Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Day in Theater History (Wilder’s ‘Skin of Our Teeth,’ Comedy of Chaos, Opens)

November 18, 1942—When The Skin of Our Teeth premiered at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre, the comedy with tragic undertones spoke directly to an America that had barely survived the Great Depression, only to find itself in a two-front worldwide war against totalitarianism. Re-reading Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play today, I was struck by its immediacy in another area: the citizens of New Jersey and Long Island experience sudden, terrifyingly inexplicable climate change (albeit, in this case, the onset of an ice age in August, rather than two hurricanes in successive years).

At the time, the public and critics might have viewed the cataclysmic climate conditions of the play simply as another biblical-style trauma in a work filled with them, rather than as a far-sighted environmental warning. On the other hand, for theater professionals who heard “storm” in connection with this production, they were likely, because of industry gossip, to associate the word with the show’s temperamental featured actress, Tallulah Bankhead, who clashed repeatedly before the opening with inexperienced producer Michael Myerberg and director Elia Kazan.

How much did the playwright use Bankhead’s bombastic persona in the play? Audiences at the time would have recognized an allusion to a prior performance by the actress (“look at me now—I…I who’ve played Rain”). When her character, the maid Sabina, addresses the audience, it could be interpreted as a Pirandellian trick by Wilder (“I can’t invent any words for this play, and I’m glad I can’t. I hate this play and every word in it”). Or, given Wilder’s habit of sending everything up, such pronouncements are all the better not to sound too preachy. In this regard, perhaps Wilder figured that Bankhead would put extra, unfeigned convention into these lines.

Starting with the title itself from Job 19:20, The Skin of Our Teeth shows repeatedly that the predicament of modern man is as old as the Scriptures. (Wilder’s Christian name came from his grandfather, a Presbyterian minister who served under Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War.) The main characters, George and Maggie Antrobus (played by real-life couple Fredric March and Florence Eldridge), had once been gardeners, “but left that situation under circumstances that have been variously reported.”  Their son, Henry (played by a young, already intense Montgomery Clift), a bit too handy with throwing stones, bears a mark on his forehead, a visible reminder to the world of his killing of his brother. Allusions to the Pentateuch continue to pile high, as the Antrobuses take in the refugee “Judge Moses,” and later, pack in enough animals on a ship to survive a great deluge engulfing Earth.

After the show premiered, a number of theatergoers were so cnofused by what they saw that they left after the first act, not returning. I think most of my readers will agree that these biblical references are so numerous that it’s hard to miss the point of the allegory.

Maybe what bamboozled the audience was the freewheeling nature of the play. Bankhead might have been a pill to work with, but she made the most of one of the most challenging roles of her career, one that called for her to act as a put-upon maid, temptress, Miss America contestant, and intermediary for playwright and audience.  She became the medium through which the play’s tragic and comic elements were kept in exquisite equipoise, and won the Critics Circle Award for her quick-change, quicksilver performance.

A silly controversy developed when a couple of critics, perhaps taking note of Wilder’s publicly avowed adoration of Finnegans Wake, accused the playwright of plagiarizing James Joyce’s novel. There was, perhaps, another influence that went largely unremarked: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The “notice” at the start of Mark Twain’s novel waggishly tries to convince the reader that this most moral of novels has nothing at all to do with such matters (“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”). Wilder makes a similar disclaimer—what critic Bruce Bawer, in an essay on him in the Autumn 2008 issue of The Hudson Review, called “self-referential absurdism”-- in the person of Sabina (“Ladies and gentlemen! Don’t take this play serious. The world’s not coming to an end.”)

For playwrights, The Skin of Our Teeth meant enduring lessons in how to break out of conventional forms, to show that it was possible, in the blink of an eye, to go from prehistoric times to contemporary America. For audiences, Wilder taught about the institutions and inclinations that help the human spirit endure—freedom of inquiry, curiosity, a mother’s fierce love. Every one of the seven deadly sins might afflict the human race, bringing it to the brink of extinction, but there’s a reason that the name of the Antrobuses’ suburban New Jersey town is Excelsior. Paradoxically, despite and because of human beings, their aim is always “ever upward.”

(The photo here, by Carl Van Vechten, comes from August 1948, when Wilder was appearing as Mr. Antrobus in summer-stock productions in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The photo is now part of the Carl Van Vechten photograph collection in the Library of Congress.)

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