The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder

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It’s the End of the World as we know it.

It’s the End of the World as we know it.

It’s the End of the World as we know it.

And I feel fine.

—  REM, Document (MCA, 1987)

The Countdown to the Millennium continues and, like bored kids in the back seat on one of those endless family road trips,  all some of us are thinking is:  “Are we there yet?”

If your curiosity and excitement about the Shape of Things To Come wore off after the first few dozen Best of the Century lists, you still aren’t clear what Y2K stands for or you’re like one of the frazzled parents in the front seat who are beginning to suspect there’s no way the final destination, that long anticipated 21st century, is going to measure up to all the hype, the CU Department of Theatre and Dance might have an antidote. Our final production of the fall semester (the year, the decade, the century, the millennium!!) is a Year 2000 take on Thornton Wilder’s classic 1942 comedy The Skin of Our Teeth, which tells the story of George Antrobus, inventor extraordinaire, his wife, two children and their maid, Sabina, all of Excelsior, New Jersey, as they face the End of the World As They Know It . . . three times.

In Wilder’s rambunctious metatheatrical allegory, the Antrobus clan of “Everymen” 1794721_10152221076719210_524894708_n and “Everywomen,” face plague, pestilence, war, depression, flood, fire, the advent of the three hour feature film, as well as some actors who simply refuse to play their assigned scenes, and do that one thing which human beings do best: they survive, coming through time-and-again by (what else) the skin of their teeth.

As in his more famous play, Our Town, Wilder presents us with the homely truths of family life set within the vast sweep of time and human history. In the playwright’s own words, the Antrobus family is “Alternately bewitched, befuddled and becalmed, they are the stuff of which heroes are made – heroes and buffoons” and this play is “a tribute to their indestructibility.”

Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1897, but became a citizen of

Thornton Wilder

the world when his father was appointed American Consul General in Hong Kong when Thornton was just of school age. A series of schools in the Far East and in California followed as the family moved frequently. After graduating from Yale in 1920, Wilder traveled extensively in Europe, always returning home to New England. Although best known today as a playwright – both Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth were awarded the Pulitzer while The Matchmaker became the hit musical Hello, Dolly – Wilder was also an accomplished novelist. His The Bridge of San Luis Rey also won the Pulitzer and it, along with other works like The Eighth Day, The Cabala and Theophilus North remain in print today. Mr. Wilder died in 1975.

5,000 Years of Suburban Family Fortitude: Cyclical Time, Eternal Archetypes and the Mythical Aspects of the Antrobus Family Story

The Skin of Our Teeth takes place outside of reality as we know it. Its world is not simply a theatrical reality, but a reality in which cyclical or mythical time rules human destiny. Instead of representing  time as marching forward from event to event, Wilder introduces us to a “non-Western” idea of time as a cycle of rise and fall and rise — prosperity followed by devastation followed by recovery. It is a cycle which repeats itself, like the seasons. This sense of cyclical time is common in many cultures, but is not dominant in western societies as it is in India, the Far East and some early American Indian cultures.

1782009_10152221078194210_2009823036_nWilder stages this unusual (to us) idea of the circle of history by setting each act of the play simultaneously in several eras. Act One takes place in contemporary Excelsior, New Jersey, but includes elements of prehistory – a dinosaur and an Ice Age woolly mammoth are family house pets, the poet Homer makes an appearance, and there are suggestions of the Old Testament, too. The second act connects the ambiance of the American casino resort and political convention with the Great Flood for which Noah built the Ark. In Act Three, the characters exist in a near-future time in which cataclysmic war has brought civilization to its lowest ebb.

The main characters of the play represent archetypes, common human types who can be found throughout myth and history. In a gesture that is almost a Wilder signature, these universal types are also presented as members of a typical upper-middle class American family of the 20th Century. George Antrobus,  Mrs. Antrobus, and their two surviving children, Henry and Gladys, are living as a nuclear family in a seven-room suburban New Jersey home with Lily Sabina as their maid.

