Now, HarperCollins offers a definitive edition of Wilder's famous play, with previously unpublished production notes, diary entries, and other illuminating documentary materials, all of which sheds light on the controversial history of The Skin of Our Teeth.
Wilder was influenced by James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, as many modernist novelists and playwrights were. However, critics charged that The Skin of Our Teeth was little more than an Americanized version of Joyce's work, citing specific examples and intimating that the play was in some way plagiarized. In a letter to The Saturday Review of Literature (which he never sent), Wilder defended his play, saying that his play "moved into its own independent existence through its insistence on being theatre..." Early on in the writing of the play, he said it "fixed its thoughts on the War and the situation of the eternal family under successive catastrophes."
Though Wilder still won the Pulitzer Prize, Paula Vogel postulates that Wilder may have missed his chance of winning the Nobel Prize due to the accusations and implications that plagiarism or borrowed material may have been at the core of this great work.
The Past Becomes Modern
The Skin of Our Teeth still presents a fun and complicated spectacle, even if Wilder's sources were under scrutiny. Wilder juxtaposes the most ancient of characters with Adam, Eve, Cain, and even Homer with modern society, complete with anachronisms of all sorts. The ancient representatives of man (and woman) are not so very different from what we would expect from a modern-day human being. They still worry about the catastrophes that could harm their children, how they will survive, and what the future might hold.
Of course, Wilder throws in a few momentous catastrophes to really bring the drama to life. The Androbus family must face the world-wide Ice Age, Noah's flood, war and rumors of war, book burning, and more. While the incidental worries of modern society may differ, many of the realities of everyday life remain consistent.
In the end, Mr. Androbus (our anciently modern Adam) says, "Oh, I've never forgotten for long at a time that living is a struggle. I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for--whether it's a field, or a home, or a country.
And, the play ends where it began. As Sabrina says, "That's all we do--always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again." After each disaster, they just rebuild the world again. As Sabina says once and again: "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?"