Thursday, February 6, 2014

Course Suggestions for Thornton Wilder's THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

The Skin of Our Teeth By Thornton WilderTime magazine called The Skin of Our Teeth "a sort of Hellzapoppin' with brains," as it broke from established theatrical conventions and walked off with the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama (Wilder’s remarkable third win). Combining farce, burlesque, and satire (among other styles), Thornton Wilder departs from his studied use of nostalgia and sentiment in Our Town to have an Eternal Family narrowly escape one disaster after another, from ancient times to the present.

Suggested Course Use

Thomas P. Adler, renowned American drama scholar, called The Skin of Our Teeth (1943) “the seminal text of self-consciousness in the American theater”—casting the play firmly into the sphere of “epic theatre,” popularized by Germans Erwin Piscator and Berthold Brecht. Even more so than Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth relied on illusion-blasting techniques to constantly remind his audiences that they were watching a play, shattering the “fourth wall” so popular in American theater at the time, and scandalizing theater-goers in the process.

But Wilder was not the only playwright drawn to this new dramatic form—during the years of the worldwide depression, leading into World War II, “epic” productions became increasingly popular throughout the world, and especially the United States. How did the tenets of the “epic” stage production seek to respond to the fear surrounding the depression, the rise of fascism, and the Second World War? Why was the genre’s aversion to “escapism” important? How did the political messages of American epic plays seem to shift as the U.S. actually became involved in the War (i.e. How is The Skin of Our Teeth different from its pre-war predecessors in tone and overt political message)? To answer these questions, it might be helpful to examine Brecht’s own Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), Paul Green and Kurt Weill’s Johnny Johnson (1936), Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937) in your course. 

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