Rumors of a movie based on Jack Kerouac's On the Road have been around for so long that Montgomery Clift, who died in 1966, was once floated for a leading role. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1979 and has been trying to make the damn thing ever since, on and off. Now, at long last, the film version directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) is set to open this weekend in the U.K., with an American release in December.
That means it's time for yet another moment in the ongoing cultural discussion of the importance of being Kerouac, the yearning anti-stylist whose literary kicks epitomized the arrival of "youth culture," and eventually weighed him down into his grave. Seven years ago, a copy of the author's only play, perversely titled Beat Generation – he famously hated the burden – was unearthed in a New Jersey warehouse. Ethan Hawke, who was once considered alongside Brad Pitt for one of Coppola's film adaptations, headlined a partial reading of the script that year.
This week, in Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, the play is being staged in its world premiere as part of an annual Kerouac literary festival. Like so much of the writer's seemingly bottomless output, it's a ragtag assemblage of personality types based on recognizable Beat-era figures – Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac himself – who specialize in creative loafing. Also like so much of his work, its glimpses of humor, inspired wordplay and emotional illumination turn up like welcome signposts amid the aimlessness. Yes, Kerouac had his problems, acknowledged Charles Towers, the artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre before the show on opening night. "Raise your hand if you have no problems," he joked.
As ever in Kerouac, the ill-fated search for enlightenment is central to the play. Supposedly written in one night in the throes of On the Road's commercial success in 1957, Beat Generation follows the sweetly sozzled Buck (the Kerouac character), his pal Milo (Cassady), an unlikely family man holding down a job as a railroad brakeman while struggling to keep his hurtling impulses and his motormouth in check, and their collection of fellow misfits. In three acts, the gang moves from morning at a buddy's house (where Buck already needs a new bottle) to afternoon at the racetrack and an awkward evening at Milo's place, with a visit from a liberal bishop.
Scenes began and ended with a saxophonist – Jeff Robinson, who has portrayed Charlie Parker onstage – stepping out of the wings to blow buttery riffs. In a staged reading, the actors held scripts in hand, tossing pages to the floor. The staging was effectively simple: a bare bulb hanging overhead, a sectional sofa.
The third-act scenario – also the basis for Pull My Daisy, the short 1959 film that featured Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and other members of the real-life poets' brigade – would seem preposterous if it weren't based on an actual episode that took place at the Cassadys' home near San Francisco. While Buck (played with the right tone of openness by Tony Crane) sits at the feet of the bishop asking earnest questions, Irwin (the Ginsberg character, played with a dash of Woody Allen by Ari Butler) and Paul (Orlovsky; William Connell) pepper the clergyman. "Do you know about teenagers and how they want to go to the moon?" asks Paul.
They volley questions about what is "holy" until Buck finally gets caught up in the excitement: "Hooray for holy!" he whoops.
In the first two acts, Milo's cosmic nattering – all karma and astral planes, a clear precursor to New Ageism, despite the incongruity of his brakeman's uniform – is the play's beating heart. Energetically portrayed to comic effect by Joey Collins, it was easy to see why Kerouac was so enthralled with his friend Cassady.
But it's the Kerouac character who leaves the lingering impression, when he drifts outside at the end of the night to crawl into his sleeping bag under the stars, tootling a few notes of Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" on a pennywhistle. Earlier, when a beautiful woman strode past in heels at the racetrack, Buck mumbled, "Why doesn't God just stop the world with a snap of his finger?" It's the free-associating Milo who does most of the jazzbo snapping in Beat Generation, but it is Buck who is the real dreamer.