Jack Kerouac’s “The Haunted Life” – America’s Soul on Stage

Not a week goes by without a mention of Jack Kerouac in the national media — 97 years after his birth at home during a “red-all-over suppertime” in the historic mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Commentators use his life and work for their own devices. Slam. Praise. Dismiss. Embrace. He’s a punching bag for complaints about men behaving badly. The next day he’s held up as a visionary reporter of his time. 

The New York Times recently played him off against philosopher Immanuel Kant in a profile about a rigorous college in the Southwest. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” sniffed the snarky columnist.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker gave a counterpoint about Kerouac’s classic highway odyssey “On the Road” from the 1950s: “Yet the way that novel is so enduring — so impervious to shifting cultural winds — seems to indicate something about how successfully it articulates a very American rootlessness.”

Since his death in 1969, there have been 22 new volumes of his prose, poetry, spiritual writings and letters, not to mention a pile of biographies and critical studies. Twenty books published in his lifetime are in print. He’s a mid-20th century cultural figure on the order of Elvis, Marilyn and Brando. In a given week, he can turn up as a “Jeopardy” answer and a national crossword puzzle clue. And the Kerouac train keeps adding railcars: spoken-word recordings, documentary films and songs sprung from his writing.

Next up is an adaptation of Kerouac’s novella “The Haunted Life,” a manuscript written when he was 22 but not published until 2014. Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) in Lowell, in the midst of its 40th anniversary, has adapted the book for a production running this spring from March 23 to April 14. The time is 1941, the summer before America’s entry into World War II — provoked by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The author tracks the days and nights of a college boy, Peter Martin, and his hometown friends, all of whom are weighing options for paths forward on the cusp of their lives changing, which they sense with excited anticipation and dread. 

This will be the third Kerouac show at MRT. In the ‘90s, the theater produced an adaptation of his novel, “Maggie Cassidy.” “Beat Generation,” Kerouac’s only full-length work for the stage, played to enthusiastic audiences in 2012. The reviewer from “Rolling Stone” admired its “glimpses of humor, inspired wordplay and emotional illumination.” 

In 1966, Kerouac married Stella Sampas, whom he had known growing up in Lowell, a sister of one of his best boyhood friends. Now deceased, Stella was the aunt of Tony Sampas, a librarian from Pepperell, Mass., and one of the heirs of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Estate. Tony recalls “Beat Generation” as “magical in the way big-city bohemian characters of the 1950s were choreographed in full antic cry.” The new play features a very different set of peers. Sampas says, “I want to see how MRT animates the conflict in that period between ‘America First’ isolationism and world engagement, a tension in the headlines today.”

The cast of a 2012 staged reading of Kerouac’s “Beat Generation.” The reading was presented as a co-production of MRT and UMass Lowell. Photo by Meghan Moore, courtesy, MRT.

When Sean Daniels was named artistic director of MRT in 2014, he was thinking about bringing a Kerouac novel to the stage. Daniels says, “His love for the city and Merrimack River is palpable,” Daniels says. “‘The Haunted Life’ is a story for our time with an enduring question: How do you learn to love someone with different political views? Across the world, people are trying to figure out how to accept people who hold different or even opposing views. Families are wrestling with this at holiday dinner tables.” 

At times, Kerouac’s story from the 1940s registers too true. Fear of immigrants infesting the nation. Resentment of powerful and wealthy forces. Suspicion of warmongers. Yearning for a golden age in communities when everybody looked and thought alike. And within such a stewing culture, the instinctive hopefulness of young people seeking an illuminated route to a good life. 

On the edge of a global cataclysm, Daniels explains, Kerouac paints a picture of America in what may have been its last Norman Rockwell moment, familiar to us in the artist’s heart-warming scene of a family’s turkey dinner. Yes, even if that Rockwell nation’s bigotry was as American as apple pie, a charge hurled by activists in the 1960s — and now. 

“In classic theater, we can talk about current issues by way of conflicts in the past. It makes it easier to look at,” Daniels says. “That’s why a story like this is so crucial. I’m grateful to the Kerouac estate and family representative Jim Sampas for making the book available to us.”

“There could not be a better home than MRT,” Sampas says. “Sean has a strong track record. We hope this play will have a long life in Lowell and beyond.”

Photo by Adrien Bisson.

A record and film producer, Jim Sampas says he wants to “bring the incredible musicality and visually engaging force of Kerouac’s words that inspired earlier generations to the current generation, many of whom have embraced the honesty of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose method.” Several projects are in development, including a feature film, two operas, a television venture, audio books and a new biography. 

Theater is a comfortable fit for Jack Kerouac. In the essay “A Play I Want to Write,” an 18-year-old Kerouac wrote that he’d wait for
“a spontaneous burst of passion” and “write about life as life is.” He created short plays and joined a local radio drama group modeled on Orson Welles’ popular “Mercury Theatre on the Air.” Boyhood friend Pete Houde described “Jacky” as a natural raconteur who entertained pals with playlets on evening porches and imitated radio serial stars like The Shadow. “He was always three steps ahead of us.” 

“The Haunted Life” anticipates a 1951 mission statement by Kerouac. “I’m planning to write about different types of men and women in our generation, their careers, their deep characteristics, their special personal downfalls one by one, the exact haunting experience of their lifetimes, with the central vision of it always their relation to that great America we all talk about but is still unknown to us.” 

MRT’s production is a keyhole look into “that great America” before a second world war. The father in the story, Joe Martin, lets loose harsh rants that sound like today’s ultraconservative talk radio hosts and screaming partisan tweeters. Joe’s resentment of powerful elites and corrupt politicians who keep their polished boots on the necks of poor people is a timeless grievance fed by income inequality.

Young Kerouac did not sugarcoat human nature. He had landed back in Lowell after a tumultuous college start. A friendly newspaper editor gave him a sports-writing gig. The speed-typing rookie would blast through his assignments and then pull from his desk drawer a work in progress. In a 1943 biographical essay, he notes: “I began to write a novel right in the City Room about Lowell and the three attendant ills of most middle-sized cities: provincialism, bigotry, and materialism.” Social corrosion is prominent but does not dominate “The Haunted Life.” Sidestepping his father’s hostility, Peter Martin bounces between two friends representing halves of his core — aspiring artist and carousing traveler. Which way to go?

The play takes us back to a time that was not simpler, because it has never been simple here. If we are fortunate, our messy human journeys bring moments of lightness and flashes of insight as we try to learn useful truths and find love. Peter Martin is full of possibilities and always young in his haunted world.  

“The Haunted Life”
Merrimack Repertory Theatre

March 20 – April 14.
Tickets: 978-654-4678,
www.mrt.org

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