Jack Kerouac is regarded as the leader of the beat poets and writers who changed the American literary landscape in the 1950s and influenced the decade to come. The Lowell, Massachusetts native was the amphetamine-and-alcohol-driven novelist who gave us “The Dharma Bums” and “On the Road,” the seminal work of wanderlust and anguish that brought him eternal hipster fame and notoriety.
Before all that, though, in 1944, he wrote “The Haunted Life.” It was his first novel, unfinished and lost for 58 years before finally being published in 2014. The story is set in 1941 before America’s entry into World War II and then in 1942, after the Pearl Harbor attack.
That novel has been turned into a two-hour play — adapted and directed by Sean Daniels and co-directed by christopher oscar peña — and makes its world premiere at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre March 20-April 14.
“It’s a new play we’re doing with a classic writer who’s talking about young ideas,” says Raviv Ullman, who plays Peter Martin, the lead character Kerouac based on himself. “There’s something timeless about Jack’s writing. Sitting in rehearsal reading his words, it really speaks to what we’re going through as a country right now. About what he was feeling about being torn and trying to find his place in the world. That is something that will always resonate with the masses — and definitely with me and young artists.”
“The Haunted Life” is set in Galloway, Massachusetts (the fictional town standing in for Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell), and revolves around Ullman’s character, who is on stage for the entirety of the play. The Great Depression is still lingering and jobs are scarce. One of the key conflicts Peter has is with his conservative father, Joe (Joel Colodner), who fears he is losing his business.
While the time-frame is far removed from today’s world, the topics are not, says Daniels, MRT’s outgoing artistic director. “It deals with exactly the same issues we spend our day talking about. A racist father who believes immigrants are ruining the country. That America used to be great and that Democrats just want more immigrants because then they get more votes. What’s amazing is you hear the language in this show and feel like this is a sketch of today. Even the exact words — ‘immigrants are infesting this country’ — it’s the same terminology the president uses.”
Daniels says in the 1940s many people used racist terminology without much forethought or consequence. It was more commonplace. By trying to grapple with that language in the novel during that time period, Daniels says Kerouac was “out of his mind in terms of trying to talk about these issues in 1944, but we would think he’s pretty woke and liberal today.”
Some of Kerouac’s language may seem outdated now, but Daniels maintains it functions in a manner similar to Shakespeare and Chekhov — the author addressing “really contemporary issues that still hold today.”
Daniels considers the Martin/Kerouac character to be “very charming and very self-destructive,” but says in casting the role, his first thought was that the actor needed to be able to handle the language and could handle the complexity. “That’s a very specific characterization you need to have.”
Lowell then, as now, is a city comprised of many immigrants — 70 percent in Kerouac’s day, says Daniels. The immigrant mix (and conflict), however, involved other ethnicities. Kerouac’s family had French-Canadian roots and in the play, Martin’s father, Joe, railed specifically against the new Armenian and Greek immigrants, as well as harbored a distaste for the Syrians and Jews.
Today’s ethnic mix affected the casting, according to peña. “Because we understand race in such different ways now, the people that are now outsiders are people who don’t look white,” he says. “I feel younger people wouldn’t process the racism of the time, so I wanted to give that the linear parallels of today.”
When Daniels approached him about co-directing, peña said diverse casting was necessary and Daniels immediately agreed. To that effect, he cast Cambodian actor Vichet Chum as Peter’s friend, Garabed, and African-American actress Tina Fabrique as Martin’s mother, Vivienne. Ullman — the one-time child star of Disney’s “Phil of the Future” — is Israeli-born.
“What is so fascinating about ‘The Haunted Life’ and this moment in Jack’s life, is seeing the birth of what was to come for him,” says Ullman. “The birth of his thought process and him figuring out the kind of writer and person he wanted to be. At 22, he was so clearly able to express all of those thoughts. He knew what he wanted and knew how to express how he wanted to get there.”
“I think he’s much more straightforward, lyrical and earnest,” says Daniels, who used an outline Kerouac had sketched out to complete the play’s narrative.
“The Haunted Life,” Ullman says, should draw locals and Kerouac fans of all ages, but he also hopes it reels in young people — not an easy task.
If his celebrity helps, Ullman says that’s fine. “Whatever brings them in. What Kerouac is finding out in this moment is how to live simply and that that’s actually a truer way to live. I think that’s an awesome thing to be able to impart to all generations.”
“The Haunted Life” runs March 20-April 14 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.