Somebody call Equity! The actors are leading an uprising!
"Stop! Stop! Don't play this scene. You know what happened last night. Stop the play."
--The Skin of Our Teeth, page 112
Thornton Wilder definitely does not try to make the audience forget they're watching a play in The Skin of Our Teeth. In fact, he kind of hits them over the head with that fact numerous times, just as they're about to get invested in the actual story of the play-within-the-play. This line is a great example of that; this is a very tense moment in which Henry is supposed to attack Mr. Antrobus, but Sabina immediately jumps into the middle of it and kills the illusion of the "story" of the play. She does the same thing in refusing to play the scene where she convinces Mr. Antrobus to leave his wife. However, the story of the play not only contains the story of the Antrobus family, but also the story of the actors attempting to enact the story of the Antrobus family. The purpose of substituting some of the most important moments of the play with moments in which the actors express that they're not able or don't want to perform the most important moments of the play is still a little unclear to me. You might think this would distance the audience from emotionally connecting to the play. But right from the beginning, the device of having the actors break character seems to be a way of inviting the audience in. They might be put off by the bizarreness of the play, but the fact that the actress playing Sabina is also frustrated with the bizarreness of the play kind of lets the audience accept the bizarreness a little more, I think. Similarly, I think the intention of replacing the climactic moment of Henry attacking his father with a scene where the actor playing Henry talking about how emotional the moment makes him could be to get the audience to consider the implications that moment might have for the real world instead of dismissing it as part of a bizarre play that doesn't relate to their lives at all.
I haven't seen or heard of any recent productions of this play, but I wonder how effective this technique would be in a contemporary production. The "actors" in the play don't speak like actors from 2009, so I think there might be more of an awareness of the fact that the actors are playing actors playing characters, which might just turn out to distance the audience even more from the play. It's always a tricky thing to have those different layers of reality, and I think if you're going to do it you need to have one layer of reality that's closer to the audience, or else they won't know which part of the story to invest in more. Does anyone else have an opinion on how this technique would play to contemporary audiences? As a theatre major, I'm totally geeking out over the whole subject.