Thornton Wilder has long been a favorite on this blog for his deep insight into the struggle of life. The following comes from journal notes he wrote concerning his play “The Emporium.” It is a tragedy that he never found the necessary creativity to finish the play and put his great ideas to paper.

Wilder described the play as combination of Kafka and Horatio Alger. It seems that “The Emporium” is organized around the following two central ideas:

1. The Impotence of the Ethical.

For Wilder, a central problem of humanity is the presence and potency of fear. Life is marked by an insatiable fear and our striving to quench this insecurity.

“Ethics does not offer any relief to the basic fear of men; though millions try to make themselves believe so.”

“The Just Man, conscious recti, cannot dissipate or liquidate his fears; he can only ignore them; or, as we say, rise above them. They lie in wait to assail him at those moments when weakness or some sudden blow of circumstances (mis-chance) robs him of the will-constructed resolution not to confront them. And the long-time contemplation of the totality of experience is itself the enemy of serenity. Many a stoic has significant resolution to be unshaken by the ills within his own life; can he sustain it in the contemplation of the ills of all mankind? Again there is a transition from quantity to quality: to remain serene in the presence of a few ills is stoicism; to remain serene in the face of a myriad demands faith”.

2. The Big Wheel in the Sky

Wilder wished to demonstrate that while life consists in the endless repetition and vanity of the world, this cycle is broken only through an intervention of grace and belonging. One must belong to something (or Someone) from outside of the system which goes against the grain of the world.

“[The play] is about the Wheel of Being; the endless repetitions of the life-forms; but the Emporium is, precisely, the evidence of pressures from Elsewhere to introduce a qualitative change into the mechanical repetitions…”

As the character Mr. Foster says:

“The generations of men are like the generations of leaves on the trees. They fall into the earth and new leaves are grown the following spring. The world into which you have been born is one of the eternal repetitions—already you can see that. But there is something to which you can belong—you do belong: I am not yet empowered to tell you its name. It is something which is constantly striving to bring something new into these repetitions, to life them, to color them, to—

It’s not by running away—from place to place—that you will find something to belong to—or that you will make yourself free—You are looking in the wrong place.—You will find it when you least expect it”.

Wilder wrote that “the motto of the play” is that “one can only belong to that that is not threatened with extinction”.