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THORNTON WILDER adopted a cosmic view when he composed The Skin of Our Teeth, a history of mankind that intermingled prehistoric creatures, ancient Greeks, classic literary characters and a family circa the 1940s. Yesterday we set the stage. Today, we’ll have some fun consulting the play’s script.

Early in Act 1, for example, the family maid Sabina (played by Tallulah Bankhead in the original production) has what English drama critic Kenneth Tynan called a “scene of exposition,” a backstory: “The whole world’s at sixes and sevens,” she says, “and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me.”

Notes the script at this point: “A fragment of the left wall, flat ‘A,’ leans precariously over the stage. SABINA looks at it nervously, backs away from it and it slowly rights itself.”

Sabina proceeds to describe each character in the play. Mr. Antrobus: “Of course, every muscle goes tight every time he passes a policeman; but what I think is that there are certain charges that ought not to be made, and I think I may add, ought not to be allowed to be made; we’re all human; who isn’t?”

Sabina sums up his wife with, “If you want to know anything more about Mrs. Antrobus, just go and look at a tigress, and look hard.”

“As for the children—” (Crosses to table Center—picks up slingshot from table). “Well, Henry Antrobus is a real, clean-cut American boy. He’ll graduate from High School one of these days, if they make the alphabet any easier.”

Henry, we should note, used to be called Cain before the family changed his name after.…

“Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus’s daughter is named Gladys,” Sabina continues, “She’ll make some good man a good wife some day,” (To audience) “if he’ll just come down off the movie screen and ask her.”

The Skin of Our Teeth, 1942. From left to right, maid Sabina (Tallulah Bankhead), the Antrobus family, mother Maggie (Florence Eldridge), father George (Frederic March, real-life husband of Florence), daughter Gladys (Frances Heflin, sister of actor Van), and son Henry/Cain (Montgomery Clift). Image by AP.

In “Further Commentary” offered at The Thornton Wilder Society, it’s noted, “Henry/Cain is trying to memorize the multiplication table and learn how to use his slingshot, Gladys loves her Daddy and can’t keep her dress down, and Sabina just wants to get out of the kitchen and go to the movies.”

In the course of three acts, the Antrobus family encounters an Ice Age, refugees, extinction, and what may be the last fire on the planet about to go out. Then there’s a deluge involving a large boat. And war devastation, with father and son having fought on opposite sides.

A scene from the Theatre for a New Audience’s revival of The Skin of Our Teeth at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York, 2017. Image The New York Times, February 16, 2017.

There’s an interesting collection of interviews in “Why Thornton Wilder Matters in the Trump Era,” by Laura Collins-Hughes, in The New York Times, February 16, 2017. Asks Carey Perloff, who directed a revival of the play in 1986, “What is the appropriate response to the chaos and uncertainty of this moment, and how do you think about that theatrically?”

Citing crises of climate, flood, refugees, extinction, and war, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel observes, “Everything in the play is pretty much with us.”

Yet, The Skin of Our Teeth ends with Sabina’s optimistic farewell to the audience: “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. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus! Their heads are full of plans and they’re as confident as the first day they began—and they told me to tell you good night.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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