The Skin of Our Teeth is a Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winning play by Thornton Wilder. It opened on October 15, 1942 at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, before moving to the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway on November 18, 1942. It was produced by Michael Myerberg and directed by Elia Kazan.
The leading role of Sabina was originated by Tallulah Bankhead. When she left the production, Bankhead was replaced by Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins was in turn replaced by Gladys George. For two performances, while George was ill, Lizabeth Scott, who had been Bankhead's understudy, was called in to play the role.
On January 18, 1983, "The Skin of Our Teeth" became the first stage play to be aired live over television in America in a version which starred Harold Gould as Mr. Antrobus and Blair Brown as Sabina.
The main characters of the play are George and Maggie Antrobus, their two children, Henry and Gladys, and Sabina, who appears as the family's maid in the first and third acts, and as a beauty queen temptress in the second act. The play's action takes place in a modern setting, but is full of anachronisms reaching back to prehistoric times. The characters' roles as archetypes are emphasized by their identification with Biblical and classical personalities. For example, the name Sabina is a direct reference to the Sabines and the historical rape of the sabine women.
While the Antrobus family remains constant throughout the play, the three acts do not form a continuous narrative. The first act takes place during an impending ice age, in the second act the family circumstances have changed as George becomes president of Humans and the end of the world approaches a second time, and the third act opens with Maggie and Gladys emerging from a bunker at the end of a seven year long war.
An additional layer of complexity is added to the structure of the play by the occasional interruption of the narrative scene by "the actor" directly addressing the audience. In the first scene, the actress playing Sabina reveals her misgivings about the play, and in the third scene, the "stage manager" of the play interrupts to announce that several actors have taken ill.
Act one is an amalgam of early 20th century New Jersey and the dawn of the Ice Age. The father is inventing things such as the lever, the wheel, the alphabet, and multiplication tables. The family (the Antrobuses) and the entire north-eastern US face extinction by a wall of ice moving southward from Canada. The story is introduced by a narrator and further expanded by the family maid, Sabina. There are unsettling parallels between the members of the Antrobus family and various characters from the Bible. In addition, time is compressed and scrambled to such an extent that the refugees who arrive at the Antrobus house seeking food and fire include the Old Testament judge Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer, and women who are identified as [Greek] Muses.
Act II takes place on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ, where the Antrobuses are present for George's swearing-in as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. Sabina is present, also, in the guise of a scheming beauty queen, who tries to steal George's affection from his wife and family. Although the conventioneers are rowdy and partying furiously, there is an undercurrent of foreboding, since the weather signals change from summery sunshine to hurricane to deluge. Gladys and George each attempt their individual rebellions, and are brought back into line by the family. The act ends with the family members reconciled and directing pairs of animals to safety on a large boat where they survive the storm and/or the end of the world.
The final act takes place in the ruins of the Antrobus' former home. A devastating war has occurred; Maggie and Gladys have survived by hiding in a cellar. George has been away at the front lines leading an army. Henry also fought, on the opposite side, and returns as a general. The family members discuss the ability of the human race to rebuild and continue after continually destroying itself. The question is raised, 'is there any accomplishment or attribute of the human race of enough value that its civilization should be rebuilt'?
The actors interrupt the play-within-the-play to explain that several members of their company can't do their parts because they're sick (or poisoned?) and so the stage manager drafts several janitors and other non-actors to fill their parts, which involve quoting philosophers like Plato and Aristotle to mark the passing of time within the play.
The action ends where it began, with Sabina dusting the living room and worrying about George's arrival from the office. Her final act is to address the audience and turn over the responsibility of continuing the action, or life, to them.
Influences and Criticism
Similarities between the play and James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake were noted in The Saturday Literary Review during the play's run on Broadway.