Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Lands the World Premiere of a Legendary Playwright’s Lost Play — How The Alley Pulled Off The Emporium

An Austin Professor Uncovers and Finishes a Giant's Uncompleted Work

BY // 05.18.24

Houston’s Alley Theatre is making theater history with the world premiere of The Emporium, a lost play by one of the giants of 20th century American theater and literature — Thornton Wilder — that just opened and runs through June 2. The tale of the play’s discovery and completion is so intriguing, Austin playwright Kirk Lynn, who worked to finish The Emporium, even put part of that story into the play itself. 

After winning Pulitzer Prizes for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder spent decades working on The Emporium. Twice the play was set to debut on Broadway, but the productions never happened. 

Skipping ahead half a century in this origin story, Lynn — a University of Texas professor and member of the Austin’s innovative theater collective The Rude Mechs — was on a quest to understand how generations of theater goers love Wilder’s work as traditional classics despite the other truth. Wilder wrote such fourth wall-breaking, inventive and occasionally just weird plays. 

“With the Rude Mechs I do a lot of experimental work but I also want to make mainstream work,” Lynn tells PaperCity.

Alley Theatre artistic director Rob Melrose, who directs The Emporium, calls Wilder’s ability to write for so many audiences “amazing.”

“He’s the only playwright who gets to have his cake and eat it too,” Melrose says. “He gets to be this beloved, totally accessible playwright. But then he’s super experimental.”

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A Wilder Way to The Emporium

While reading through Wilder’s journals, Lynn discovered references to a script Wilder was working on inspired by Kafka’s The Castle. The story follows an orphan named John who journeys to the big city trying to find his place in world by earning employment at a seemingly magical department store. But he can never find his way in.

Lynn used some of his time as a lecturer at Yale University to dig through Wilder’s papers archived in the university library. . . and there he found it. Over 350 pages of The Emporium.

“Oh my God, there’s a whole play and it’s astonishing,” Lynn says of that moment of discovery. “It’s not just fragments. There’s nine discrete scenes and multiple drafts of the different scenes. But he never quite put it together.”

Alley Theatre – The Emporium – PROMO – Photographer Lynn Lane-4
The Cast of Alley Theatre’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Emporium grabs the moment. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Lynn knew he wanted to attempt a kind of collaboration with the playwright, who died in 1975, to finish the play. He went to the Wilder Estate, who gave him permission to try to put the drafts together. 

For a time, Lynn struggled, as Wilder himself did, with finding a beginning and ending to The Emporium. He brought the project to The Alley, and while continuing to work on it, came up with the idea to begin the play by essentially putting himself into the action.

The Emporium now opens not in an orphanage or department story, but in a university library with a writer/researcher character discovering a play by Thornton Wilder titled The Emporium. 

Melrose approximates that about 80 percent of this world premiere production comes from Wilder’s many drafts and 20 percent from Lynn, including the framing devise of the world of The Emporium springing out from a library.  

A Love Letter to The Alley Theatre Audience

The Alley workshopped the new and now completed play in 2022 as part of the Alley All New play reading festival, and then they did another reading in New York. As Lynn continued to tinker with The Emporium script, Melrose continued to think about how audiences responded. Like Wilder’s other masterpieces, The Emporium contains characters who talk to the audience. But this play goes further, asking the audience to participate in the making of the story. (Don’t worry, no audience member is required to come onstage.) 

The show contains metaphors and mysteries, including the question of what exactly the Emporium represents, what it stands as a symbol of in the real world. At one point, the actors even ask the audience to vote during intermission about how much they want to be told about the play’s meanings.

Alley Theatre – The Emporium – PROMO – Photographer Lynn Lane-2
David Rainey and the cast of Alley Theatre’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Emporium are taking on a real challenge. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Melrose explains that after getting those first workshop audiences’ reactions in the workshops, they found some enjoyed getting lost in act one, yet they were also excited to vote for answers in the second act. 

“There are people who love it just that way it is, loved being confused by act one, loved finding out after intermission,” Melrose notes. “In the second act, once you know what the metaphor is, it’s all the more rich.”

But there were other audience members who became baffled and frustrated by the experimental nature of the play. 

They’ve been working to help this group to give them enough “bread crumps” in the story “so that they know there’s a mystery and know that part of the fun is figuring it out.”

Melrose says from the workshops to the full production rehearsals of The Emporium, they’ve strived to achieve that balance Wilder maintained in his other great and enduring plays — to be accessible even while experimenting.

“One pressure we’ve put on ourselves is we don’t want to this to be some avant garde thing, and we don’t care who likes it,” Melrose says. “The whole project is to bring as many people along for the ride as we possible can.”

“The play is sort of a love letter to audiences,” Lynn says. “To sort of honor the fact, there’s a line that if we do this right we’ll be the first people to experience this Thornton Wilder play. It matters that we’re here.” 

Starting with this world premiere in Houston.

The Emporium runs through June 2 at the Alley Theatre. Tickets range from $53 to $60.

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