Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
– Jack Kerouac
In his new play Mad Beat Hip & Gone – now in its world premiere on ZACH Theatre’s new Topfer Theatre stage – playwright Steven Dietz explores the Beat Generation and its influence on two small-town young men who have a chance meeting with Beat poet Jack Kerouac and his traveling partner, Neal Cassady.
Today, the term “beatnik” conjures up the stereotype of young men and women dressed in all black, wearing berets while they recite poetry and play the bongos. But for movement founder Kerouac — who introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948 to characterize his his social circle of underground, anti-conformist youth gathering in New York at that time — the cultural well-spring had a more religious intention.
Kerouac explained what he meant by “beat” at the Brandeis Forum “Is There A Beat Generation?” in November 1958 at New York’s Hunter College Playhouse, where he appeared with fellow seminar panelists James A. Wechsler, Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu and author Kingsley Amis. Reading from a prepared text, Kerouac reflected on his beat beginnings:
It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it…who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty?
The media, of course, ignored the Romantic aspects of the Beat Movement and instead perpetuated the cartoonish versions of Dobie Gillis knockoffs, counter-culture hipsters and “Cool, man, cool” jargon expressed in rhyme set to drum beats. The term “beatnik” was actually coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen by sarcastically punning on the recently launched Russian Sputnik to imply the beatnik’s perceived rejection of red-white-and-blue-blooded all-American ideals.
Jack Kerouac's seminal Beat novel ON THE ROAD
To Kerouac, this vision of the Beat Movement portrayed by the mass media only existed as the invention of journalists and entertainers, saying the real Movement was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program. In “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac criticized what he saw as a distortion of his visionary and spiritual ideas:
“The Beat Generation, that was a vision…of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way — a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word “beat” spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America — beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. We’d even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization…the Beat culture was a state of mind, not a matter of how you dressed or talked or where you lived. In fact, Beat culture was far from monolithic. It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind… move beyond the cultural clichés and slogans, to look past the Central Casting costumes, props, and jargon the mass media equated with Beatness, in order to do justice to its spirit.”
Experience Kerouac’s culture in Mad Beat Hip & Bone, now playing through April 28th on the Topfer Theatre stage. For tickets, call (512) 476-0541, x1, or click here for tickets online.