LOWELL — As Sean Daniels peruses a shelf of books by and about Jack Kerouac on a recent weekday inside Pollard Memorial Library, the visage of the Mill City’s best-known author can be seen above, on a plaque that identifies the spot as “Jack’s Corner.’’
It was here that a teenaged Kerouac used to curl up in a chair and devour history books, encyclopedias, and novels while playing hooky from nearby Lowell High School. His goal, he later wrote, was to “learn everything on earth.’’
Daniels, the artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, has pursued a similar “learn everything’’ goal with regard to the life and work of the author renowned as the voice of the Beat Generation. Now Daniels has adapted Kerouac’s unfinished, long-lost novel, “The Haunted Life,’’ into a play that will premiere at Merrimack Rep from March 20 to April 14.
Somewhat surprisingly, given how frequently filmmakers have dipped into the Kerouac oeuvre over the years, “The Haunted Life’’ represents the first full production of a stage adaptation of one of his novels. (In 2012, Merrimack Rep presented a staged reading of a Kerouac play titled “Beat Generation.’’)
Kerouac’s connection to his hometown remained strong throughout his too-short life — indeed, he was working on a book about his father’s Lowell print shop when he died in Florida in 1969 at 47 — and the city is a dominant presence in the autobiographical “The Haunted Life.’’ It’s called Galloway in the book, but Daniels changed it to Lowell in the play. “He felt this was a city of possibility,’’ says Daniels. “He writes unabashedly with love of this city and all it could be.’’
For a production to take a tortuous journey on its way to the stage is hardly uncommon, but the story behind “The Haunted Life’’ is more convoluted than most.
Written by Kerouac in pencil in 1944, the novel went missing for nearly 60 years. Kerouac said he believed he might have left the manuscript in a taxi cab, but a more likely explanation is that the author left it in the Columbia University dorm room of poet and close friend Allen Ginsberg when Kerouac accepted a berth on a merchant vessel, according to an introduction by Todd F. Tietchen to “The Haunted Life and Other Writings,’’ edited by Tietchen. Then, for unknown reasons, Kerouac lost track of the manuscript.
“The Haunted Life’’ resurfaced in 2002 when the manuscript was sold at auction to an unnamed bidder for $95,600. “Evidently, the manuscript had been willed to the seller (also unnamed) by his longtime domestic partner, who claimed to have discovered it decades earlier in the closet of a Columbia University dorm room,’’ writes Tietchen, who teaches in the English department at UMass Lowell. (Daniels consulted with Tietchen while adapting the novel.)
When he wrote “The Haunted Life,’’ Kerouac was in his early 20s and still more than a decade from publication of “On the Road,’’ the novel that would cement his place in posterity. Like the novel, the stage version of “The Haunted Life’’ focuses on a restless, introspective, literary-minded 19-year-old Boston College student named Peter Martin. Hungry for experience, Peter is engaged in what he calls “a long re-examination of his life’s direction’’ and wondering whether he should leave college and join the Army. In the meantime, he is spending the summer of 1941 at home, trying to keep open the lines of communication with his French-Canadian father, who often launches into rants about immigrants, whom he calls “dirty foreigners.’’ Observes Daniels: “For me that’s the amazing part of it; he’s almost saying Trumpian ideas in 1941.’’
The father also makes racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Daniels says he enlisted a diverse cast for “The Haunted Life’’ to underscore the ugliness and impact of that kind of prejudice. “It’s hard for us to think about the racism of 1941,’’ he says. “If we’re going to do the play in 2019, that’s the lens we need to see it through.’’
Raviv Ullman will play Peter, with Joel Colodner cast as his father, Joe, and Tina Fabrique slated to portray his mother, Vivienne. Vichet Chum will play Peter’s best friend, Garabed, and Caroline Neff will portray his girlfriend, Eleanor. Daniels said his adaptation bolsters the female characters, who are thinly sketched in the novel. He and Christopher Oscar Peña will codirect the production.
Drawing upon Kerouac’s outline, along with letters and notes to which Daniels was granted access by Kerouac’s estate, the stage version of “The Haunted Life’’ carries the novel’s unfinished story forward. “All the plot points of the play are his plot points,’’ says Daniels. In the play, Peter leaves Lowell for New York, joins the Merchant Marine, and eventually copes with the wartime loss of friends and family while wrestling with the larger questions of “what it means to be an American, how we can be a better country,’’ says Daniels. He adds: “These are the same conversations we’re having today.’’
THE HAUNTED LIFE
Adaptation by Sean Daniels of novel by Jack Kerouac. At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, March 20-April 14. Recommended for ages 16 and older. Tickets: 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org