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.)

 

 

 

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Cohort Report: Kerouac’s Nashua Roots

Tracing Jack’s Nashua Roots by Suzanne Beebe

Many of those familiar with Jack Kerouac know he was born, raised, schooled, and buried in Lowell, Massachusetts. Fewer, however, know that his parents, paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles all came from Nashua, New Hampshire — a busy mill city of the era, somewhat smaller than Lowell but with a French-Canadian population that at one time was proportionately higher. Kerouac’s paternal grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, migrated from Quebec in 1890 to work in Nashua, and the six Kerouac children who survived to adulthood lived and worked there until Jack’s father Leo, with new wife Gabrielle in tow, broke ranks and moved to Lowell for a printing job there.

But the Lowell and Nashua Kerouacs continued to visit back and forth, and Jack was well-acquainted with his grandfather’s and other relatives’ houses in Nashua — and most probably with other points of interest, including the French churches and cemetery so intertwined with the family’s history. It’s surprising to many that Jack himself is not buried in the family plot at St. Louis de Gonzague Cemetery, where his parents, brother Gerard, and daughter Jan Michelle rest beneath a large memorial stone engraved with their names. But he had married his childhood friend Sebastian’s sister, Stella Sampas, and had ended his own journey in the Sampas family’s Edson Cemetery plot in Lowell.

For anyone wanting to explore the Kerouac family’s roots in Nashua, a tour is available every year as part of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival held the first week of October in anticipation of Kerouac’s anniversary of death on October 21. The tour is led by Reverend Steve Edington, a life-long student of Kerouac’s work and a pastor for twenty-four years at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashua. Realizing his good fortune in living and working where Jack’s family first settled, Reverend Edington made ample use of city, church, cemetery, and library records in Nashua to flesh out the Kerouac family’s history, residences, and relationships in the Gate City and surrounding communities. He sought out current family members, collected family stories and memories of Jack and the relatives he would have known at the time, and learned about the rich cultural and religious life of the French-Canadian communities entrenched in what are still known as Nashua’s French Village and French Hill.

In 1999, he published Kerouac’s Nashua Connection, a now out-of-print book that can still be found on Amazon and other websites for purchase through third-party resellers. But for those who want to see for themselves and hear from a knowledgeable source about where and how the Kerouacs of Nashua lived, worked, and worshipped, the annual tour, which begins and ends in Lowell, is the route to go. And the tour’s final stop at the headstone in St. Louis de Gonzague Cemetery is a heart-wrenching pulling together of the major threads in Jack’s troubled and tumultuous life.

For anyone interested in taking the October tour — or taking advantage of other tours and events available as part of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival — I suggest bookmarking the following URL and getting on the Festival Committee’s e-mail list: http://www

Cohort Report: Windows on Complexity

It’s Friday, March 15. I’m at the MRT theatre on Merrimack St for “spacing day,” watching the cast work painstakingly through the Haunted Life script from start to finish as lines are still being mastered, and props are being tried, and interactions between characters are being fine-tuned, and movement across the stage is being assessed for safety, ease, and naturalness. What works for the actors? What works for the audience? What seems realistic, convincing, true to character? What seems out-of-place or awkward?

There’s a myriad of detail to attend to, a granularity from which any play’s meaning and vision arise and in which it is rooted. It’s easy in any endeavor to miss the forest for the trees, but the trees have to exist for the forest to be seen. And director Sean Daniels is there to see that they are, line by line and action by action within the framework of a set the actors are inhabiting for the first time.

And what a set it is! A towering array of old, overlapping, multi-paned windows lining a glossy black stage on three sides, presenting a visual complexity that mirrors, perhaps, the complexity of values, emotion, goals, and dreams in this play about two generations, a mill town, and a conflicted young man trying to plot his course as a writer in a world sinking into global conflict. Should he enlist?  Should he marry? Should he see the world? Should he stay in school? Should he please his parents? Or should he hew to a path even he can’t see clearly in the maelstrom of his own competing desires and attachments. And there are many windows through which to view his predicament.

