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Hit the Road, Jack 

The life and times of a dead Beat, in Visions of Kerouac

Wednesday, May 7 2003
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He's the big bad daddy of the American road trip, the Beat writer who traded morals for miles and headed out west in search of a new definition of freedom. But, apart from the stories that can be found in his legendary autobiographical rant On the Road, what do we really know about Jack Kerouac? Playwright and historian Martin Duberman first sought to investigate the real life and times of this legendary giant back in 1977, when his play Visions of Kerouac premiered in Los Angeles. A quarter of a century later, the Marin Theatre Company is producing the same play (albeit slightly revised).

Helmed by MTC Artistic Director Lee Sankowich, Visions uncovers the man behind the frequently romanticized myth. The play spans the second half of Kerouac's short, 47-year life, beginning in 1944 and progressing until the writer's death in 1969. Though the set consists of a forced-perspective highway that extends from downstage to upstage (as if the audience is driving right through the action), the play explores a lot more than just that fateful journey taken by Kerouac and Neal Cassady (aka the character Dean Moriarty). Including all the major-leaguers of the Beat generation -- Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and Gregory Corso -- Visions investigates, among other things, Kerouac's intimate relationship with Cassady, his obsession with his mother, his love affair with alcohol, and his veering-to-the-right political tendencies.

"A lot of people will be very surprised at what goes on in the play," says Sankowich, who also directed Visions in its 1977 premiere. "Jack Kerouac was really not anything like the man I thought him to be. He was very conservative politically and carried a lot of [what he referred to as] 'Catholic guilt' around with him." One of the things that surprised Sankowich the most is that Kerouac may have been a Beat, but he was hardly an activist. People rarely know or remember, says Sankowich, that the Beat movement, which happened before the social upheavals of the late '60s, started out apolitical. "Kerouac was very down on the hippies," he says. "He eventually became a big William Buckley Republican."

In many ways the play, which is based on actual events but takes some liberties with facts, begins where Kerouac's famous tome ends. It chronicles how the Beats got together, follows Kerouac through his passionate and destructive relationships with people and booze, and explores how his anger and wanderlust both freed him and kept him prisoner. Duberman's goal was to get as close to the anti-hero as possible, to expose his story as it was, warts and all. "Duberman's slant on it has a lot to do with Kerouac's [possibly repressed gay] sexuality, and his inability to ever become more than an observer. He is laid bare here. I hope people will empathize with him, but I don't think people will want to follow his path."

About The Author

Karen Macklin

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