By Andrea Shea
Jack Kerouac shot to fame after his jazz- and drug-infused book, On the Road, hit stores in 1957. During that hot period the autobiographical novelist also wrote his only play, The Beat Generation.
The play was never produced and all but forgotten. The lost work, however, was rediscovered in 2004 and is now set to premiere in the writer's hometown of Lowell, Mass.
Charles Towers, artistic director at the Merrimack Repertory Theater, remembers exactly what he thought after Kerouac's lost play was uncovered.
"They just found the only play he ever wrote, [and] it needs to be done in Lowell before it's done anywhere else," Towers says.
After years of pursing the rights to produce it, Towers is staging The Beat Generation as a jazzed-up reading for this week's Jack Kerouac Literary Festival. He insists it's not a "theatrical" event, however, like the premiere of a lost play by Tennessee Williams might be.
"This is finding a lost play by a novelist; so it's a literary event," he says. "So that's really the difference. He's not a playwright ... This was his one attempt."
That attempt in 1957 did not impress Kerouac's longtime literary agent Sterling Lord.
"Because I didn't think it offered anything new," Lord says.
Lord says the play featured the same beat characters you find in On the Road, just with different names. He also didn't think he could sell it. Lord, who represented Kerouac throughout his career, showed it to a few Broadway producers anyway, at the writer's request.
"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," he says. "Finally Jack said, 'Look, put it away.' Well, put it away I did."
Lord says he put the play very deeply into his files. When he dug the play out and revisited it in 2004, he says this time, he was amazed at what he read.
"I found it a very exciting play," he says. "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, the literary executor of the Kerouac estate, has been collaborating with the theater and the University of Massachusetts Lowell to get his brother-in-law's play produced.
"I think what comes through is what has always come through; Jack had this wonderful idea of the brotherhood of man," Sampas says.
The play is basically a "bromance" — a bunch of guys shooting the breeze — in an apartment, at the racetrack and in a suburban ranch house belonging to Milo.
Milo is the play's version of the once wandering, drinking, drop-out Dean Moriarty in On the Road. He now has four kids and a job as a railroad brakeman, which doesn't sit too well with Buck, a stand-in character for Kerouac himself.
Director Charles Towers admits the play doesn't have much of a plot, but he thinks Kerouac had a reason for writing it after the instant success of On the Road.
"I think a part of him was saying 'OK, you want to see the beat generation? Here's a play ... It's just me and my friends hanging out. That's the beat generation,'" Towers says.
Still, actor Joey Collins says Kerouac still crafted words for his character Milo that play like a musical instrument.
"It's like he's supported by this wonderful jazz band, but he gets the virtuoso," Collins says. "He gets to play that melody line, and so I feel like I'm that trumpet player, just sort of closing his eyes and just blowing."
The chance to hear Kerouac's words spoken makes this an event, says Paul Marion, a Kerouac scholar and head of community relations at UMass Lowell.
"He was documenting the life of the time ... and the 'ah-ha' moment is going to be having the dialogue wash over you," Marion says.
That's something you don't get on a page. For Towers, though, being able to bring Kerouac's only full-length play to life in the writer's hometown is the coolest part.
"We're two blocks from the Kerouac memorial here in Lowell," he says. "I walk by it every day; I walk through Kerouac Park. So I've grown quite affectionate to the guy."