The set’s in-your-face offering of multiple perspectives from which to view multiple human realities also suggests the disorienting effect of a creepy hall of mirrors in a haunted house. A fitting suggestion for a play entitled The Haunted Life, since Peter Martin, the young man in question, is haunted — like his creator Jack Kerouac —by his aspirations and obligations and clearly growing addiction to alcohol as both crutch and creative fuel.

But the set is functional as well: it allows actors and stage assistants to move unseen as they ready or deliver props and characters to wherever needed for the next action or interaction occurring in a multiplicity of places from Lowell to the Atlantic to New York City and back to Lowell — at the Martin home, in a bar, on a merchant marine ship, in a New York apartment, and in the hospital room in Lowell where Peter’s father dies. The single set grounds multiple scenes effectively in its own performance tour-de-force. And it’s definitely worth seeing.

So I’m looking forward to attending upcoming rehearsals and watching how all the elements of the play come together to serve the purposes of Kerouac, the director, the actors, and a truly stunning staging achievement.

by Suzanne Beebe, Cohort

 

COHORT REPORT: MRT BRINGS KEROUAC HOME

During the past two years, Sean Daniels, MRT Artistic Director, met with the Estate of Jack Kerouac about an unknown “lost” novel.  It was agreed to be edited by UMass Lowell Professor Todd Tietchen and adapted by Sean Daniels into a play for MRT.

Jack Kerouac was from Lowell – American novelist, iconoclast of spontaneous prose, pioneer of the Beat Generation that set forth the Hippy movement. You may know he wrote ON THE ROAD, but he also had ten works by 1955, many rejections.  It was ON THE ROAD in 1957, that brought him fame.

The HAUNTED LIFE reflects Kerouac’s rhythmic prose in a play that is now a reality. It is a deeply-felt family drama, set in Lowell.  It takes place the summer before WWII about a coming of age and cost of war on a small town.

Before this play goes to the stage it is at the rehearsal hall for many weeks.  It is amazing what goes on before an audience sees a play.  There are five accomplished actors in the cast. Today at rehearsal, Director Sean Daniels, the co-director, actors, stage manager, sound design and other crew are putting the play together.  The stage is a floor outlined in tape with a mini replica of the set in a small box on a nearby table.

The actors are sharing the script reflecting thoughts about family and war.  Sean suggests –you are worried, angry because you lost your home– and the actor merges those feelings into the script which then becomes playable moments. An actor is becoming a person they are not, learning lines and movement, in harmony with other actors. This rehearsal is very different because it is an original play that belongs to the director about Lowell’s native son.  Sean often uses “we” to collaborate with the actors and crew. They repeat, reflect, review. There are also break-out moments of laughs. Then, everyone returns merged into the script. The days are very long as the play grows from rehearsal to reality.

All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together. Jack Kerouac

In honor of the theatre’s 40thAnniversary Season, The Haunted Life will be performed at MRT from March 20 to April 14, and destined to be a huge success.

Gail Gauthier, Cohort

Cohort Report: Searching for a Memory

MRT and playwright Lauren Gunderson, with artistic director Sean Daniels, have another successful play. If you have not been yet, go by Sunday matinee March 10, when the show ends. There are two actors, Miranda Barnett (Lauren) with a banjo and George Judy (PawPaw and King Lear) in a wheelchair. Simple play, right? No, very wrong!

This play tugs at you and may stir a family member memory to sit with you reflecting memories. The actors have you looking back and forward on what has meaning for you. The banjo is gentle and kind, so you may begin to sing along or shed a tear, because “music is how we hear each other”.

This playwright shares her relationship with PawPaw, who is suffering from severe dementia, no longer able to recognize her. It is frustrating and painful to regret all the time not spent with him. So, she brings forth King Lear, a literary figure to roar his madness on the heath, a tract of wasteland, as analogous to where a forgotten mind lives.

When George Judy rises PawPaw out of his wheelchair and roars into King Lear, you are stunned. This scene reflects both their emotions and behaviors of memory and madness that live inside their loss of self.

The very creative set reflects feelings on stage. It is a dazzling montage, piecing together fragments of pictures, text, and music to form the characters past and present identity. When a powerful rain “storm” arises, as a metaphor for “tempest madness”, we are again stunned by King Leer’s rageful rant, and the reality of the staged storm. A set is another character of a play if it is done well – as usual, MRT is very creative.

