Alley Theatre in Texas puts on Thornton Wilder's last, unfinished play, 'The Emporium'

NEW YORK (AP) — For Kirk Lynn, it was like a scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He was in a library at Yale, nervously opening three bankers boxes. Inside were hundreds of pages of an unknown and unfinished play by the great playwright Thornton Wilder.

“My face just emotionally melted off,” Lynn says, laughing.

Lynn, a novelist, playwright and screenwriter who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, went through the 360 handwritten pages and, with the blessing of the Wilder estate, finished the play, “The Emporium.”

The nine-scene work will make its debut at Alley Theatre in Houston from May 10-June 2, capping a remarkable treasure hunt and rescue mission for a forgotten work by a literary icon.

“We’re giving the world a world premiere of a great American playwright that we didn’t even know we had,” said Rob Melrose, Alley's artistic director and the show’s director.

Lynn had dedicated a year to reading everything Wilder left behind when he died in 1975. Wilder's two previous full-length plays — “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth” — each won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. His novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” won the fiction Pulitzer.

Wilder's draw is as strong as ever, with a starry revival of “Our Town” scheduled for Broadway this fall with Jim Parsons, Katie Holmes, Richard Thomas and Ephraim Sykes.

In the late writer's letters, drafts and notebooks, Lynn sometimes found references to an unproduced third play, “The Emporium,” inspired by Franz Kafka’s “The Castle.”

"Kirk just said, ‘This must exist somewhere,’" said Melrose.

When Lynn typed some of the reference numbers for materials at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, he didn't know what was going to be in the banker boxes. He said it took all his strength not to grab the nearest scholar by the lapels and scream with joy when he lifted off the top of one box.

The pages had been heavily worked on by the playwright, with sections crossed out and new dialogue written in the margins. Occasionally, Wilder grew bored and scribbled word games, like how many other words he could make from “plenitude,” “hospice” and “invalid.”

To say “The Emporium” is unfinished is not quite right. Over-finished might be better — Wilder had multiple versions of each scene and it was up to Lynn to stitch the best version together and add some of his own lines. He likened himself to a carpenter, spackling over the seams to make it appear smooth.

“I felt like I unlocked a bonus level where not only can you read him, but you can touch the material and feel like you’re working with him, which is great,” he said.

The result is a funny, moving and experimental seven-actor play, with audience participation, jokes about Honey Boo Boo and Jodie Foster, a love story and surreal touches throughout, like a box of cards set on fire. “He’s trying to write right at the edge of what he might be able to pull off,” said Lynn.

The play — about a mythical department store containing everything a person could possibly want — is a metaphor for a life in the arts. We know this because Wilder thought it would be clever to have a prologue saying exactly that plopped into the play after intermission. Wilder didn't write the prologue, so Lynn stepped in.

Wilder wanted “The Emporium” to show how frustrating it is to be an artist. In a regular corporate job — represented in the play by rival department stores — hiring, promotions, bonuses and titles are clear. But it's hard to know how to enter the world of the arts and you often have to fake it until you make it.

Lynn suspects Wilder didn't finish “The Emporium” in part because of heightened expectations. “I think he’s pretty scared that it’s not going to live up to his own standards and his own potential,” he said. “He’s anxious about whether it will be another great work.”

“The Emporium” has signature Wilder touches — like goodbye speeches — and autobiographical details, like a nod to the boarding houses he lived in and an orphanage that may be a reference to his own years in boarding school.

One puzzle facing Lynn was how to actually start the play. Wilder wanted it to be like a perfect circle that could be started at any scene. In some drafts, the play starts with scene seven. “It was a really fun problem,” Lynn said.

Audiences these days are encouraged to watch shows quietly, but not at “The Emporium.” Wilder asks them to make animal noises, hiss at characters and write things on cards. They're even told at some points to take out their phones and use the flashlight.

“His idea from the beginning was that the audience was going to be cast in a choral role for every scene,” said Melrose. “So in the first scene, they’re a bunch of rioting customers outside the Emporium. The second scene, they’re orphans. The third scene, they’re sheep.”

Lynn and Melrose credit the Wilder estate — including Wilder's nephew, Tappan Wilder — with encouraging Lynn to put more of himself in the play and take risks. “To be invited into that was delicious,” said Lynn.

This isn't the first time the Alley Theatre has been host to a world premiere of a lost play by a master playwright. In 1998, it produced the American premiere of Tennessee Williams' “Not About Nightingales,” which went on to a Broadway run in 1999.

Melrose, formerly the artistic director and co-founder of the Cutting Ball Theater, recalls being jealous of Alley all those years ago and leapt at the chance when Lynn began discussing “The Emporium.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is a way I could get to do the thing I didn’t get to do with Williams.’ I actually get to do it with Wilder and I get to feel like I’m carrying that torch that Alley started.”


Mark Kennedy is at