The Skin of our Teeth (1942)
by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
To succeed as a playwright requires two qualities that might keep one in a state of constant tension. First, objectivity in dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations. In other words, realism would be the objective. But what good would a play be without the presence of emotions, feeling and compassion, or in other words—subjectivity? Or what about leaving the world of objectivity, conventional emotions and reality altogether? What about theatre of the absurd or surrealism on the stage? Or better yet, a truly courageous playwright might put them all on stage simultaneously. That master of theatre was Thornton Wilder. And that play was “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
When they are engaged in the creative process very few artists transcend the influence of the context in which they live. “Wilder began writing The Skin of Our Teeth in 1940 at a time of great political and cultural change. As the 1930s drew to a close, Americans found themselves in an increasingly urban and secular world where market forces took precedence over moral ideals and psychology took the place of religion. The ideas of Sigmund Freud, a German psychologist who argued that the unconscious mind significantly impacted human behavior, greatly influenced the art of the era.”
The First Great Question: Where Are We?
Because space consists of 3 dimensions and time is 1-dimension, space-time must, therefore, be a 4-dimensional object. It is believed to be a ‘continuum’ because there are no missing points in space or instants in time and both can be subdivided without any apparent limit in size or duration. Those adept in the practice of meditation are able to transcend time and space becoming an “observer” thereby distinguishing reality from illusion. “Many mystics have reported an experience in which consciousness is not bound by space and time.” In “The Skin of Our Teeth” Wilder moved with ease through time and space to create his delightful and profound depiction of the human condition. His “observations” just might have been more insightful than most of us have realized. His absurdities and surrealistic scenes added tension-relieving humor—sheer delight!
Did Wilder moved effortlessly through time and space in writing “Skin” because he believed all of Creation was interdependent, interconnected and interrelated. Or in other words did he have a worldview of Oneness. If he had been consciously aware of his beliefs, attitudes and values in the prevailing paradigm B context he might have realized that he had made an uncommon paradigm shift. We have no evidence except for this play that he had this awareness.
One of the scintillating principles of Simple Reality is that we create our own reality. Certainly, Wilder knew that he was creating a short-lived “world” on stage but clearly he knew it was not separate from that being experienced by his audience. “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 stage, a fictional world that can be altered and adapted by the ordinary people who are putting it together.” We can only hope that humanity comes to realize that “all the world’s a stage” and we are fulfilling the roles of actors, directors, stage hands and audience.
Clearly, Wilder’s characters in “Skin” have transcended the limits of time and space. His audience can see unfolding on the stage in three acts, evolution as they know it, history as they know it, the present as they know it and the future as they hope it might or might not be. “Combining elements of twentieth-century suburban America with events from the historical and mythological past creates an odd world where a middle-class family can have a dinosaur and mammoth for pets, the Antrobuses can celebrate their 5,000 wedding anniversary, and the children can recite poems even though their father has only just invented the alphabet.” The Antrobus family not only moves freely within the space-time continuum, they are “survivors.” Can we say the same thing?
The Second Great Question: Who Are We?
So while Wilder was transcending time and space as the “observer” he was simultaneously plunging back into history and evolution. The play’s central character is Mr. Antrobus the father not only of a typical suburban American family who expresses his flawed false self as both the biblical Adam and the misogynistic American Everyman.
“In Act I, he is the hardworking and innovative businessman who loves his family and values his books and must preserve them all from the approaching Ice Age. In Act II, he is the President of the Order of Mammals who is tempted to leave his wife for a beauty contest winner, but with the onslaught of catastrophic rains, he returns to his family and loads them—along with his potential mistress and two of every kind of mammal—onto a ship that will withstand the coming flood. And finally in Act III, he returns to his family after a seven-year war, ready to unearth his books and rebuild civilization.”
Wilder, like most of his fellow Homo sapiens, was enamored of his books symbolizing the human intellect. Nevertheless, he seems to realize the failure of paradigm B institutions as his characters over time succumb to the pointless and futile pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. Henry, the violent son in the Antrobus family, is clearly enamored of acquiring power. “In Act I Sabina reports he has ‘killed the boy that lives next door;’ in Act II he threatens people with his slingshot; in Act III he expresses his desire to kill his father.”
Henry takes on the double role of both the out-of-control false self and the other. “Although Mrs. Antrobus always loves her son despite his evil character, Mr. Antrobus acknowledges in Act III that Henry is ‘the enemy’ who starts wars and disrupts peace.”
Even though the Antrobus family lives within the context of Oneness, a perfect Creation, they are unable to internalize this reality. They succumb to the illusion that they live in a “dog-eat-dog world and behave accordingly. It is clear that most of our species today have also derived our fear-driven identity from paradigm B and all too often find ourselves projecting our shadows on a non-existent other thus creating continuous violence in our Global Village.
Wilder didn’t seem to believe that his fellow Homo-sapiens were going to attain an identity that was capable of the rational and compassionate behavior necessary to create a sustainable community. Maybe he was right.
The Third Great Question: Why Are We Here?
As impressive as his True-self insights are, Wilder still fails to escape some of the major delusions of the old paradigm, namely that of “American exceptionalism.” “Wilder reinforces Americans’ belief in the exceptional nature of their country and its citizens. Mr. Antrobus’s virtues of inventiveness, resilience, and diligence are those of the ideal American entrepreneur, and the family’s continued ability to start from nothing and achieve greatness is the essence of the American dream. The play suggests the best human characteristics are also the best American qualities.” Many years after Wilder wrote his play, we are beginning to realize that Americans are exceptionally afraid and exceptionally arrogant.
Every member of our species is born with a dual identity, a True self and a false self, and we each choose every moment of every day which identity we express. Our True self will “respond” with a fearless acceptance of life as it is. Our false self on the other hand, will “react” by pursuing plenty, pleasure and power as distractions from their existential fear. “The play suggests that as humanity enters each new era, it always brings both its good and evil impulses along.”
Edward Edinger tells us very succinctly why we are here: “The purpose of human life is the creation of consciousness.” While most of us struggle, like the Antrobus family, caught up in the smoke and mirrors of paradigm B, Thornton Wilder was there to challenge us demonstrating the role that theatre could play in the awakening of humanity, in the creation of consciousness.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.