Thornton Wilder’s Optimistic Catastrophe: “The Skin of Our Teeth”

From a review of a 2017 production in Brooklyn.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” first opened in New Haven, at the Shubert Theatre, in 1942. It was directed by Elia Kazan, and starred Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, and a very young Montgomery Clift; Variety wrote that the play “bewilders, bemuses, and befuddles, as it amuses.” When it moved to Broadway, to the Plymouth Theatre, it was met with mainly favorable reviews. Brooks Atkinson, in the Times, called it “one of the friskiest and liveliest plays written in a long time,” and Alexander Woollcott said it “was the nearest thing to a great play the American theatre has yet produced.” (Commonweal, on the other hand, called it “garish” and “sensationalist.”) Two months before the play opened, Wilder, at forty-five, entered the Army Air Force Intelligence; for his service in wartime he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Légion d’ Honneur, and the O.B.E.; in 1943, Wilder saw the production all the way through only twice.

During and directly after the war, the play was put on widely in Europe. In 1945, Laurence Olivier directed it in London, with Vivien Leigh in the role of Sabina. In 1946, “The Skin of Our Teeth” opened in a bombed-out and unheated theatre in Darmstadt, Germany, where, in 1944, approximately twelve thousand people had been killed and sixty thousand people left homeless after a British firestorm attack. (The technique would be used again a year later, in the bombing of Dresden.) The play was called “Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen,” or “We Have Survived”—and it was billed as a katstrophe optimismus, or an “optimistic catastrophe.” —New Yorker