LOWELL, Mass. — Jack Kerouac. Neal Cassady. Allen Ginsberg. Gregory Corso. The gang's all here.
The Beat Generation notables and their poetry-writing, conformity-defying antics come to life in the first production of Kerouac's only play.
"Beat Generation" captures a day in the life of Kerouac and his friends as they booze, bet and banter, occasionally reflecting on the turns their lives have taken and the changes their friendship faces after leaving behind life on the road.
"It's exactly what you imagine a play by Kerouac to be like," full of riffing, dialogue and beat poems, director Charles Towers says.
Kerouac wrote "Beat Generation" in 1957, the same year his novel "On the Road" garnered him national recognition despite the book's controversial material. Though he was called the "King of the Beats," a title he disliked, the Beats never wanted to be a movement, Towers said.
"They wanted to hang out, do their writing and drop out," he said. "I imagine he said, 'All right, you want to see the Beat Generation? Here it is. This is us. This is us on a normal day.'"
The 1950s and 1960s literary movement emphasized individual freedom, spontaneity and improvisation in the era of consumerism and conformity.
Worn-down, exhausted, blessed, as in beaten down, deadbeat and beatific, have been linked to the name's origins.
The staged reading began Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Kerouac's red brick, blue collar hometown of Lowell. It includes props, costumes and a set, and the actors carry their scripts although they have rehearsed for four days.
"They're kind of improving it, which, actually given the nature of the material, is OK for me," Towers said in the theater lobby before a dress rehearsal. "If the actors are basically riding the riff, they'll be doing service to the words, to his writing."
Milo (played by Joey Collins) is the driving force of the autobiographical play as Dean Moriarty is in "On the Road." Both characters are based on real-life Neal Cassady, Kerouac's lively and legendary friend.
Kerouac appears as Buck (Tony Crane), Corso as Manuel (Brian Quijada) and Ginsberg as Irwin (Ari Butler). But this time, the characters are no longer on the road. They are in New York City with wives, families, and debt.
The comedic drama is bittersweet because it illustrates the end of an era before Kerouac set out on his own to eventually write "Big Sur" and "The Dharma Bums," Towers said.
"It's kind of a goodbye to the friendship that was at the core of 'On the Road,'" Towers said.
Kerouac eventually died from a lifetime of heavy drinking, in 1969 at age 47.
Sometime after writing the script, he became discouraged and filed it away. The manuscript remained in a desk drawer in a New Jersey warehouse until his agent discovered it in 2005.
This year's collaboration with University of Massachusetts Lowell is the cornerstone of the 2012 Jack Kerouac Literary Festival.
Todd Tietchen, an assistant English professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell has studied the Beat Generation, and said there seems to be renewed interest in Kerouac and the Beats. They asked "tough questions" about post-war society, consumerism and securing the American Dream through mortgages and auto payments, Tietchen said.
"And young people now, as they deal with a challenging job market, are asking those questions," he said.