Sabina—an “overly made up” maid with coiffed hair, kitten heels, and a voluminous petticoat under her cleaning apron—flits and leaps across stage, ostensibly dusting her employers’ home as she narrates a litany of hardships.1 In a highly affected, nasally, transatlantic accent, she tells the audience that it’s freezing: “Here it is the middle of August and the coldest day of the year.” There are unusual pests: “We’ve managed to survive for some time now … if the dinosaurs don’t trample us to death, and if the grasshoppers don’t eat up our garden. … ” Economic hardship looms: “We came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?” Then, she freezes, looks confused, and repeats the line—“… by the skin of our teeth … where will we be?”—to no avail.
When it becomes clear that another performer has missed their entrance, Latasha Somerset drops Sabina’s over-the-top dialect, sits on the coffee table downstage center, pulls out a vape, and laments, “I can’t make up any words to this play, and I’m glad I can’t. I hate this play and every word in it.” She goes on to complain that “the troubles the human race has gone through” are too hefty for the theatre to address, and she calls for a return to easier plays that are “good entertainment with a message you can take home with you.” She ends by dismissing the whole question: “Oh! Anyway—nothing matters! It’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In this scene, Latasha/Sabina seems to be asking, what is the point of the theatre when the world is falling apart?
It’s a question that audiences, donors, and theaters are asking, too. The headlines in the industry right now announce layoffs (Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Public Theater, and Center Theatre Group, to name a few), shrinking seasons, and disappearing festivals (including the particularly heartbreaking loss of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, a catalyst of my own love of theatre growing up in Kentucky). The theatre, like much of the rest of society, effectively shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic; and, though masks are not required at most performances anymore, audiences are still hesitant to leave their homes and gather in a dark space with strangers to watch a play.
Today, then, live theatre must make the argument for why people should take the risk and come back. It must answer the question: What do we lose if the theatre dies?
MacArthur Fellow, two-time Obie winner, and two-time Pulitzer-finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has worked on two post-pandemic New York productions that pose an answer to this question. He updated the Pulitzer-winning text of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 The Skin of Our Teeth for the Lincoln Center’s 2022 production (cited above), and he wrote The Comeuppance for Signature Theatre’s 2022–23 season.2 The plays hail from different time periods, and they inhabit different genres, but they share a constellation of traits that illuminate the necessity of live performance in this (mostly) post-pandemic era. They show that the theatre reminds audiences of liveness’s foil, mortality, and challenges us to channel that spark toward collective action.
Death’s presence in the play, and its continual confrontation of the audience, concretizes an idea in performance theory that the unique liveness of the theatre is tied up in a unique deathness.
Both plays are catastrophe plays. In The Skin of Our Teeth, the world ends three times. The Antrobuses are an archetypical human family. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are eons-old Adam and Eve figures, drivers of history responsible for everything from the invention of the wheel to the discovery that tomatoes are edible. They live through each apocalypse. In the first act—set in a combination of the early 20th century and the dawn of the Ice Age—a giant wall of ice threatens to wipe out all life in North America. In the second act—set in both Biblical times and the roaring twenties—a thunderstorm transforms into a hurricane, and then into a Great Flood that makes life on land impossible. In the third act—after a massive war has brought ruin to the life and home of the Antrobuses—they are forced, once more, to rebuild everything from scratch.
Where the Antrobuses of The Skin of Our Teeth represent the resilience of humans as an entire species throughout centuries of catastrophe, The Comeuppance focuses on a few contemporary humans in the aftermath of our own specific catastrophe(s). A group of friends who haven’t seen each other for 15 years gathers before their first high school reunion since the COVID-19 pandemic, and they reflect on their shared past. COVID has wreaked havoc on these characters: Maryana (Shannon Tyo), for example, is a doctor who has developed a drinking problem since working through the pandemic. But, the group is also haunted by the manifold other collective traumas that define their experience of American millennial-hood. “It’s like too much,” laments Simon, “Columbine, 9/11, the war, the war, the endless war, then Trump, then COVID, whatever the fuck is going on in the Supreme Court … Roe v. Wade … I want to say it’s too much for one lifetime, but then I think: what does that even mean?” Simon, like Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, is fed up with being resilient, and with rebuilding out of the ashes of the most recent apocalypse. Sabina laments,
That’s all we do—always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again … How do we know it’ll be any better than before? Why do we go on pretending? Someday the whole earth’s going to have to turn cold anyway, and until that time all these other things’ll be happening again: it will be more wars and more walls of ice and floods and earthquakes …
Why do we go on pretending? These two productions show us that, in the theatre, pretending is a matter of life and death.
Let’s start with life. Thespians often talk about “liveness” as a uniquely powerful force in the theatre: the thing that sets it apart from film and television and, therefore, makes it worth saving. The performers are living beings, creating a shared experience among specific, living audiences, which will never happen in exactly the same way again. That unique setting creates a temporary sense of community that can be powerful for changing hearts and minds and exercising emotional muscles.
