It sat, forgotten, in a New Jersey warehouse for nearly 50 years.
Now, Jack Kerouac’s nearly lost play is finally being presented to audiences as a staged reading at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
The play, titled “Beat Generation,” was rediscovered in 2005 and is being staged for the first time by Merrimack Repertory Theatre and UMass Lowell as part of the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival. The performances run through Oct. 14.
“It’s really a literary moment in history,” says Charles Towers, artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre. The former West Newbury resident is the director of “Beat Generation” at MRT. “And it’s being done in his native city.”
“Beat Generation” is a story of friendship and karma set in the 1950s. Its characters and dialogue capture the Beat mentality at the roots of the American counterculture.
Set four years after Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” ends, the characters — the author and his friends — reflect on their decision to leave life on the road behind and what the future holds.
Despite its format as a staged reading, the 17 cast members use props, costumes and a set.
Taking a place on the stage alongside a mix of seasoned actors, West Newbury’s Jean Lambert is making her professional debut.
Familiar with the theater as she works there as an usher, Lambert was approached by the director and offered a small role.
For Lambert, who worked as a clown in the 1970s, the role as the bishop’s aunt allows her a chance to dabble in comedy.
“This is right up my alley,” she says. “I have fun with it.”
Prior to Wednesday’s premiere, the cast assembled and made a toast to Kerouac, using his favorite beverage, whiskey.
“It was so great to hear Kerouac’s words being spoken for the first time,” Lambert says.
In addition to Lambert, former Newbury resident Larry Bull is among the cast members.
The play melds well with Kerouac’s other work. He’s one of Lowell’s most revered native sons, a writer whose works, like “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums,” became the voice of an entire generation in the 1950s and helped spark the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. His endurance as a pop-culture and literary icon seems to be unwavering 43 years after his death in 1969. And his confessional, hyper-realistic, stream-of-consciousness style continues to shape the work of artists, musicians and writers.
“I think it’s a kind of emphasis on spontaneity and immediate realism; attempting to catch the immediacy of the moment through a very concrete and real-feeling language. At the same time there’s a romance of possibility and energy and youth,” says Michael Millner, associate professor of English and American studies at UMass Lowell, director of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities, of Kerouac’s lasting influence. “Everyone from Katy Perry to independent label bands like The Hold Steady have been talking about Kerouac and writing songs about Kerouac.”
Although the world premier of “Beat Generation” is undoubtedly the history-making, headlining event during this year’s Jack Kerouac Literary Festival, the writer’s influence on contemporary art, music and literature informs the rest of the festival’s lineup.
“I think that Kerouac is a major touchstone for people who are not only writers, but musicians especially,” Millner says.
Indeed the festival’s theme this year is “Writing and Music.” Millner points to the festival session featuring singer-songwriter Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, and novelist, short-story writer and essayist Rick Moody, author of “Ice Storm” and “Garden State.” According to the program, the two will discuss blurring the line between music and prose.
The conversation dovetails with Moody’s latest collection of music-inspired essays, “On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening.”
Other festival highlights include a poetry performance by Anne Waldman, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac writing school at Naropa University; performances, readings and film screenings by Kerouac contemporary David Amram, a composer and conductor; and a talk by Methuen author Jay Atkinson, who retraced Kerouac’s legendary “On the Road” journey and chronicled it in “Paradise Road.”
Festival-goers might also relish a chance to get out of the lecture hall and hit the pavement just as Kerouac himself did, with an “Off the Road” tour of pubs visited by Kerouac in his days in Lowell and guided tours by foot and by bus of notable Kerouac sites. Millner says people often forget that Kerouac wrote continually about the city of Lowell, talking in his works about the factories and the Merrimack River.
“It’s easy to move around Lowell, and stop, read a passage from Kerouac and watch the whole city sort of transform,” he says.
Staff writer Katie Lovett contributed to this report.
IF YOU GO
What: Jack Kerouac Literary Festival and “Beat Generation”
Where: UMass Lowell campus, Merrimack Reperatory Theatre and venues throughout Lowell
When: Today through Sunday
Cost: Most events are free; tickets for “Beat Generation” start at $40
Learn more: lowellcelebrateskerouac.org, MRT.org, 978-654-4678
Tonight at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.