Visions of Kerouac

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

In the brief note that prefaces this play, Martin Duberman states:Visions of Kerouac is an amalgam of my words and Jack Kerouac’s. Some events are wholly imagined, much of the dialogue is invented, certain characters are composites; I’ve aimed at truth of mood, not truth of fact. The play is a meditation on Kerouac’s life—much as his book Visions of Cody is a meditation on Neal Cassady’s.

And in this “meditation,” playwright-historian Duberman’s skill and sensitivity as a playwright—In White America (1964), Male Armor (1975)—merges with his historian’s grasp of the American culture to produce a colorful, intense, and provocative dramatic experience.

More precisely, in Visions of Kerouac Duberman more fully sharpens and develops the themes and concepts he introduced in the plays gathered under the title Male Armor. Jack Kerouac the real American man and novelist becomes Duberman’s archetypal victim of the self-destructive roles that “male armor” imposes.

Borrowing the concept from psychologist Wilhelm Reich, Duberman defines “male armor” in this earlier play collection as “the devices we use to protect ourselves from our own energy, and especially from our sexual energy.” The result of this largely unconscious process, Duberman goes on to suggest, is the emotional and psychological destruction of the person, since these contrived “roles” “keep the individuals from themselves—and from others.”

Which is not to say that Visions of Kerouac simply illustrates a psychological-cultural theory or that it overly distorts the “real” Jack Kerouac in the interests of an intellectual thesis, but simply that the dynamics of Kerouac’s self-destruction is clarified, if somewhat oversimplified, by the playwright’s “Reichian” hypothesis.

The choice of Jack Kerouac as protagonist is an interesting and stimulating one, although it also presents some serious difficulties. Kerouac the man was volatile, complicated, and intense, and the shape of his life, an unpredictable mixture of frantic activity, social involvement, and hermitic retreat, was pathetic—even, perhaps, tragic. Jack Kerouac the legend, the center of the “Beat” movement, gives the playwright the opportunity to dramatize that colorful artistic and cultural phenomenon in all of its flamboyance, theatricality, frivolity, and seriousness. And Jack Kerouac the writer allows Duberman to comment on the role of authors in our society.

Moreover, because Kerouac’s writings were obsessively autobiographical, peopled by friends and associates in thin disguises, Duberman can play the real characters off against the fictional ones without being bound either to strict biographical fact or to absolute fidelity to Kerouac’s version of the facts. Hence, Irwin Goldbook is and is not Allen Ginsberg, and Duberman’s Goldbook is and is not identical to Kerouac’s. On the stage this is a good deal less confusing and more effective, dramatically and thematically, than it may sound in an essay-review.

But as the subject of a drama Kerouac is less than ideal. For all his public acting out, he was essentially a shy and passive man. While his readers associated him with his colorful protagonists (Dean Moriarity, Cody Pomeray, Japhy Ryder), Kerouac himself identified with his passive observer-narrators (Ray Smith, Sal Paradise, Jack Duluoz), and this observer role was true of Kerouac’s personal life as well. Even among close friends and fellow “Beats,” he remained the outsider, the man who, even at his most theatrical, sat on the edge of the stage, bottle in hand, and cheered his friends on. In addition, the curve of Kerouac’s life traced a steady decline over a number of years, with most of the dramatic incidents coming near the beginning of his career.

The result is a “disintegration play,” a type that has in recent years become almost a minor genre—examples are John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, Jack Gelber’s Square in the Eye, Simon Gray’s Butley, and Keith Neilson’s The End of the World. In such works the action consists of a single male protagonist’s progressive deterioration under the pressures of immediate crisis, broken relationships, personal defects, mistakes, and, especially, a perverse self-destructiveness.

However, because he is dealing with a character who was real and, despite his garrulous writings, not demonstrably introspective, Duberman is largely denied that dramatic interiority which forms the theatrical spine...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, October 1, 1977, p. 260.

Library Journal. CII, November 1, 1977, p. 2274.