The Skin of Our Teeth and The Comeuppance both emphasize the liveness of theatre through characters that break the invisible fourth wall between the performers onstage and the audience in the seats. That’s what Sabina/Latasha is doing in the scene above when she drops the act of being the Antrobuses’ maid and speaks directly to the audience as Latasha, the fed-up actor (who, to be clear, is still a character in the play). That outburst is in the very first scene of the play, and similar asides continue throughout all three acts as Latasha interrupts the action to interpret scenes for the audience, express frustration with the production process, and even summarize the plot of a sexist scene that she refuses to perform.
In The Comeuppance, which is mostly a realistic play (i.e., the characters can’t see the audience and everything that happens onstage could pretty much happen in real life), the performers occasionally switch from portraying their primary (human) character to portraying a nonhuman character called Death. Death, like Latasha, knows and acknowledges that we’re at a play, and it, too, speaks directly to the audience to give us background information about the characters’ lives, and some advice about how to live our own.
When characters like Death and Latasha break the fourth wall, the audience becomes a force within the play to make meaning.3 We can feel the jolt of liveness, the threat of chaos, and the power that we hold as spectators. The theatre is about life because it invites each spectator into this process of meaning-making, which Sabina/Latasha makes clear when she turns to the audience—breaks the fourth wall—at the end of the play and lets us know “the end of this play isn’t written yet.”
But the theatre is also about life in that the play, as a text to be performed, has a life of its own. More so than other forms of storytelling, playwrights expect and hope that the plays they write will be produced multiple times by multiple different artistic teams across multiple different contexts. Each artistic team will bring its own interpretation to the text, just as each audience member brings their own lived experience. As a result, as plays age, they accumulate a kind of palimpsest of performance that takes on a life and meaning-making force of its own.
The Skin of Our Teeth seems especially conscious of the potential power of this palimpsest. One of Sabina/Latasha’s resigned refrains is, “It’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” Not quite a hundred years later, the Lincoln Center production highlighted how things are both the same as they were in 1942, and how they are different.
For example, Latasha complains to the audience, “For two years I’ve sat up in my room living on a sandwich and a cup of tea a day.” I was shocked to realize that this line is in Wilder’s original text; however, it means something different to a 2022 audience who have also until recently, quite literally, been sitting in their rooms in pandemic lockdown for two years.
The Lincoln Center’s biggest divergence from the existing palimpsest of performance of The Skin of Our Teeth is that the Antrobuses, Sabina, and most of the secondary characters were played by actors of color. This casting is a departure from that of every other “notable production” listed on the play’s Wikipedia page, which are all populated overwhelmingly with white performers. The performers of color open the performance to new streams of meaning-making that an all-white cast would not.
For example, early in the play, Sabina is extolling Mr. Antrobus’s (James Vincent Meredith) virtues, and she throws in an aside: “Of course, every muscle goes tight every time he passes a policeman.” Again, I was shocked to find this line in Wilder’s original text; but when Mr. Antrobus is a white man in 1942, it is almost meaningless, a joke about his being a troublemaker. When Mr. Antrobus is Black, this line places state-sanctioned violence against people of color center stage.
Thus, The Skin of Our Teeth highlights the echoes and dissonances of history, bringing spectators into community not just with the others in the auditorium with them that night, but with audiences across time. The performance is animated by both the particular lives of the performers and spectators, and by the life that passes between productions—what Latasha would call “the troubles the human race has gone through.”
What do we lose if the theatre dies?
But, as much as the theatre is alive, it is also a practice of death. As Sabina observes, “In the midst of life we are in the midst of death, a truer word was never said.” The Comeuppance literalizes that sentiment, as Death is a character that embodies each human character in the play. Death tells the audience about its impact on each of the characters’ lives in the form of miscarriages, wartime casualties, and COVID victims. It also announces, partway through the play, that it is at the gathering of thirtysomethings “for work,” suggesting that one of the characters—we don’t know who—is imminently going to die. Death is in the midst of life.
Death’s presence in the play, and its continual confrontation of the audience, concretizes an idea in performance theory that the unique liveness of the theatre is tied up in a unique deathness. Influential theatre theorist and practitioner Herb Blau once wrote that the power of live performance lies in “the dimensionality of time through the actor, the fact that he [sic] who is performing can die there in front of your eyes; is in fact doing so.”4 Feminist critic Jill Dolan expands on that idea to argue that the presence of death in performance is what makes its temporary communities possible and powerful. “Surely any gathering can promote community,” she writes, “but … watching live performance is watching the actor dying onstage; I think sharing that liveness promotes a necessary and moving confrontation with mortality.”5 Blau puts it nicely when he writes, “Of all the performing arts, the theater stinks most of mortality.”
