By Katharine Webster
Before Jack Kerouac went “On the Road” and achieved fame as an iconic writer of the Beat Generation, he roamed his hometown of Lowell and wrote about it.
“He clearly loves that city and loves that river,” Sean Daniels, artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, says of “Galloway,” the fictional name Kerouac used for Lowell in several early works, including the recently discovered novella, “The Haunted Life.”
Now Daniels is adapting “The Haunted Life” for the stage, with input from Assoc. Prof. of EnglishTodd Tietchen, a prominent Kerouac scholar and co-director of the American Studies program at the university. The novella and Daniels’ script will also be used as teaching tools in UML’s Theatre Arts and English Literature programs throughout the academic year.
“That book only exists because of Todd,” says Daniels. “Otherwise it would be sitting in a box at the estate.”
The novella, which Kerouac lost shortly after completing it, re-emerged in 2002 when the handwritten manuscript appeared at a Sotheby’s auction. With support from Kerouac’s literary estate, Tietchen edited a scholarly book that includes “The Haunted Life” alongside outlines, notes and partial scenes for two sequels Kerouac had planned to write. Tietchen’s book was published in 2014.
In his stage adaptation, Daniels extends the plot of “The Haunted Life” beyond the novella itself, using Kerouac’s outlines and unfinished scenes along with unpublished letters from the literary estate, which is supporting the production.
“In ‘The Haunted Life,’ Kerouac was making an early attempt at the multifamily saga that eventually became ‘The Town and the City,’” Tietchen says. “What Sean has done in the play is something I didn’t imagine anyone ever doing: He’s finished the story for Kerouac.”
It’s an ambitious undertaking and Daniels’ first solo adaptation, he says. But he has experience working with masters of the craft, including David Edgar, who adapted “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” from Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name.
In “The Haunted Life,” the central character is the young Peter Martin, loosely based on Kerouac himself. The book concerns his relationships with his French-Canadian parents and two friends, based on Kerouac’s childhood friends Sebastian Sampas and Billy Chandler.
It’s set in the summer of 1941, just before America’s entry into World War II. But Kerouac wrote it several years later, after the real Sampas and Chandler had both died. The planned sequels included their deaths.
“When Kerouac started writing ‘The Haunted Life,’ all his friends had already been killed in the war,” Daniels says. “It’s partly about the cost of war for a small town.”
The novella is also about immigration and racial tension, expressed through Martin’s love for and conflict with his father, who sometimes lapses into his native French-Canadian dialect – yet complains that immigrants and blacks are ruining America. That feels disturbingly contemporary, as families today struggle with similar divisions, Tietchen says.
“The implication is that immigrants ‘melt’ and become loyal white Americans by engaging in racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Tietchen says.
Both Tietchen and History Prof. Robert Forrant provided Daniels with valuable historical and literary context. But adapting the novella for the stage posed serious artistic challenges because “The Haunted Life” consists primarily of Martin’s dialogues with friends and family, internal monologues and descriptions of scenery.
Daniels’ adaptation provides more action while maintaining Kerouac’s poetic language.
“What makes a theatrical event is not the same as what makes a literary event,” he says.
The script is still a work in progress, and student actors and stage managers will contribute to that progress later this month by workshopping the play with two professional actors. Assoc. Prof. Nancy Selleck, founding director of the Theatre Arts program, is planning a week of readings and class presentations by MRT staff that starts Sept. 24 and culminates with a public, staged reading on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. in the Comley-Lane Theatre on campus. Selleck oversaw similar workshops for new MRT plays each of the last two years.
Tietchen is also working with Assoc. Profs. Keith Mitchell and Shelley Barish on a discussion series for spring semester. Fifty students and community members will read Tietchen’s book and Daniels’ script, meet for discussions with faculty and a question-and-answer session with Daniels and then attend a dress rehearsal of the play, shortly before its premiere on March 20.
“It’s a great way for us to collaborate with the MRT,” Tietchen says. “It’s valuable for our students, who get to work alongside professionals, and it’s valuable for the MRT to work with our talented students.”