By 1957, the year he published On the Road, Jack Kerouac was at the end of his rope. He had written 11 books in six years, and gotten just one of them published. In order to buy Christmas presents for his family, he borrowed $40 from his agent Sterling Lord, and needed another loan – this one from his mother – so that he could take a bus to New York and deliver the final manuscript of On the Road to Viking Press (which he did after chugging a bottle of bourbon in the elevator).

It is in this frenetic context that we should read Beat Generation, a rather sloppy and formless play Kerouac wrote in the fall of 1957. When On the Road was published in September of that year, Kerouac "lay down obscure for the last time in his life," as Joyce Johnson wrote in her memoir. Kerouac awoke the voice of a generation, and he was besieged with requests to explain his people to the squares. It appears Beat Generation originated as one of those requests. "I'm back home and have already written that 3-act play they wanted on Broadway," he wrote in October to his Viking publicist, Pat MacManus, going on to brag "I wrote my play in 24 hours, no less, couldn't sleep until it was done, there."

Even though Kerouac wrote to his pal Neal Cassady that "only grayfaces won't like it," even hipsters might have trouble with the babble of Buddhist brakemen here. The play opens in a Bowery apartment with two characters drinking wine, proceeds to a racetrack for more beat discussions and conversational be-bop, and finishes with its characters veritably passing out with exhaustion from their all-day toot. Kerouac was a master of capturing the frenzy of all-night chatter, but here it sounds a bit too realistic, as if perhaps we might enjoy the conversations better after a jug of Tokay wine. "We gotta sleep sometime," says the hero, collapsing at the end of it all. It's a lesson Kerouac often parroted but never quite learned. Along the way some cool embers spun off his Catherine wheel, and this happens to be one of them.

Beat Generation: An Original Play
By Jack Kerouac

(Thunder Mouth Press, 120 pages)

More by John Freeman


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