And, oh, does The Comeuppance stink of mortality. Not only does Death tell us that one of the fictional characters is closer than the rest of the others to the end, it also looks us straight in the eye and tells us that it’s coming for us, too. As an audience member, I was most powerfully affected by The Comeuppance when Death looks into the audience and tells us that human cells’ ability to regenerate begins to decline around the age of 27. Death then makes eye contact with several audience members who appear to be older than 27, points to them, and specifies that it is talking about them, that it’s coming for them. The silences between Death’s refrain of “and you” sat heavily across the audience while our awareness shifted to our cells and tried to feel them regenerating, or not.
Why go to the theatre to be reminded of death and dying? Surely, we get enough of that in the real world outside of the theatre, and if we’re going to spend good money on tickets to something, it should take us away from some of that suffering. Maybe so, but these plays seem to argue that there is something uniquely worthwhile in being in the midst of death while also in the midst of a crowd of strangers. Dolan sees this liveness and deathness as the quality that makes theatre a tool for political action: “By clinging to the fleshy seductions of old-fashioned primal emotion and presence,” she argues, the theatre can spur “political action by reminding us that however differently we live, our common, flesh-full cause is that in performance, we’re dying together.”
The moment that brings these plays together, and that illuminates their assertion of the necessity of live theatre and performance, comes near the end of both plays. In The Skin of Our Teeth, Sabina is alone onstage, talking to Mrs. Antrobus, who is in the other room salvaging books from the war shelter.6
Yes, peace will be here before we know it. In a week or two, we’ll be asking the Washingtons in for a quiet evening of bridge. We’ll turn on the radio and hear how to be big successes with a new toothpaste. We’ll trot down to the movies and see how the girls with wax faces live7—all that will begin again. Oh, Mrs. Antrobus, God forgive me, but I enjoyed the war. Everybody’s at their best in wartime. I’m sorry it’s over.
Meanwhile, in The Comeuppance, Death tells us that it knows we’ve felt its presence more over these last few years of the pandemic—that we could feel it looking over our shoulders while we washed our hands extra well and grocery shopped for neighbors and applauded healthcare workers. During that time, Death tells us, we humans were more likable characters, “easier to root for.”
These monologues admit that, in collective suffering, humans have a tendency to pull together: we’re our best selves, more likable characters, when we know that death is waiting for all of us around every corner. Sabina and Death are the figures who continually remind the audience that they are at a play and invite them to participate in the meaning-making of the evening. That positionality gives them a certain authority to remind us that, as we return “normal” after catastrophe, we are returning to a kind of make-believe world, where death is an unusual occurrence happening somewhere and sometime far away.
These plays entreat us to remember what we knew not so long ago, and to hold on to that character development. The theatre is where we go to remind ourselves that we are all dying together, and to live better for it.
- Sabina was played by Tony-nominated Gabby Beans in the 2022 Lincoln Center production of The Skin of Our Teeth. ↩
- Thornton Wilder and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, The Skin of Our Teeth (unpublished manuscript, 17 April 2022), in possession of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Archives. ↩
- The 2022 production of The Skin of Our Teeth amplified the audience’s meaning-making power through its production choices. The Skin of Our Teeth is a relatively obscure play outside of theatre nerd circles (it’s much less frequently produced than Wilder’s perennially popular Our Town), and the promise of Jacobs-Jenkins’s “additional material” opened the door for audiences to make their own assumptions about what was “really” in the play and what the contemporary playwright added. I had never seen a production of The Skin of Our Teeth before, and it had been a long time since I’d read Wilder’s text; so, as an audience member, I wasn’t sure what exactly Jacobs-Jenkins had changed. Some things were obvious—Latasha includes Christopher Durang’s 2012 play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in her examples of good old-fashioned entertainment plays—but I also found myself assuming that most of Latasha’s antitheatre outbursts were Jacobs-Jenkins’s additions. After all, An Octoroon—probably Jacobs-Jenkins’s most well-known work—is also a heavy adaptation of an old play (The Octoroon, 1859) that features characters who break the fourth wall to critique the original text. So, too, did I assume that every line that made me think about race, and every line that made me think about the pandemic, were contemporary additions. In reality, most of the alterations were quite minor: Jacobs-Jenkins edited out unnecessarily gendered language, revised outdated and racialized character descriptions, and updated references to New York institutions (Bellevue becomes New York Presbyterian, for example). All of this is to say that, as a spectator, more so than usual, I was constructing my own version of the play as I was watching it, wildly attributing authorship and periodization based on my own positionality and making meaning out of those assumptions. ↩
- Herbert Blau, Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point (University of Illinois Press, 1982). ↩
- Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance : Finding Hope at the Theater (University of Michigan Press, 2005). ↩
- Mrs. Antrobus was performed by Roslyn Ruff in the 2022 Lincoln Center Production. ↩
- The resonance of this line with the current Barbie movie phenomenon is uncanny. ↩