Flush with the success of his landmark novel “On the Road” in 1957, Jack Kerouac turned his attention to the theater. He wrote what would be his only play, the autobiographical “Beat Generation,” and even suggested Allen Ginsberg should come to New York and play himself on the stage. But a production was not imminent.
“When it didn’t happen immediately, he got discouraged immediately and shoved it in a drawer where it stayed for 45 years and ended up in a New Jersey warehouse,” says Charles Towers, artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in Kerouac’s native Lowell. “He just gave up on the theater immediately when Marlon Brando didn’t return his call.”
The script was rediscovered and published in 2005 after some of Kerouac’s files were excavated from that warehouse. Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, and Jonathan Marc Sherman gave a high-profile reading of an excerpt from the play that year in New York. But Towers has been trying to produce the three-act “Beat Generation” on and off ever since it resurfaced, and now he is directing the world-premiere staged reading as part of this year’s Jack Kerouac Literary Festival in Lowell.
“It’s really about [Kerouac] and Neal Cassady and, in Act 2, Gregory Corso and, in Act 3, Allen Ginsberg, all bantering about as friends,” Towers says. “It’s a comedy, and once I realized it’s a comedy, all of a sudden the thing made sense to me. It’s not that kind of heavy, slow, jazz, Beat heaviness. It’s just really a bunch of guys having fun together, a bunch of guys in their 30s who refused to grow up, frankly.”
The play follows the thinly disguised characters through a single day in New York in October 1955, from an apartment near the Bowery to a horse track to a suburban ranch house. They talk and talk, from debating the merits of the first glass of wine at breakfast to abstract spiritual matters, but they don’t actually do much.
Kerouac “hated being called ‘King of the Beats.’ He hated having that moniker,” Towers says. “In fact, they all didn’t like having a generation named after what they were doing. All they wanted to do was have fun, write poetry, and go to hear music, so it’s almost like, ‘Beat generation? You want to call us the Beat generation? Well, here we are.’ ”
Todd Tietchen, an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has studied the Beats, says the play allows people “to see the key figures of the Beat movement in these slice-of-life settings, lounging around … talking about art and literature and spiritualism. Like much of Kerouac’s literature, it is driven by this discussion of ideas and by language, rather than what we think of as traditional plot conflicts.”
Tietchen also endorses the comedy idea. Kerouac, he says, “was a big admirer of the Marx brothers and the Three Stooges, and it’s possible he was going for something along those lines in some of these scenes. People intrigued by the existential character of Kerouac’s literature might not be prepared to see the play as a comedy, but he saw it as such.”
While the play lacks the usual dramatic arc of rising action, that actually makes it a good candidate for a staged reading, Towers says. The actors will have scripts in hand, and there will be minimal costuming — “a T-shirt and jeans is still a T-shirt and jeans” — and a fairly abstract set. The most Beat touch may be the live saxophonist playing at the beginning and end of each act.
With a cast of 15, the production stars Tony Crane as Buck (based on Kerouac) and Joey Collins as Milo (the Cassady character), with Brian Quijada as Manuel (Corso) and Ari Butler as Irwin (Ginsberg). Preexisting fascination with the subject matter was not a requirement for the actors. But Crane, who is 40, has a long-running interest in the Beats, having written and performed a one-man show about Kerouac in his 20s.
“He was writing and existing in a very specific time in American history, after the Depression and after the war. A lot of people came back from the war with a real sense of wanderlust and a desire to travel,” Crane says. “They were brought right into that Eisenhower era of stay home, start the suburbs, start a family. And I think a lot of them were maybe not so happy with that and were looking for something else. And the world he writes about, that literary, living world he writes about, I think he inspired a lot of people to not be afraid to go out there, even if it’s just wandering in their minds or their hearts.”
Towers e-mailed the cast an 11-page glossary to help them understand the context of the Beats and midcentury America: everything from Symphony Sid to Sanskrit terms.
“There were no protest marches, no movements,” the director says. “Gay rights wasn’t happening yet, civil rights wasn’t really happening yet, women’s rights wasn’t happening yet. They were very much of that culture, very misogynistic.”
Although there are a few female characters in the play, including Tamara Hickey as Cora (based on Carolyn Cassady), “Beat Generation” is definitely male-dominated. Kerouac and company may have rejected the picket-fence ideal of 1950s America, but they were in something of a holding pattern, unaware of the wider societal upheavals soon to come.
“What you’re seeing is the nascent expression of a dissatisfaction that is going to come to a head in the 1960s,” Tietchen says.
But in 1957, when Kerouac wrote “Beat Generation,” he and his friends were in what Towers calls “a transitional period.”
“They are not young and on the road anymore,” Towers says. “As long as you’re not doing the conformity thing, which is putting on a suit and tie and going to work, then anything else is Beat. Just hanging around is Beat. When I first read it, I thought, God, they’re a bunch of deadbeats. They’re not admirable people or admirable characters. And the fact that he would write it this way, without any sense at all of trying to make them heroic, is kind of fascinating. He called it as he sees it.”