By David Iverson
The word “Beat,” relative to the ‘50s counterculture moniker, refers primarily to post-World War II angst, listlessness and yearning, though the etymology of the term is debated. But the coining of “Beat Generation” can be directly traced to a conversation in the late 1940s between writer Jack Kerouac, a Lowell native considered to be one of seminal figures of the movement, and Massachusetts author and poet John Clellon Holmes.
Holmes restated Kerouac’s words in his November 1952 article titled “This Is the Beat Generation,” which was published in The New York Times Magazine. The expression became the catchphrase used to describe the literary movement and cultural phenomenon.
When Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” — published in 1957, and arguably one of the greatest works of “Beat” literature — began its ascendancy in the publishing world, producer Leo Gavin saw an opportunity; he urged Kerouac to pen a theatrical adaptation. Kerouac responded by writing the aptly titled play “Beat Generation” in the late 1950s.
Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, sent the play to several production companies, all of which rejected it. Kerouac even appealed to Marlon Brando, hoping that the actor’s involvement would create interest, but to no avail. Eventually, Kerouac asked Lord to discontinue shopping the script.
Fast forward to 2005. Lord was perusing documents located in a dresser from the Kerouac estate that had been retrieved from a New Jersey warehouse when he found the original manuscript for “Beat Generation.”
The same year, Charles Towers, artistic director at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, contacted Lord and attempted to gain rights to the script. He knew that bringing the previously unperformed work to the writer’s hometown would be a coup.
The attempt failed, as did another in 2007, largely due to an ongoing Florida court battle disputing the validity of the will of Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle Kerouac, to whom he had willed the rights to his literary works.
Then, earlier this year, Towers teamed up with UMass Lowell’s Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for American Studies. They, with the assistance of John Sampas, who is the executor of the Kerouac estate and the brother of the writer’s third wife, Stella Sampas, were successful in securing the rights for the production to take place.
Paul Marion, executive director of community and cultural affairs at UMass Lowell, says, “The collaboration between UMass Lowell and Merrimack Repertory Theatre is another example of innovation in the city’s cultural sector, the kind that brought the legendary “On the Road” scroll manuscript to Lowell in 2007, and that brought a national park to Lowell in 1978.”
Eight performances of “Beat Generation” will mark the epicenter of the 2012 Jack Kerouac Literary Festival, which is presented by UMass Lowell, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Inc., and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. Performances are scheduled from Oct. 10-14 in the MRT’s newly remodeled 279-seat theatre.
The semiautobiographical play revolves around the circadian, conversational meanderings of its characters, all of whose names are pseudonyms for those of Beat luminaries such as Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.
Though “Beat Generation” may never surmount the classics of Kerouac’s oeuvre in popularity, its debut is of literary and cultural importance. As Towers explains, “It’s significant because it’s Kerouac’s only full-length play. … It stands alone and can’t be compared to other plays he might have written.”
Michael Millner, director of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for American Studies at UMass Lowell and an assistant professor in the English Department, emphasizes, “In his experiments with various media, especially performative media that allow relatively unmediated expression and a multisensory experience, Kerouac was continuing his lifelong investigation of new aesthetic forms and what they might communicate.”
Marion says, “Seeing the play will give audiences a chance to experience the author’s words live on stage, which should offer them a whole new appreciation and understanding of Kerouac’s power as a writer and vision as a literary artist.”
For more information or to purchase “Beat Generation” tickets, visit MRT.org
or call (978) 654-4678. For more information about the 2012 Jack Kerouac Literary Festival, including a full schedule of events, visit LowellCelebratesKerouac.org