Although George is described by Wilder as “John Doe or George Spelvin or you – the average American at grips with destiny, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet,” he is also extraordinary. He is a celebrated genius who has invented the lever, wheel, the alphabet and the multiplication table,[1] and  he is identified with Adam, having left his previous employment as gardener “under circumstances that have been variously reported.” During the course of the play, he is even elected President of the Mammals.

Mrs. Antrobus is a mother and housewife closely tied to Eve or the Eternal Mother. She is fiercely protective of her children (“if it would be any benefit to her children she’d see the rest of us stretched out dead at her feet without turning a hair”) and very practical about the family’s survival.

Henry is a “real, clean cut American boy,” but he is also Cain – a boy with a definite dark side. As Sabina tells us, “when he has a stone in his hand, has a perfect aim; he can hit anything from a bird to an older brother –,” a reference to his connection to that old story in Genesis.[2] Gladys, the daughter, has a tendency to let her dress ride up and is fond of makeup and sexy clothes. She seems to want to please, getting an “A in Conduct” at school and reciting in assembly. By Act 3 she is an unwed mother, but not shamed by her status. Far from it. Her newborn represents a new hope for humankind. In this way, Gladys is connected to the “sacred prostitutes” who once served in the temples of the ancient goddesses of the Near East.

Sabina was, at some time in the past, George’s second wife, “raped home from the Sabine hills.”[3] This suggestion of  polygamy in the Antrobus’ earlier family arrangement suggests the polygamy of Old Testament figures like Solomon and the ancient practice of conquering soldiers returning home with slave brides. Sabina has been demoted to maid for “letting the fire go out,” but still claims credit as George’s muse. (“It’s girls like I who inspire the multiplication table.”) As the seductress in the second act, Sabina can also be identified with Lilith, Adam’s first, evil wife.

With the arrival of Act Three, Sabina returns to Excelsior to find the family home a postwar ruin. This third catastrophe is man-made – more avoidable and, so, more demoralizing and painful. “I’ve lost it,” George says in Act Three, “The most important thing of all. The desire to begin again, to rebuild.” And yet, hope endures. The non-naturalistic, highly symbolic elements of Wilder’s play are brought together in his image of the Antrobus family which, as a whole, represents the strengths and weaknesses of humanity. Their moral transgressions and idealistic visions are, through the course of the play, directly linked to human destiny that moves through time with a recurring rhythm. Huddled in the rubble with his wife at play’s end, Antrobus recovers his old books. Holding these pieces of history and humanity, he recalls himself and remembers humanity’s reason for being:

I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for . . . . All I ask is the chance to build new worlds and God has always given us that second chance, and has given us voices to guide us; and the memory of our mistakes to warn us.

More About . . . 

Metatheater – A term used to describe plays that self-consciously comment on the process of theater, or treat the process of theater as a metaphor for off-stage reality. Such plays sometimes use the play-within-a-play device. Examples are as varied as Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii,in which the Player King and his company enact the murder of Hamlet’s father under Hamlet’s direction and, in a more modern vein, Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which six characters from an unfinished play appear at an acting company rehearsal, seeking a means of getting their story told. Wilder’s Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth are both strongly metatheatrical. Our Town uses the device of the Stage Manager as narrator and places the actors in a world in which large portions of the set are merely indicated by pieces of scenery and actor pantomime. In each act of Skin, something startling occurs which pulls the audience out of the play and into the world of making the play. Juxtaposed with the grand, cosmic themes present in the play, Wilder seems to be asking us to consider the parallels between creating history and creating art.

Allegory – A form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. Thus, one thing is represented in the guise of another: an abstraction takes the form of a concrete image on the page (in literature) or on the stage (in drama). Parables and fables are forms of allegory. Contemporary examples (besides The Skin of Our Teeth, of course!) include: Animal Farm by George Orwell and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.


Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Archetype – a term derived from the psychological theories of Carl Jung, who holds that behind each individual’s “unconscious” (the blocked-off residue of a person’s past) lies the “collective unconscious” of the human race — the blocked-off memory of our racial past, even of our prehuman experiences. The existence of such an unconscious racial memory would, according to Jung, mean that the recurring images in myth, religion, dreams, fantasies and literature are actually expressions of the experiences of our ancestors. In literary criticism, the term is applied to an image, descriptive detail, plot pattern or character type that occurs frequently in myth, religion or folklore and influences the reader based on that deep connection. The hero/warrior figure – whether his name is Hercules, Moses, Lancelot or Superman – is one example of an archetypal character. The story of the Great Flood, which appears in Sumerian legends predating the Bible and returns in some current ideas about the long term effects of global warming is an archetypal image.

George Spelvin – the “John Doe” or “Joe Smith” of the theatre world. George Spelvin is, according to the Internet Movie Data Base (, the “[t]raditional theatre pseudonym given to actors who wish to remain anonymous.” It is sometimes used in program cast lists to disguise the fact that a single actor is playing multiple roles or, in the case of a play in which a character important to the plot nevertheless does not appear on stage, as a way of preserving a sense of mystery for the audience. The name is also used by a union actor playing a role in a non-union production as a means of avoiding the sometimes-significant penalties the Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) imposes for such performances.  The female version of this name, “Georgina Spelvin,” has fallen out of use since a pornographic film actress adopted it in the 1970s.

The Director Speaks to Her Cast . . . 

A few days before rehearsals officially began, director Cheryl McFarren, a graduate student in the department’s Ph.D program, wrote her cast a letter. We thought it was an interesting insight into the way theatre is made, the demands of acting, the intuitive, thoughtful processes of directing and the strongly personal tone that creating art often requires of all artists. Here is the text of that letter. It might even offer you an interesting idea for approaching the play in your classes:

Dear Theatre Makers,

This letter is an assignment for our second gathering. If you find it vague, please interpret it as you see fit. Trust your impulses as you go about investigating. You will not be “wrong” – there isn’t a “wrong.” All points of view are welcome to the discussion.

One way of discussing The Skin of Our Teeth is that Act I represents the past, Act II the present and Act III the future. Another way is suggested by Bruce Bergner [production scenic designer and CU faculty member]: Act I is “Humanity’s Childhood,” Act II is “Humanity’s Adolescence” and Act III is “Humanity’s Adulthood.” Using either of these interpretive structures to assist us in exploring the play, we are faced with an interesting challenge: How do we, as relatively young adults, approach our future? We have some perspective on our childhoods and adolescences, but we are in the process of improvising our future. Unlike Esmeralda the Fortune Teller [from Act II], we are limited to “telling” only our past and living our present. So, how shall we as a company approach our third act? I believe the challenge the third act presents us is to discover enough faith in our toughness, our tenacity, to carry on when life asks us to start over again. To pull off Act III, we must discover how “to set the room to rights.”

In order not to be overcome by the tragedies that do occur in life, we must believe that we can and will eventually move beyond them. One way of  inspiring that hope is by hearing how other people have triumphed over adversity.

[With that in mind, for our next rehearsal] please interview a “wisdom person,” that is, someone with some Life Experience (so, someone over age sixty, roughly). This should be someone with whom you have a strong connection – a grandparent, elderly friend or close neighbor. Ask your subject for permission to do an oral history project. Assure them that you will, if they like, protect their anonymity. Give them the right to tell as much or as little as they feel appropriate. Ask your subject to tell you the story of something terrible that happened to them, something they weren’t sure they’d make it through. Then have them reflect on the thing(s) that brought them through the tragedy. Make sure you really listen and receive the story. Pay attention to the details. Take notes. When the story has been told, repeat it back to your subject to check for accuracy. Finally, ask your subject how their experience changed them positively, if indeed it did. Was there anything that they learned, some new piece of awareness that they gained from the experience? Did it change their approach to the future? How?

