Surviving by The Skin of Our Teeth: Closing out The Skin’s 75th Anniversary Year

The Skin of Our Teeth opened on Broadway on Nov. 18, 1942.  The playwright, on active duty with the Army Air Force preparing for deployment abroad, was not present for the occasion.  At the time the world outside and inside the Plymouth Theatre on West 45th (now the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre), was most definitely falling apart.  We close out The Skin’s 75th Anniversary Year, pinching ourselves that we are still alive to celebrate this milestone, with a few quotes: one from the author and others from those who love the play and are brave enough to produce and write about it. Call them survivors. Then again, aren’t we all survivors? “The events of daily life are depicted against the vast dimensions of time and place. [The play] was written on the eve of our entrance into the war and under strong emotion and I think it mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis. It has been often charged with being a bookish fantasia about history, full of rather bloodless schoolmasterish jokes. But to have seen it in Germany soon after the war, in the shattered churches and beer halls that were serving as theaters, with audiences whose price of admission meant the loss of a meal and for whom it was of absorbing interest that there was a ‘recipe for grass soup that did not cause diarrhea,’ was an experience that was not so cool.”
— Thornton Wilder, Preface to Three Plays, 1957

One thing is evident to everybody: Behind all this hell reigns the threat of ice age and deluge. There is neither reliability in nature nor in man; and no family is as strong as it might present itself to the outside world. . . . Will somebody have the courage to make firewood out of the furniture, when it gets really cold, and, when everyday life is no longer common, will somebody take in the refugees?
— Heinrich Böll Program note, The Skin of Our Teeth at Landestheater Darmstadt, Germany 1963-64 [Translated in-house.]

For an American dramatist, all roads lead back to Thornton Wilder…The Skin of Our Teeth was a remarkable gift to an America entrenched in catastrophe, a tribute to the trait of human endurance. But Wilder does not give us a sentimental or easy bromide of a play: the gift for destruction and violence is as innate as our spirit to survive. Remarkably, he suggests that violence begins at home, not abroad in the breasts of our enemies, nor outside the family circle. At the time of the greatest threat, our most American dramatist does not shy away from suggesting we cast out the mote in our own eyes.
— Paula Vogel Introduction to The Skin of Our Teeth (HarperCollins, 2003)

During the first months of 2017, I was directing a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York. While we were in rehearsal, a beauty pageant judge was inaugurated President; an executive order limiting the entrance of refugees was signed; and it was reported that an iceberg larger than the state of Rhode Island would soon break off of the Antarctic shelf. It was eerie. The play felt as if it had been written only weeks earlier. It seemed to be asking urgent questions about the fate of humanity in this unique moment. . . . And yet in those first few months of 2017, at a moment of crisis within this country and on this planet, there was something strangely comforting in watching the Antrobuses, as foolish and flawed as they are, survive one catastrophe after another. Like Mr. Antrobus who clings to his books which contain the ideas of the great minds who have come before him, I found myself clinging to my copy of The Skin of Our Teeth.
— Arin Arbus, Associate Artistic Director, Theatre for a New Audience and director of The Skin of Our Teeth which opened at TFANA on Feb 18, 2017.

The wisdom of Wilder and of this play re-echoes. We will always make mistakes, as humans and as theatre practitioners. We will always fail to reach our potential.  We will always be ambushed by the unpredictability of everyday life and of history.  But, that very unpredictability is what makes life and live performance uniquely exciting.  And as long as we have cultural memories, through art, philosophy, sociology, history itself, through the “books” of the play in other words, through “the memory of our mistakes,” we will hopefully continue to learn. We will continue to gain perspective, to see the world in more detail and with more compassion, and to move ourselves forward, even if only by the smallest increments and through every creative act.
— Nicky Sands, Artistic Director, Remy Bummpo Theatre The Skin of Our Teeth opened at Remy Bummpo Theatre Company on October 4, 2017 directed by Krissy Vanderwarker