BEAT SCENE: A singular event in Beat history is taking place in Jack Kerouac’s hometown

Beat Scene

By Peter Anastas

“But we haven’t lived.  We have only thought.”

–Jack Kerouac, The Haunted Life

Lowell, MA—A singular event in Beat history is taking place in Jack Kerouac’s home town.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre has, since March 20, been staging to great acclaim a dramatization of Kerouac’s long lost novel, The Haunted Life.  The production will run until April 14, 2019.

Written by Sean Daniels, the company’s outgoing artistic director, and co-directed by Daniels and christopher oscar peña, the play is based on Kerouac’s second novel, believed by Kerouac to have been lost in a New York taxi cab shortly after it was written, in 1944.  As it turns out, Kerouac actually left his only copy of the hand-written manuscript in the closet of Allen Ginsberg’s dormitory room at Columbia.  Discovered later, and held in private hands until 2002, the manuscript re-surfaced in a Sotheby’s auction catalogue in New York, where it eventually sold to an unnamed buyer for $95,600, according to U-Mass Lowell English professor Todd Tietchen, who edited the novel for publication in the US by Da Capo Press, in 2014.

The novel, as published, is a nearly 100-page integral text, meant by Kerouac to be the first section of a longer novel that was never completed. Instead, Kerouac went on to write his first published novel, The Town and the City (1950), in which the story of the Martin family, begun in The Haunted Life and based on Kerouac’s own French-Canadian family, is given fuller treatment.

What is so important about The Haunted Life for an understanding of Kerouac’s oeuvre, is that in this early manuscript nearly all of the major themes of the work to come are present—the yearning to move, to travel, to be on the road; the tension between Kerouac’s attachment to his family and home town and his desire to free himself from both; and his desire for important intimacy in conflict with his need to set all entanglements aside in order to write.   There is also Kerouac’s incredible sense of place: the Lowell streets on summer nights, talk from neighborhood porches, trees shaking in soft breezes, and the silence followed by the thunk of bat on ball from nearby ballgames.

The novel—and the play—focus on Peter Martin, Kerouac’s stand-in, and his family.  Peter is home for the summer after his first year at Boston College, where he has matriculated with the help of a track scholarship.   Peter reads Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, and the proletarian novelist Albert Halper.  He reconnects with his high school love Eleanor; and he and his best friend Garabed, based on Kerouac’s friend Sebastian Sampas, talk about the books they will write and the travels they will embark upon around the world.   What neither of them know, as they walk the streets of Lowell until dawn, is that Garabed will eventually be killed in action on the beach at Anzio in the Second World War.  It is a loss that Kerouac will never fully recover from.

Peter is compelled to listen to his father, a Trump-like figure and owner of a failing print shop, who attacks the immigrants who’ve come to Lowell as degenerates that are destroying the city.  The father’s virulent racism, as war rages in Europe and will soon involve America, increases Peter’s sense of feeling haunted.  He is haunted by the books he wants to write, the places he hopes to visit, the sex he yearns to experience, and the call of big cities like New York.  What haunts him equally is the possibility of joining the Merchant Marines, which he and Garabed talk excitedly about, along with the war itself, which his friend Dick Sheffield urges Peter to participate in by enlisting in the army (Peter will later be haunted by Sheffield’s death.).

As Peter recollects:

“This was the last of his magnificent summers… Something grave and perhaps terrible was impending, the war maybe, or some violent change in the structure of his [Lowell] world.”

The novel leaves Peter with his personal issues and the pressures on him unresolved.  What writer and co-director Daniels has been able to achieve by the use of Kerouac’s writings about his novel-in-progress, including an existing outline for its completion and correspondence made available by the Sampas family of Lowell, is a play that transforms an intimate yet incomplete novel into a vibrant play.  Daniels has also been able skillfully to incorporate Kerouac’s lyrical descriptions of life in pre-war in Lowell, along with much of the narrative itself into the dialogue of the play and the directly spoken thoughts of the characters that connect the viewer with the time and place of the drama:

“Soon it would be summertime dusk.  Voices below rose softly in the air. A tender shroud was being lowered on his life. With the darkness and the smell and feel of it would come the sounds of the suburban American summer’s night—the tinkle of soft drinks, the squeaking of hammocks, the screened-in voices on dark porches, the radio’s staccato enthusiasm, a dog barking, a boy’s special nighttime cry, and the cool swishing sound of the trees: a music sweeter than anything else in the world.”

Daniels’ The Haunted Life is staged in two acts. The setting consists of a backdrop of windows that appear to represent the windows of the mills and factories of Lowell, which Kerouac himself described as “eyes” looking out on the world and through which the workers of Lowell peered daily.

In keeping with the MRT’s reputation for world-class theatre, each of the actors has worked regionally as well as nationally, and many internationally.  Their resumes, described in the play’s attractive program, are impressive.

Peter Martin is played by Raviv Ullman, who not only looks like the young Kerouac but speaks as he must have.   Joel Colodner plays Peter’s father Joe, gruff and opinionated but with a tender side.  Peter’s long-suffering mother is portrayed by Tina Fabrique.  Vichet Chum is precisely how one might imagine Garabed to be while reading the novel; and Caroline Neff is an ideal Eleanor, who loves Peter but learns to protect herself from his conflicted and wandering spirit.

Kerouac is in good company at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.  Founded in 1979, this versatile company has mounted prize winning productions of Waiting for Godot, Hamlet, Harold Pinter’s Homecoming, Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother, canonical plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and a host of exciting plays by new writers.

In recent years, the theatre has held a staged reading of Kerouac’s only play, The Beat Generation, the script of which was discovered in a New Jersey warehouse, in 2005, and a full production of Kerouac’s bittersweet Lowell novel, Maggie Cassidy.

But all the stops were pulled out for the MRT’s stunning production of The Haunted Life, created in collaboration with Jim Sampas and the Estate of Jack Kerouac.   One came away from the play with a sense that Kerouac had been given both the attention and the respect due him and his work by his hometown.  You could enjoy the play without ever having read a work of Kerouac.  This would not prevent you from feeling in awe of the writer’s early struggles to become one of America’s most important novelists, in the face of family strife, impending war, and the attractions of the new bohemia emerging in New York and San Francisco.  If you had read Kerouac and knew him through his books and the numerous biographies that tell his story, you would emerge from the play with an even deeper understanding of how seriously Kerouac lived his writerly vocation.  The seeds of everything Jack Kerouac would become may be found in both the novel and the play.   But in the play we participate in ways that only a beautifully made and staged drama can make us see and feel what the words on the page open us to: the pathos of a major writer’s life.

    (Peter Anastas is a Gloucester MA native and writer.  He has written about   Kerouac and the Beats in Beat Scene, House Organ, and Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.  This article will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Beat Scene.)