Does Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth ” Plagiarize Finnegans Wake?

Last Sunday, I attended Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth at PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Adam Versényi, the company’s dramaturg and Dr. Sarah Stroud, Director of the Parr Center for Ethics facilitated a discussion that followed. Questions solicited, I asked Ethicist Stroud if she cared to comment on accusations of plagiarism against the play by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. She was unaware of the controversy. Adam Versényi, a member of the creative team responsible for the production, went on at some length, defending Wilder against plagiarism. The defense rested on three pillars: 

-Most art is dependant to some degree on the art that preceded it.

-Wilder never responded to the allegations.

-The attack was mean-spirited and the product of an overly enthuisiastic “twenty-four-year-old junior academic.”

Did that answer my question? I disagreed with his conclusion, but acknowledged Versényi’s detailed knowledge of the controversy. I could have highjacked the discussion, but most of the audience seemed unaware of the issue believed. For them the play was commentary on climate change or a feminist manifesto. 

I admit to being a Joycean fanboy but without any professional or commercial dog in the fight (or wooly mammoth if you know the play). I will attempt a balanced reply. I’ll comment on the defenses in the reverse order they were presented.

Joseph Campbell’s age at the time seems of no relevance. Researching, I find several who question the “mean-spirited” attack of the play by Campbell and Robinson. However, that does not mean the charges are not true, and it’s a poor critique to make when seated next to an ethicist. Ironically, during introductory comments about the play, the dramaturg praised college students who interrupted the machinery of society in support of social justice. If Campbell’s age impeded his judgment, how is the university’s constituent student body unimpeded? This defense failed to note that Campbell’s co-author was forty-six-year-old Henry Morton Robinson, Columbia professor, author, playwright, and poet. Suggesting that Campbell had an underdeveloped frontal lobe without mention of a mature influence seems defective evidence.

Robinson and Campbell’s allegations against TSoOT in 1944 were comprehensive and published in a two-part criticism in The New YorkerWilder’s attorney advised “no response” to the accusations. I’ll invite interested parties to consider Thornton’s obsession with Joyce, the detailed journals Wilder wrote about Finnegans Wake while writing “The Skin of Our Teeth,” and the mysteries of missing documents and reordered journal pages. The best unbiased recounting I found is Sidney Feshbach’s “Deeply Indebted: On Thornton Wilder’s Interest in James Joyce” (accessible on JSTOR.org). Feshbach’s paper includes Wilder’s admission seven years tardy that a speech was borrowed “in homage” to Joyce (497). This article includes a litany of similarities between Wilder’s works and previously published Joyceana (496-498). 

Wilder suffered true anguish over his obsession with Finnegans Wake. He journaled about his reading, created volumes of notes, and admitted he was unable to create anything of his own because of the effect it had on him. Ultimately, he decided that he must close the book for five years. Wilder’s peculiarities are no indictment. Refusal to confess plagiarism is not admission of guilt.

Not throwing stones like Cain/Shem/Henry at Wilder, I’m aiming at the argument I heard in his defense. The first argument from the defense was that all art depends on predecessors. Wilder said he relied no more on Joyce than he did on novels by Henry James and Mark Twain. He would be pleased if some future writer honored him as he had honored Joyce. The incomplete James novel spun a 19th Century Englishman who changed places with an ancestor. After a blow to the head, Twain’s character imagines himself in Arthur’s mythical Court. Joyce’s novel is about the night of an epic dream. I can’t find strong connections to either James or Twain.

The play consists of 117 pages; The Wordsworth Classics paperback Finnegans Wake numbers 656 pages. If the longer work were written after the play, a reasonable observer might allow coincidental similarities. It is harder to concede similarities in a shorter work written afterwards. I’ll limit my discussion to three features of Joyce’s work. 

  1. Brothers, Shem and Shawn, engage in a Cain and Able struggle. They undergo name changes throughout their combat. In TSoOT, “Henry” is a new identity for Cain, who has killed his brother. Most viewers could appreciate this plot feature without having experience of Finnegans Wake. This coincidence would not constitute conclusive evidence but is noteworthy.
  2. Joyce’s schema turns on the axel of Giambattista Vico’s philosophy. In Vico, history cycles unfailingly from the Age of Gods, to Heros, to Men, then Cataclysm. Finnegans Wake notes Vico’s critical contribution to the plot. TSoOT fails to credit this. Based on comments by that Sunday’s audience, the omission leaves the audience blind. Wilder’s play uses Vico’s stages but avoids explaining them, the message incomprehensible. Before Antrobus appears on stage, he is GODlike, onstage and unchallenged HEROic. At war, he is MAN challenged. APOCOLYPSE follows. The cycle repeats.
  3. KECK! from TIP! In TSoOT Act 2’s dream-hallucination sequence, unexplained “KECK” punctuates the Fortune Teller’s pronouncements. The predecessor in Finnegans Wake is “TIP,” a tree’s branch scratching at the window during the night of Earwicker’s dream. This unlikely intersection would require an extraordinary concession to coincidence; it cannot be supported under the weight of the evidence here or elsewhere.

Thornton Wilder’s torment was not limited to obsession with Finnegans Wake or Robinson and Campbell’s accusations. Wilder’s life was filled with secrets, but anyone without great care can unconsciously incorporate another’s idea into work believed to be entirely original. I won’t accuse The author of theft or accuse Campbell and Robinson of malice for trying to aid the “hand to mouth” finances of Nora Barnacle Joyce and an institutionalized daughter. I object only to those offering strident claims of originality. If asked whether they can claim Wilder’s work was free of Joyce’s influence, they probably answer: “YES I said YES I will YES.”

 

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