Thornton Wilder’s THE EMPORIUM Playwright’s Reflections

By Kirk Lynn, Playwright

I saw a production of Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre.  It was so fresh and engaging, playing with the audience, joking about smoke breaks and wildly meta-theatrical.  It was also heart-breaking.  It was produced with a thrust stage, so I could look across and watch the audience across the way watch the play.  There was a woman who kept breaking into tears and every time it would make me start crying. I found her at intermission and I teased her she needed to get it together because every time she started crying, it made me cry. And she said, “No, I’m crying because I can see you and you’re crying!”  Something this deep and playful, I assumed they had updated the script, but I didn’t see where or how. So I texted the director and asked what he had changed.  Nothing. Thornton Wilder just wrote in way that still feels new. 

I still marvel at Our Town, a play my parents think of as a well-made story, and I study for its formal innovation. How does Thornton Wilder do both at once? 

In order to find out I decided to read everything by Thornton Wilder. I read all his plays and novels. I read biographies and letters. And at the very end I was working my way through his journals when I came across notes about an unfinished play: The Emporium.  The way the journals talked about, years and years of work, readings with friends… It was reported that it was going to premiere on Broadway, once starring Montgomery Clift and Mary Morris… I knew the play had to exist somewhere. So I took myself to the Beinecke Library, and there in Wilder’s papers were 300+ pages of the Emporium.  

It felt like one of those moments on Antiques Roadshow when someone discovers on the back of an old painting is a copy of the Constitution worth millions.  In those pages are nine discrete scenes, in multiple drafts, that sketch out a joyous narrative riffing on Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories, and translating the spirit of Kafka’s The Castle for an American sensibility.  

I reached out the estate and began conversations about organizing the material and completing the play. The estate itself was eager and enthusiastic to work with me. We did some readings of the raw material and felt we could make it work. 

The initial impulse to read everything by Wilder was born out of a desire to study a great writer. But getting to working on The Emporium gifted me more than I could imagine.  On the best days I feel like I got to work directly with Wilder’s methods and his spirit.  And it’s an honor to bring Thornton Wilder’s The Emporium to the stage at last.