RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, to another great American poet of a different variety: Jack Kerouac. His iconic book "On the Road" hit bookstores in 1957. And around that time, Kerouac wrote his only play. It's called "The Beat Generation." The play was never produced, though, and all but forgotten - until now. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR tells us about the play's premiere in the Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.
ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Charles Towers, artistic director at the Merrimack Repertory Theater, remembers exactly what he thought after Jack Kerouac's "The Beat Generation" was re-discovered in 2004.
CHARLES TOWER: They just found the only play he ever wrote. It needs to be done in Lowell before it's done anywhere else.
SHEA: After years of pursing the rights to produce it, Towers is staging "The Beat Generation" as a jazzed-up reading for this week's Jack Kerouac Literary Festival. But he insists it's not a theatrical event, like, say, the premiere of a lost play by Tennessee Williams.
TOWER: This is finding a lost play by a novelist, so it's a literary event. And that's really the difference. He's not a playwright. I mean, he pretended to be a playwright for three months in the fall of 1957 and after that he never went back to it again. This was his one attempt.
SHEA: And back in '57, the attempt did not impress Kerouac's longtime literary agent Sterling Lord.
STERLING LORD: Because I didn't think it offered anything new.
SHEA: Lord says the play featured the same beat characters you find in, "On the Road," just with different names. He also didn't think he could sell it. But Lord, who represented Kerouac throughout his career, showed it to a few Broadway producers anyway, at the writer's request.
LORD: And I think I even sent it to Marlon Brando, again at Jack's request, although I frankly didn't have any hopes for it. I didn't think it was that effective. Finally Jack said, look, put it away. Well, put it away I did. I put it very deeply into the files and when I got it out just in 2004 and read it again, I was amazed, I found it a very exciting play. And of course part of the excitement and part of the value of it was the authenticity that I felt as I was reading it.
JOHN SAMPAS: (Reading) Act one. Scene is early morning in New York near the Bowery. Standing in the kitchen, cheap kitchen, are a colored guy called Jule and a white guy called Buck, and they're both raising glasses of wine to each other, in little glasses, and Buck's saying, quote, "All right, Jule, let's have one."
SHEA: That's John Sampas, literary executor of the Kerouac estate, reading stage directions from the original script Kerouac typed himself in 1957. Sampas has been collaborating with the theater and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell to get his brother-in-law's play produced.
SAMPAS: I think what comes through is what has always come through. Jack had this wonderful idea of the brotherhood of man.
SHEA: The play is basically a bromance - a bunch of guys shooting the breeze - in an apartment, at the racetrack, and in a suburban ranch house belonging to Milo. He's the play's version of the once wandering, drinking, drop-out Dean Moriarty in "On the Road." Now, he's got four kids and a job as a railroad brakeman, which doesn't sit too well with Buck, a stand-in for Kerouac, played here by actor Tony Crane.
TONY CRANE: Hey, there you are. I knew you'd get here. Well, well, well, look at all these brakemen's uniforms here. Winos and brakemen getting together early in the morning, hey?
SHEA: Director Charles Towers admits the play doesn't have much of a plot, but he thinks Kerouac had a reason for writing it after the instant success of "On the Road."
TOWER: I think a part of him was saying, OK, you want to see the beat generation? Here. Here's a play, I'm going to call it "Beat Generation," and you know it is? It's just me and my friends hanging out, that's the beat generation.
SHEA: Still, actor Joey Collins says Kerouac still crafted words for his character Milo that play like a musical instrument.
JOEY COLLINS: It's like he's supported by this wonderful jazz band but he gets the virtuoso. He gets to play that melody line. And so I feel like I'm that trumpet player, you know, just sort of closing his eyes and just blowing. (as character) Paul there, his buddy, we're going to send him to Russia to cover them Russian tracks out there, and get some Mexican cats to cover Agua Scaliente's(ph) boy. And pretty soon we'll send Marlon Brando to cover tracks in France or something, have a network of buddies. Million-dollar organization. We can build up soup kitchens, monasteries, devote all that karma, you see?
SHEA: The chance to hear Kerouac's words spoken makes this an event, says Paul Marion, a Kerouac scholar and head of community relations at UMass Lowell.
PAUL MARION: You know, he was documenting the life of the time, and the aha moment is going to be having the dialogue wash over you.
SHEA: Which you don't get on a page. For Director Charles Towers, though, being able to bring Kerouac's only full-length play to life in the writer's hometown is the coolest part.
TOWER: You know, we're two blocks from the Kerouac Memorial here in Lowell. So, I walk by it every day, I walk through Kerouac Park, so I've grown quite affectionate to the guy.
SHEA: And so have the rest of the residents of the town that once shunned its wayward son. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.