We’re ORF to the races and it’s Lazy Charley taking the lead, at the clubhouse turn there’s your — darling, marvelous eggs just fluffy and light … hm just like my baby’s pudding, hoo! … and now listen now old Buck now old wild sonumbitch don’t you get drunk today on that w-i-n-e cause boy, we’ve got — who’s got a cigarette, I’m fresh out — we’ve got to out out there, and we’ve got something to do today …
That’s Kerouac talking. Or actually it’s Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, aka Milo, Jack Kerouac’s mouthpiece and the fast-talking hero of a play Kerouac wrote in the late 50’s. The play is being published now for the first time by Thunder’s Mouth Press, and it’s a notable work.
It’s usually no big deal when a new publication from the Jack Kerouac archives is released. We’ve recently seen the collected letters, early stories, poems, half-finished novels, paintings, songs and annotated dreams. In fact, he’s got the biggest posthumous career since Nat King Cole or Jimi Hendrix, and much of the stuff is mundane. But it’d be a shame if nobody paid special attention to this play, because Kerouac wrote it at the peak of his skills, and it shows his talents in a new perspective.
The play (unfortunately titled Beat Generation) is about a bunch of charmingly crazed adults acting like general fools in the 1950’s. We’re in the home of beatnik family man Milo and his hip-chick wife, and they’re entertaining guests, playing speed chess, composing spontaneous poetry and arguing about how to calculate their exact odds when they go to the race track. Then the local church Bishop comes by with his two elderly aunts, and the beatniks have a great time with this situation. A situation comedy is what it is, in fact, and Kerouac keeps the dialogue crackling.
Dialogue was always Kerouac’s strength — even his first-person narratives were dramatic monologues, spoken “in character”. Here’s Irwin (based on Allen Ginsberg) testing out the Bishop’s patience:
‘IRWIN: Ooh you twisted like a snake then
IRWIN: Yes your movement then was exactly like a supenatural illuminated serpent arching its back to Heaven
BISHOP: Well, yes, probably, of course
IRWIN: I mean, that was the hippest thing I’ve seen you do tonight.’
Jack Kerouac wrote this play at the same time he was preparing On The Road for publication. A New Yorker who enjoyed going to the theatre, he yearned to see a play of his own produced on Broadway, and he spoke of wishing for Marlon Brando in the lead role. According to biographer Ann Charters, Kerouac asked the playwright Lillian Hellman for advice on the play, and she didn’t think it could work. The script eventually became the basis for the movie ‘Pull My Daisy’ (which is also about a dinner party including a bishop and a bunch of beatniks), but that film was largely improvised and Kerouac’s artistry is hardly visible in it.
Despite what Hellman might have said, I think this script would fly in a theater — it’s got humor, plot momentum and plenty of snappy dialogue for an energetic ensemble cast. I hope some high school or college or community theater companies will give it a try — tell us if you do.
Beat Generation will be available from Thunder’s Mouth Press in October.
No less worthy (though perhaps less newsworthy) is a source book, Conversations with Jack Kerouac, edited by Kevin J. Hayes and published by the University of Mississippi. This is a useful and smartly designed slim paperback volume of interviews with Jack Kerouac from the days of his first fame in 1958 to just before his death in 1969. Among the notable interviewers are Mike Wallace, Al Aronowitz, Stan Isaacs, and, most successfully, a posse from the Paris Review that includes poet Ted Berrigan and author Aram Saroyan. In the early interviews, Kerouac is nervous, high-pitched but passionate. His main theme is religion, and he speaks unceasingly of the practice of writing as a spiritual event. In the early sixties, a switch seems to be flicked and Kerouac suddenly morphs from a hopeful and mystical poet into a mean, funny, miserly crank, drunk off his ass, scratching his belly and mouthing off like Archie Bunker about the hippies, minorities and communists who are ruining America.
The best interview is the Paris Review piece, in which Kerouac can play off the literary skills and insights of his interlocutors. My favorite piece, though, is Stan Isaac’s deadpan description of a baseball card game Kerouac invented to amuse himself. Here are some of the names of his players: Lefty Murphree, Burlingame Japes, Herm Bigger, John Gronning, Johnny Keggs, Sugar Ray Simms, Byrd Duffy, Francis X. Cudley, Hophead Dean. Kerouac could even make rotisserie baseball swing.