Next [time], we will share the stories, and try to find out where hope lives – not only in the play, but in our own hearts.

I look forward to joining you.


Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. Using the definition of allegory provided above, consider: In what ways does The Skin of our Teeth meet the definition of allegory? In what ways does it not? How have the production choices – lighting, scenery, costumes, acting styles – combined to emphasize or de-emphasize the allegorical aspects of the play?

2. In reading and adapting the play for the end of the Millennium, the director made certain changes. If you have read the original script, list a few of those changes and discuss whether you think they improved on the original. If you have not read the original script, consider what you think might have been changed and why.

3. What is Sabina’s function in the play? Why does she keep jumping out of character at certain moments to address the audience and interact with the Stage Manager and other performers? What was the author trying to accomplish with this and is it effectively handled in the CU production?

4. Pick your favorite character from the play. What “archetypal” figure or figures is this character supposed to represent? (Example: George Antrobus represents Adam, the First Man and the American Father). Discuss what, as an actor, you might do when approaching a role like this? Would it be in any way different from the way you might approach a more traditional role? Why or why not?

Millennium Moments . . . 

   Okay, so I don’t see any transporters or robots or even those cool little Jetson cars that fart through the air like bean-burning golf carts. So what? We’ve got microwave popcorn, Crash Bandicoot and the Ford Expedition! Far as I’m concerned, the future’s already here, so why are we in such a damn HURRY?!

            — Anonymous millennium malcontent, overheard in the ticket line on the opening day of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Excerpted from The Millennium Calendar, a website of events prophesied and scheduled for the Next 1000 Years (and beyond) [which once existed on the internet @, but has gone to that great “Not Found” error message in the Sky — but not the Cloud]. 1966797_10152221078704210_3167859_n

1999 – Dec  31

Everyone Plays The Artist Formerly Known As Princes’ “1999” for 24 hours straight.

2000    Jan 1

The Big Computer Crash

Jan  21  Lunar Eclipse

Feb 29   First Leap Day in a 2000 year

Mar 30 Earthquake – San Francisco – date approximated

May 5  Grand Conjunction- Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars


June 5  Pleiadean starship lands on Atlantis as it rises from the Bermuda Triangle  (Unarius Academy of Science prediction)

Jan  1 The real “First Day of the New Millennium”


June 21 Total Solar Eclipse

Charles Manson’s next parole hearing

And so it goes until, according to Nostradamus….

3797    World Ends

Works Used in Compiling this Preview:

Blank, Martin, et al, eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. 1999.

Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 1992.

Kernan, Alvin B., ed.  The Modern American Theater: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1967.

Wilder, Thornton. Three Plays by Thornton Wilder.


This Preview as compiled and written for the Department of Theatre and Dance (and for YOU!) by Tom Joyner (publicity writer), Cheryl McFarren (production director) and Lizka Randall (production dramaturg).

[1] In 1942, when The Skin of Our Teeth first premiered, Thomas Alva Edison had only been dead for eleven years. Wilder had grown up in world in which this one man–“the modern Prometheus,” credited with inventing the light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and hundreds of other devices–had transformed society. The idea of one man being responsible for a revolution in all areas of life was not, perhaps, as far-fetched as it seems to us today.

[2] One of many Biblical references in the play. Cain was first born of Adam and Eve and “a tiller of the soil.” His brother, Abel, was a shepherd. When God rejected Cain’s offering of the first fruits of the field, but accepted Abel’s offering of young lambs, Cain lured his brother to the fields and committed the first murder. The full story can be found in Genesis, Chapter 4.

[3] A reference to classical Roman mythology. The Rape of the Sabine Women is a story told in Livy (Roman historian) and Plutarch (Renaissance historian who translated and reworked Roman history in the 16th Century). The tale was frequently the subject of paintings, the most famous of which is by Peter Paul Rubens.