« Some Musings about the Social Conditions of the First Half of the Twentieth Century | Main | Conformity can stand out too »

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.

Comments (5)

Rosalind Blair:

This blog really interested me. I do not know a lot about theater and this provided me with a great deal of information. I had never thought about what I would think about this play if I saw it today. I'd have to say, I agree that the "actors playing actors playing characters" would turn people off from the production.

April Minerd:

I was somewhat thrown by Sabina repeatedly retreating from her role, but I can see how she was, in fact, involved in two roles. I like that you credited her comments about the oddity of the play as being a pacifier to the audience’s own concerns. I know as I read I wondered if I was alone in thinking this play was weird; I thought, “I don’t get this because I don’t know anything about theater.” However, seeing as right from the start Sabina blurts, “I don’t understand a word of this play,” I felt slightly reassured in my puzzlement. If the characters are warning about the bizarreness, it must be an intentional angle.

Christopher Dufalla:

As I read the first half of your entry, Matt, I started to see new ideas about interpretting these breaks within the play. When I continued reading it was as if you had taken those newly formed thoughts in my head and typed them out. I think that the breaks could very well have served as a relief valve for the audience. Seeing as how awkward it was for college students in 2009 reading this play to make heads or tails of anything it must have been that much more difficult in 1942 for a theater audience.

Andrew Adams:

I actually think this play would be more suited for some of today's audiences. I know plenty of people who cannot really appreciate the depth or even the language of some plays. The way that the characters talk to the crowd add something that, while has been done, is not particularly common. The only thing I can think of for why the audience should be distanced from the characters is that the play, the actual one being performed, is so absurd that these characters almost could not truly exist. I find it kind of hard to just read this play and really get the whole thing, because I do not have a very extensive knowledge of theater. I feel it would be much better to watch than to read.

Matt Henderson:

The first play of SHU's theatre season, Anton in Show Business, used a similar technique--a "theater critic" kept interrupting the actors to criticize the play and have conversations with them about the relevance of contemporary theatre. I think this might have been a little more effective because the play was more contemporary and the actors performing the play spoke in a contemporary vernacular. With The Skin of Our Teeth, I feel like a contemporary production would feel more like traveling into the past to see 1940s actors wrestling with the issues of the play in a 1940s way. Just little details like the fact that they're so formal in calling the stage manager "Mr. Fitzpatrick" wouldn't feel realistic in theatre of today. No doubt Anton in Show Business will feel outdated in a similar way years from now. It just adds a layer of distance from the audience that the original audience for the play wouldn't have had, I think.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 11, 2009 2:18 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Some Musings about the Social Conditions of the First Half of the Twentieth Century.

The next post in this blog is Conformity can stand out too.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.