One of America’s greatest and most enduring playwrights was
Thornton Wilder, although he is out of fashion today with
some academic and politically-correct critics. He lived from
1897 to 1975, and his best work was produced on Broadway
in the 1930‘s, 40’s and 50’s. In my opinion, his masterpiece
was “Our Town,” a theatrical meditation on the nature of
life presented with a narrator and characters living and dead.
His plays are still produced frequently in schools, community
theaters, on regional stages, and occasionally revived on
Broadway and Off-Broadway.
Wilder also wrote novels, and one of them, “The Bridge At San
Luis Rey” won the Pulitzer Prize. Another of his outstanding
works of theater was entitled “The Skin Of Our Teeth,” and it
also won a Pulitzer, as did “Our Town.” Another play, originally
entitled “The Merchant of Yonkers” was adapted by him as
“The Matchmaker” and enjoyed a great run on Broadway. It
later became the basis of the play and movie “Hello Dolly!”
Wilder’s work often were meditations on the deepest issues of
the nature of life, but set in small towns and places. I have
always loved his title “The Skin of Our Teeth” which is a phrase
that comes from the Book of Job in the Old Testament. The
phrase has been somewhat perplexing since, of course,
there is no skin on human teeth. Its meaning in Job, and
subsequently, however, is clear. It means the narrowest of
escapes. (Biblical scholars now believe the phrase in the original
Aramaic Hebrew referred to the gums, the only part of Job’s
body not covered with boils.)
Winston Churchill once said that America always does the
right thing, after it has explored every other alternative. He
had read about the U.S. Civil War after allowing slavery for
almost our first hundred years, our late entry into World War I,
our delayed entry into World War II, and our initial hesitation
about confronting Soviet communism.
Churchill’s phrase and Wilder’s title from the Bible capture,
I think, the very nature of America’s role in the world in the
20th century, and so far in the 21st century.
Robert Kagan’s recent and thoughtful book The World
America Made asserts that the United States created much
of the modern world through its industrial/economic
innovation and impact, its military interventions, and the
idealistic and liberating example of its democratic republic.
Kagan suggest that we retreat from this at our, and the world's,
We can easily observe today many forces outside the U.S.
which continually challenge American leadership, and even
wish to destroy it. More disturbing, perhaps, has been the
rise inside the U.S. of some considerable public opinion
and private attitudes that the U.S. should no longer exert its
power and influence, either economically, politically or
militarily. There are those who could argue persuasively
that some form of this view is held by the current president
of the United States, many in his administration, some
in the Congress, and not a few in the media.
The so-called “global warming” issue which has been raised
so loudly in recent years is a form of this attitude. If global
warming presumptions were followed, most of the industrial
world, including the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea,
India, Canada and Europe would need to de-industrialize.
The global warming issue was not principally about the
environment (which is a legitimate issue); it has been primarily
a political issue between the developed and undeveloped
worlds, and between ideologies.
In recent years,the world has seen its share of great and
terrible natural disasters in the form of earthquakes,
tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, and floods.
Because the populations in the world, especially in the areas
where these disaster have occurred, have grown tremendously
in the past 150 years, the loss of life and economic cost have
been enormous. Earlier in history, there were great natural
disasters, but the impact was limited, and the ability to assist
the victims was constrained by distance and lack of technology.
Today, when tragic disasters occur, many nations in the world
offer valuable assistance, but it is the U.S. with its economic,
medical, technological and transportation resources which
helps by far the most. When small nations and ethnic groups
face persecution and destruction , it is the U.S. which has stepped
up to the plate to defend human rights. When new epidemics and
other medical threats arise, it has been U.S. medical research and
innovation which has come to the rescue worldwide.
It is relatively easily to self-diminish a superpower’s military
strength, to regulate its industries out of existence, to withdraw
from world’s political environment. But how then are lives saved
from natural disaster and epidemics, how then does a great
nation trade with the rest of the world, how then are nations
protected from aggression and totalitarianism?
The notion that the U.S. can voluntarily resign as a superpower
and still prosper and be secure is ludicrous. Without perhaps
understanding the consequences of their views, many in the U.S.
advocate this resignation. In fact, recent trends seem to be going
This is where we require a new direction, if only by the skin of
our teeth. Those who are pessimistic or have given up hope
altogether should remember that America has always avoided
a downfall by the narrowest of escapes.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.