LOWELL, Mass. — Jack Kerouac shot to fame after publishing his jazz- and drug-infused book, “On the Road,” in 1957. During that hot period the autobiographical novelist also wrote a play — “The Beat Generation.” It was never produced, though. Instead, it was forgotten.
Now, more than 50 years later, Kerouac’s lost play is being staged for the first time in the writer’s hometown of Lowell.
Charles Towers, the artistic director at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, remembers exactly what he thought after “The Beat Generation” was rediscovered in 2004: “They just found the only play he ever wrote. It needs to be done in Lowell before it’s done anywhere else.”
Now, after chasing the rights on and off for years, Towers is finally staging a jazzed-up reading of “The Beat Generation” as part of the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. There are sets, costumes, lights and a live saxophonist, but the cast will have scripts in their hands. Towers doesn’t see it as a “theatrical” event, though — not in the same way it would be if it were a lost play by, say, Tennessee Williams.
“This is finding a lost play by a novelist, so it’s a literary event,” he mused with a laugh at a recent rehearsal. “So that’s really the difference. He’s not a playwright — I mean, he pretended to be a playwright for three months in the fall of 1957, and after that he never went back to it again. This was his one attempt.”
Back in ‘57 that attempt did not impress Kerouac’s literary agent, Sterling Lord.
“Because I didn’t think it offered anything new,” he explained. Lord represented Kerouac throughout the writer’s career, and said the play featured the same type of “beat” characters you find in “On the Road,” just with different names. He also didn’t think He could sell it. Even so, Lord showed the play to a few Broadway producers, at Kerouac’s request.
“And I think I even sent it to Marlon Brando, again at Jack’s request, although I frankly didn’t have any hopes for it because I didn’t think it was that effective, quite honestly,” Lord admitted.
In the end the agent said Kerouac asked him to put the play away. “Well put it away I did. I put it very deeply into the files, and when I got it out in 2004 and read it again I was amazed! I found it a very exciting play. And of course part of the excitement and part of the value of it was the authenticity that I felt as I was reading it.”
John Sampas, literary executor of the Kerouac estate, arrived before a recent rehearsal and pulled out a letter-sized box from his briefcase. Inside was the original script for “The Beat Generation,” typed by Kerouac himself in 1957. Then Sampas read the stage directions:
Act 1. Scene is early morning in New York near the Bowery. Standing in the kitchen, cheap kitchen, are a colored guy called Jule and a white guy called Buck, and they’re both raising glasses of wine to each other, in little glasses, and Buck’s saying: “All right Jule, let’s have one”…
Sampas has been collaborating with the theater and UMass Lowell to get his brother-in-law’s play produced.
“I think what comes through is what has always come through,” Sampas said, “Jack had this wonderful idea of the brotherhood of man. He was very, very much in love with all his friends, and I think that’s the spirit I would want to convey about Jack.”
“The Beat Generation” is basically a “bromance” with a bunch of guys shooting the breeze — in an apartment, at the racetrack and in a suburban ranch house belonging to Milo. Milo is based on Kerouac’s real-life friend and muse Neal Cassady, just as Dean Moriarty was in “On the Road.” So this play is kind of a sequel.
Milo, the once-wandering, drinking dropout, now has four kids and a job as a railroad brakeman, which doesn’t sit too well with Buck, a stand-in for Kerouac himself, played by actor Tony Crane.
Over the course of three acts the characters eat eggs with wine, play the ponies, and make fun of a bishop — talking up a storm and laughing at each other the whole time.
Director Towers admits the play doesn’t have much of a plot, per se, but he thinks it was Kerouac’s attempt to set the record straight regarding himself and the rest of “the beats” because the writer hated that name.
“I think a part of him was saying ‘OK, you want to see the Beat Generation? Here. Here’s a play, I’m going to call it “Beat Generation” and you know what it is? It’s just me and my friends hanging out,’ ” Towers said. “‘That’s the Beat Generation.’ ”
For actor Joey Collins, the loving, tense relationship between Milo and Buck — or Cassady and Kerouac — is fascinating to follow.
“I do think there’s a quality in their relationship that’s sort of coming to a head,” Collins said. “And at the end of the play you sort of get, the audience will be able to decide for themselves what happens to these two buddies.”
Collins’ character delivers a torrent of words throughout the play, which has a cast of 15. As Towers put it, he “just doesn’t shut up.”
“I talk a lot in this, basically,” Collins admitted, smiling. “Neal Cassady, or in this play, Milo, it’s like he’s supported by this wonderful jazz band but he gets the virtuoso. He gets to play that melody line. And so I feel like I’m that trumpet player, you know, just sort of closing his eyes and just blowing.”
Crane is thrilled to be cast as Buck, the Kerouac character. He’s been a fan and ardent student of the writer since he was in college, but now the actor marvels at Kerouac’s nimble dialogue.
“The way he changes themes,” Crane said, “this is a gentleman who could, so mercurial, just change points of subject, going from everyone talking about what they’re going to eat for breakfast to the astral planes in four sentences and keep everybody involved.”
The chance to hear Kerouac’s words spoken by flesh-and-blood actors makes this an event, even for the most hardcore Beat fans, according to Paul Marion. He called the play, “In the Room,” versus “On the Road.”
“Sort of ‘ahha’ moment is going to be having the dialogue wash over you,” he predicted.
As both a Kerouac scholar and head of community and cultural relations at UMass Lowell, Marion was instrumental in making “The Beat Generation” a centerpiece in this week’s Jack Kerouac Literary Festival.
“In a way he was documenting the life of the time, and the play is another document, kind of giving us an earful, you know, of what it’s like being in the apartment with Kerouac and his friends at the time,” Marion said.
Which you don’t get on a page, Marion said. Although you can get a taste in the short film, “Pull My Daisy,” which was actually based on the play’s third act and is narrated by Kerouac. Also, for the record, actor Ethan Hawke read some passages from “The Beat Generation” on stage in New York City in 2005, the year the book version was published.
But now, in the midst of Kerouac’s 90th birth year, Towers says premiering the writer’s full-length play, in its entirety, right here in Lowell, is the coolest part.
“There’s something mystical about that, just speaking the words aloud in his hometown,” he said. “You know we’re two blocks from the Kerouac memorial here in Lowell; I walk by it every day, I walk through Kerouac Park, so I’ve grown quite affectionate to the guy.”
While Kerouac was alive the residents of Lowell didn’t feel the same way about their counter-cultural native son. He died in 1969 at age 47 and is buried in the city. Towers hopes the now-iconic author is picking up on “The Beat Generation” debut wherever he may be… perhaps in the Astral Plane.