"Howard's thematic and poetic concerns are richer than any American playwright I'm familiar with," Chambers said. "He has an extraordinary combination of theatricality, character and event. Is he underappreciated? I'd have to say yes. What he writes about is difficult. It's not sentimental, patronizing or easy. It's filled with a combination of profound thought and wicked humor. He writes with a scalpel, and that's something easy for people to turn away from."

SCR dramaturge Jerry Patch is equally effusive. "I think Howard is the most demanding playwright for an audience of anyone we've ever produced,"he said. "He challenges you intellectually and shows you things that are not always fun to watch—even though he is also a very funny writer who has a satirist's concern, or ire, at the wrongs of society."

Korder writes plays as often as Bruce Springsteen releases albums. The Hollow Lands marks his fourth full-length play to receive a major production since Boy's Life, which received a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1988. The SCR-commissioned Search and Destroy earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award in 1992 and was turned into a film produced by Martin Scorsese in 1995. SCR also commissioned but passed on producing The Lights, which earned a 1994 Obie in New York.

There is an obvious air of anticipation surrounding the premiere of any new Korder play, especially one that is such a departure from his other work in terms of scope, historical setting and time passage. Think Scorsese doing Kundun after years of gritty, urban films.

And what does the playwright think of his latest work?

"I don't think people are going to be dancing when they walk out of the theater," Korder said. "But I do hope that they think they've experienced something—that they wind up in a different place from where they began."

"The cast has a definite sense of respect for it, even awe at times," said Chambers. "It's not like we think we're working on a national monument, but we all know we're touching something terribly important."


It wasn't God what traveled acrost the ocean, it was the devil. And everything we brung, that's what the devil give us. We got to leave it behind. All of it.

—Kasthenk, religious acolyte

The Hollow Lands begins in the hold of a ship "rolling out of the darkness." It is 1815. James Newman, a penniless Irish immigrant who is haltingly reading from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, can barely restrain his exuberance at the thought of fleeing the rain-splattered Emerald Isle and the roving gangs of British soldiers out to "recruit" young Irishmen into the empire's army. Newman is headed to America for a new life in the vast, uncharted lands marked "unknown" on the map he bought with his last tuppence in Belfast. Only problem is that the map is 100 years old. It's this preoccupation with terra incognita, the unknown space both within and without, of identity and names and labels and making a new Eden in the New World, that flows throughout The Hollow Lands like one of the turbulent rivers where so many of the play's scenes take place.

In New York, James meets the people who will shape his life. These include Mercy, his future wife, and Samuel Markham Hayes, a magnificently eloquent, Byronesque character plagued by imperial dreams of setting up his own fiefdom in the wilderness. From there, the play roars through a series of encounters. There's murderous rage in New England. Savage encounters with Native Americans along the banks of the Missouri River. Dreams of fortune in St. Louis. Disastrous expeditions. A frantic search for a religious cult that has fled to the desert to "give new names to things." An Army fort with 12 hanged Indians. A quest for the fabled seven cities of gold.

The play's course follows the volatile path of an unhewn people just beginning to get their arms around America. There are hints and echoes of major signposts in the nation's growth, from the Louisiana Purchase and the Oregon Trail to the Mexican War, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and Native American genocide. And woven throughout are strands of the national character that remain keenly relevant today: business speculation; the worship of profit; the mantra of hard work, spit and gumption; religious fanaticism; utopianism; endemic rootlessness; racism; and, above all else, the worship of individuality and the search to find, or at least define, oneself in a new world—even if that means razing a continent to sink one's own roots in the smoldering ruins.


You seek salvation in profit. . . . You call dollars freedom. . . . You enslave the African . . . and call it law. You murder the Indian and call it progress. . . . You do not know where you are. . . . Your words are wrong.

—Thomas Lauderbeck, prisoner

Frederick Jackson Turner, an influential 19th-century historian, believed that the frontier was a kind of black box: in one side went rough immigrants; out the other came self-sufficient practitioners of democracy. The environment, more than history or institutions, transformed a nation of immigrants into Americans. The westward pull, the promise of the frontier, is at the root of American character. Turner was idealistic: he saw that pull as a noble struggle, one that imbued Americans with their distinctive gifts of generosity, innovation and self-reliance.

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