The Skin of Our Teeth

The Skin of Our Teeth is a play by Thornton Wilder which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 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 play is a three-part allegory about the life of mankind, centering on the Antrobus family of the fictional town of Excelsior, New Jersey. The original production starred Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, and Montgomery Clift. Bankhead won a Variety Award for Best Actress and the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actress of the Year for her role as Sabina. When she left the production in March 1943, she 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. Scott then played the role for the production's run in Boston. Originally billed in New York as "Elizabeth Scott", she dropped the "E" before taking the part in Boston, and it became her breakthrough role. The epic comedy-drama is noted as among the most heterodox of classic American comedies — it broke nearly every established theatrical convention.

The Skin of Our Teeth
Handbill for the 1942 Broadway production
Written byThornton Wilder
Mrs. Antrobus
Mr. Antrobus
Telegraph Boy
Chair Pusher
Woolly Mammoth
Date premieredOctober 15, 1942
Place premieredShubert Theatre
New Haven, Connecticut
Original languageEnglish
SettingThe Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey; the Atlantic City boardwalk


The phrase used as the title comes from the King James Bible, Job 19:20: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth."


The main characters of the play are George and Maggie Antrobus (from Greek: άνθρωπος (anthropos), "human" or "person"), 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 (see below).

For example, the name Lilly Sabina is a reference to the myth of Lilith and to the historical rape of the Sabine women, identifications made relatively explicit in the play's text. Henry Antrobus's name was changed from "Cain", following his murder of his brother Abel. This is a story from the Bible, in which Cain, the son of Adam, murders his brother Abel after God favors Abel over Cain regarding gifts. This implies that George Antrobus is Adam, and Maggie Antrobus Eve, further supported by an event at the beginning of the play when Mr. Antrobus composes a song for his wife in honor of their anniversary, in which the lyrics: "Happy w'dding ann'vers'ry dear Eva" appear, though Mrs. Antrobus is referred to as Maggie throughout the play.

The murder of Abel is an underlying theme in the play. Mr. Antrobus pays far more attention to his "perfect" third child Gladys than he does Henry, because of the murder of his favorite child. As this treatment of Henry continues, throughout the acts is seen progression of Henry slowly becoming more angry with his family, which reaches its climax in the third act.

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 the Fraternal Order of Mammals (apparent references to Sodom and Gomorrah but also to the Roaring Twenties), and the end of the world approaches a second time; 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 stylistic complexity is added by the occasional interruption of the narrative scene by actors directly addressing the audience. For instance, in the first scene, the actress playing Sabina reveals her misgivings to the audience about the play, in the second act she refuses to say lines in the play and tells the spectators things that cause a woman in the audience to run from the theater sobbing, and, in the third act, the actor playing Mr. Antrobus interrupts to announce that several actors have taken ill, and asks the audience to indulge them while the "stage manager" of the play conducts a rehearsal with the replacements.


  • Sabina's stock-maid monologue begins and ends the play in the same way; this "stage-play" goes on and on.
  • In her role as resident pessimist, lacking vision, Sabina says, "That's all we doalways beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again." After each disaster, they just rebuild the world again. She also says: "Don't forget that a few years ago we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?" And later she says,..."My nerves can't stand it. But if you have any ideas about improving this crazy old world, I'm really with you. I really am."
  • The Ice Age/The Great Flood/War; we are always plagued by the potential for disaster, both natural and man-made.
  • Art and literature are ways of advancing our humanity: enhancing empathy, tolerance, vision. Improvements in technology, though, don't necessarily advance human nature at all.


Act I

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 U.S. 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 prophet Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer, and women who are identified as Muses.

Act II

Act II takes place on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, 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. (A fortune teller had previously attempted to warn them about this but had been ignored). 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, paralleling the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, 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 Antrobuses' former home. A devastating war has occurred; Maggie and Gladys have survived by hiding in a cellar. When they come out of the cellar we see that Gladys has a baby. Sabina joins them, "dressed as a Napoleonic camp-follower". 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 stage manager interrupts the play-within-the-play to explain that several members of their company can't do their parts because they're sick (possibly with food poisoning: the actress playing Sabina claims she saw blue mold on the lemon meringue pie at dinner). The stage manager drafts a janitor, a dresser, and other non-actors to fill their parts, which involve quoting philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to mark the passing of time within the play.

The alternate history 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 (1939) were noted in the Saturday Review during the play's run on Broadway. Norman Cousins, editor of the Review, printed a short article by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson titled "The Skin of Whose Teeth? The Strange Case of Mr. Wilder's New Play and Finnegans Wake" in the issue for December 19, 1942, with a second part in the February 13, 1943 issue.[1][2]

In Campbell's book Pathways to Bliss, Campbell recalls his reaction to the similarities he noted between Wilder's play and Joyce's novel:

[W]hen I went to see Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which was the big Broadway hit at the time...all I heard was Finnegans Wake. [...] I phoned Robinson, and I said, "Good God, here's Wilder making tons of money and a lot of fame on this thing, and it's simply Finnegans Wake." Joyce had just died, and his family was destitute. So I said, "I think we should write a letter to the New York Times."[3]

Campbell claimed to have compared Finnegans Wake and the book form of The Skin of Our Teeth and found "nearly two hundred and fifty analogues—characters, themes, and finally a four-line, word-for-word quote."[3]

Notable productions

In 2017, Theatre for a New Audience performed The Skin of Our Teeth directed by Arin Arbus.[4] It won the 2017 Obie Award for Directing and Performance by Kecia Lewis[5]


  1. Campbell, Joseph. Mythic Worlds, Modern Worlds: On the Art of James Joyce. New World Library, 2004; pp. 257-69.
  2. pg 258
  3. Campbell, Joseph (2004). Kudler, David (ed.). Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato, CA: New World Library. pp. 122–123. ISBN 1577314719.
  4. Ben Brantley, "Review: In ‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’ the End of the World as We Know It", The New York Times, February 28th, 2017.
  5. Obie Award, 2017 Winners.
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