When Lauren exerts her passion to know PawPaw, we feel her search for his memory is lost. Occasionally he comes into the now but when he returns inside himself, she becomes sad reflecting times not shared. Then, in a fantasy with PawPaw, she is given a box filled with memories they share together. Her legacy. You will want to see her open those memories.

Lauren plays PawPaw’s favorite bluegrass music on her banjo. Barnett has a beautiful soft, lifting voice and easily engages the audience in “You Are My Sunshine” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken” which bring up memories.

The play left me wondering “who are we without the memory?”

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort member

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

 

Cohort Report: An Autobiographical Montage

Shakespeare. The name alone can transport one back to High School English class, your eyes glazing over at the barrage of Elizabethan prose.

Bluegrass. Now we’re talking. Summertime. Jammin’. Sing-alongs.

But what if you merged them together? Well, you would get The Heath, the latest World Premiere production from Merrimack Repertory Theatre. And maybe the two are not so incongruous, for there has always been a bittersweet, even tragic element to bluegrass. The lament of a lost love in a mandolin lick, a freight train’s mournful howl in the drone of a fiddle – or is that the cry of a diminished man who realizes he has lost his kingdom and his mind?

The Heath – an autobiographical montage by Lauren Gunderson – uses monologue, dialogue, projection and, of course, music to explore the author’s coming to terms with a relationship that never was. Like MRT’s recent Slow Food, regret – and how one manages it – underlies the emotions that drive the work.

And the banjo. Did I mention that?

Slated for the role of Lauren, actress Miranda Barnett picked up a used banjo in a shop near her home in South Carolina six months ago and learned to play. Its previous owner had passed away, and the instrument seems to have found the perfect new home with Miranda and MRT. But don’t think her musical skills are lacking. She has a fine grasp of the instrument, with clean fingering and precise rolls. But technical know-how isn’t so important in bluegrass. It’s all about the feeling. Because, as Lauren/Miranda says, “When you strum a banjo, you’re in the South.”

The attempt to recover a missing part of oneself, not only by learning the banjo, but by exploring that unknown lineage, makes The Heath an emotional rollercoaster. You will laugh, cry (do not forget the tissues), and sing along to classic and original tunes. George Judy, who plays Lauren’s “Paw Paw,” is an astonishment, as he moves from lucidity to – well – something else, denying her the opportunity to atone for past contempt and disinterest.

And Shakespeare. Let’s not forget that.

Judy also inhabits King Lear, who Gunderson uses to make sense of this great storm that encompasses her family. When Judy’s rich baritone fills the theater, you are reminded of why the Bard has remained relevant all these years. The vivid characters and stories of hopes and dreams, decline and death are universal, from the 17th century to the 21st.

So the story of King Lear fits these times well. Aging and going mad, Lear recklessly divides his realm between the daughters who shamelessly flatter him, leaving the honest Cordelia disinherited, thus setting in motion an epic tragedy, culminating in Lear’s dramatic soliloquy to the sky, with only the Fool by his side, briefly cognizant of his grave error, naked in the thunderous storm on the heath.

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort member

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

 

What is a heath?

 A heath generally refers to low, open wetlands. The word heath is more closely associated with Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia, but heaths exist worldwide. In America, the words marsh, swamp, and glade (or everglade) refer to the same types of land. 

In Lauren Gunderson’s The Heath, the playwright juxtaposes the struggles of her own grandfather, when he is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with those of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Lear, the king rushes from a fight with his daughters into a raging thunderstorm on the heath. The elderly king proclaims the storm and the barren heath to be like the “storm” in his mind. Shakespeare makes the point that all humans, even kings, are vulnerable to the overpowering forces of nature, according to one source at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In an interview with MRT, Gunderson explains her use of King Lear and the play’s storm in relation to her grandfather: “The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia.”

Since Shakespeare’s time (King Lear dates to 1606), the heath has served as a symbol of a haunted, bleak wasteland for countless British novelists, including Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles).

For more on The Heath, visit Lauren’s Tumblr page at theheathplay.tumblr.com, full of  research and notes.

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath