimed at a seemingly simple and obvious moral; Human beings are destined to survive but only by the skin of their teeth. The action in Wilder is furious at the same time that it is fundamentally episodic. And the episodic nature of the plot is largely the meaning of the play: The individual human being is only an agent in the midst of perpetual change. His mission is to survive, though that survival most often seems as arbitrary as it is unlikely. The challenges constantly change; people never change. They survive always by their cleverness; yet they always imperil themselves with the old Cain instinct. Survival for Mr. Antrobus means accepting things he has no desire to accept. He must accept the thoroughly child-centered, annoyingly competent, opinionated, unromantic Mrs. Antrobus, and he must reject as morally wrong as well as impractical, Lilith-Sabina-Fairweather, with all her charm and her willingness to play up to the male ego and to despair at the slightest challenge of glacier or universal flood.
Above all, survival, paradoxically, means living with Cain, knowing that the old killer instinct will never change, knowing that under the cute mop of boyish hair lies the damning mark put there by the just, unchangeable, and almighty God. Survival for Mr. Antrobus means being able to go on with his books, his dreams, his inventions—even though he knows that everything he is trying to build is vitiated not only by his inability to get rid of Cain but also by his uncontrollable desire for Sabina.
For Mrs. Antrobus, survival means several things. She must watch dotingly forever over Cain, who killer her Abel, and correct and guide Gladys, even when Gladys’s desire is to follow the red-stockinged model of Sabina. She must also put up with her husband in all his preoccupations and in all his dalliances simply because the promises made in marriage make something special of two flawed people.
The patterned, destined survival in Skin of Our Teeth is not simply the story of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. Cain also survives. His mother refuses to set foot on the ark until she has rescued him. Cain, as well as Mr. Antrobus, survives the war, coming home to the same house and to an even more doting reception. And Sabina survives even though she gives up all hope at the drop of a hat and her instincts are as destructive of family as Cain’s are of peace.
The darkness in Skin of Our Teeth, then, is not the dark message of narrow escape. Such a comedic message is more clearly formulated in children’s comedies, à la “Superman” or “Batman and Robin.” The thrill of the chase, the narrow escape—these have always been staples of light comedy. But Wilder has something more important to say. Like Saroyan, he takes the comedic devices of light comedy and twists them in a variety of ways to meet his own more sombre, more complicated vision.
The mystery in Skin of Our Teeth is not that it is comedy or that it is sombre. Only criticism that blinds itself with unprofitable preconceptions can be in doubt of that. What is mysterious is how Wilder manages to imply an unperturbable optimism through such a dark description of human survival. Unlike Saroyan, who blends a great many highly optimistic lines with his pessimistic description of the world, Wilder includes little, other than Mr. Antrobus’s poetic homage to the Great Books, that presents in overt statement the optimistic basis of comedy in such an imperfect world. This ability of Wilder’s is, finally, unanalyzable, but it resides somewhere in his verve in moving the play with unbounded energy of imagination and in his sure sense that man is acting out a life whose limits of both survival and suffering have been ordained from eternity past. As Sabina says in soliloquy at the final curtain:
This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet.
You go home.
The end of this play isn’t written yet.[iii]
In the context of late-1942 America, with Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea still open wounds of grief to the American people, Axis victories in Russia, Africa, and France seeming possible preludes to defeat, and details of the Battle of Midway still held up in press censorship, The Skin of Our Teeth told American exactly what they were fighting for, what the costs of that fighting would be, and what was a realistic final assessment of the value of victory. It is a sign of American maturation since the First World War that America could award the Pulitzer Prize to a playwright who denied the possibility of a war to end all wars and asserted the qualifications on victory even as the country mobilized for total war.
Skin of Our Teeth’s place in history, its reworking of biblical themes, its theatrical experimentation—all deserve extensive study. But most of all, The Skin of Our Teeth is a comedy, the assertion of a faith, even in a moment of extreme doubt, that in God’s providence human being will survive. We will succeed but only within the strict and sombre limits placed upon us by a fallen, limited, often quixotic, always inconsistent, seemingly senseless human nature. If Wilder goes on to express somehow (always between the lines) that a good God still reigns, that the idiosyncrasies of this life will someday melt before absolute knowledge, that there is something in human beings of the image of God that makes us worth the saving—if Wilder manages to assert all this, it is because he is a great theatrical genius, a true master of the full range of shadings possible within a modern sombre sense of comedy.
[i] Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shedd, eds., Masters of Modern Drama (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 960.
[ii] The Skin of Our Teeth, reprinted in Three Plays by Thornton Wilder (New York: Bantam Books, 1958), p. 137.