This article argues that the New Jersey setting of The Skin of Our Teeth is more than a sequence of stock images and backgrounds. It is likely that, in constructing the play, Thornton Wilder drew from personal experiences during the years he spent living in New Jersey. Wilder provides evidence to suggest that the real-world inspiration for Excelsior, New Jersey, was Plainfield, New Jersey, and that the three crises that the Antrobus family experiences in the play were influenced by the harsh winters Wilder experienced living in New Jersey, hurricanes which affected the Jersey Shore in the years prior to Wilder’s return to New Jersey, and cultural panic about a domestic mainland attack on U.S. soil during the U-boat crisis. Viewing the setting of The Skin of Our Teeth as deeply rooted in the history of New Jersey and the United States allows the Antrobus family to be seen as representative of a changing America.
This article argues that Horace Vandergelder is more than a typical one-dimensional character that inhabits a farce. It is likely that in constructing the character of Vandergelder, Wilder drew from personal and family experience. He sets The Matchmaker in the town neighboring his mother’s birthplace. Wilder experienced yeoman farming as a young man and saw its destruction as monoculture farming grew to dominate American agriculture. His father’s and grandfather’s views on alcohol and the social place of women impacted the way that Wilder viewed the world. His maternal and paternal family both included members who served in the Civil War and others who became involved in military fraternal organizations. Viewing Vandergelder’s characterization as deeply rooted in American history and culture explains both his actions and motives. Despite the immense hardship of his life, Vandergelder, a widower, is able to create a surrogate family that he does his best to protect despite their negative views of him. He changes at the end of The Matchmaker for the good of his family rather than to provide a happy ending for a comedy.