Director's Note: THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH
Perseverance Theatre, Juneau, Alaska
Legend has it that during a performance of the Broadway extravaganza Hellzapoppin’ a rubber chicken flew off the stage and landed in Thornton Wilder’s lap. An academic man by nature, Wilder had spent his entire life immersed in the study of literature, classical texts and languages and, at the time of the alleged encounter with a wayward stage prop, his current obsession was James Joyce’s monumental novel Finnegan’s Wake. With or without the apocryphal chicken, it’s not hard to see The Skin of Our Teeth as the rambunctious lovechild of one man’s passions for theater and books.
From his earliest writings, including many impossible to stage three-minute plays, Thornton Wilder was a torchbearer for the rejuvenation of American drama through a recommitment to the essential elements of theater. His exaltation of the theatrical event transcends a schoolmasterly directive to implement ancient methods: Thornton Wilder was a modernist and an experimenter, and his dramaturgy takes inspiration from such disparate sources as the Elizabethan stage, Japanese Noh theatre techniques, Bertolt Brecht, as well as the broad comedic styles of burlesque, vaudeville and the golden age of 1930’s Broadway. “A play visibly represents pure existing,” Wilder wrote and in his plays he sought to harness the alchemical power of an audience at the theater.
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, minds and souls collaboratively participating in an acknowledged falsehood, an audience infuses the present moment with a memory of the past and an anticipation of the future. The theater awakens our collective human consciousness, reminding us of all the lives that have come before and those that will follow; yet the theater event occurs in a perpetual NOW. In The Skin of Our Teeth, there is no past and there is no future. How clever and witty Wilder was/is/will ever be: to show us the Antrobus family and friends—“Your hope. Your despair. Yourselves.”—ostensibly a blast from the past, forever worrying about their future, not quite able to manage the present.
Wilder’s playful, questioning spirit challenges us to wake up, to come alive in our experience of theater. How ironic, then—and no doubt the irony would not be lost on the playwright himself—that Wilder’s work is often perceived today as sentimental and old-fashioned. It’s true that his slyly bracing style makes for difficult theatrical terrain, demanding the utmost acuity and alertness from those who would attempt it. It’s a slippery slope, but the view of life it affords is extraordinary—making us simultaneously aware of our individual minuteness and of the great majesty in which we all play a part.