Prop Theatre

As I write, I’d like to believe I’m expressing my point of view, but I know that’s an arrogant delusion. Actually, I’m discovering my point of view. The act of writing–of groping for words that seem somehow correct and true–leads me to observations and conclusions that would elude me, remaining forever dormant if I didn’t force myself to sit down at a typewriter.

Writing isn’t always so enlightening, however. Sometimes it’s just a matter of manipulating words until they sound reasonably coherent and persuasive. In fact, that’s probably the first impulse a writer feels. Students struggling through their first term paper are notorious for producing inflated, bombastic prose that’s supposed to sound profound, and hack journalists can make words dance and sing without being the least bit moved by them.

Jack Kerouac considered word manipulation an empty exercise that destroys the sense of exploration and discovery that writing can create. For him, the process of writing was what really mattered. He would write in great bursts of enthusiasm, racing to type out his thoughts as quickly as they occurred to him. Those were the thoughts that were vital and meaningful, he claimed, and he refused to tamper with them once they were on paper. He considered revision a form of self-imposed censorship, and he advocated instead his brand of “spontaneous prose,” which seemed to spurt directly from his unconscious, pure and unsullied by the intellect. When a critic called the result of this technique “stupefying in its unreadability,” Kerouac turned the criticism around: “What I find to be really ‘stupefying in its unreadability’ is this laborious and dreary lying called craft and revision by writers, and certainly recognized by the sharpest psychologists as sheer blockage of the mental spontaneous process known 2,500 years ago as ‘The Seven Streams of Swiftness.'”

Vincent Balestri recognizes this mad drive towards spontaneous insight as “the essence of Jack,” and he pays tribute to it in the only way that seems appropriate–by improvising on the man’s life with a collection of scenes that incorporate impersonation, anecdote, and homage.

Kerouac: The Essence of Jack is an unusual but surprisingly effective piece of theater. Balestri developed it in Chicago six years ago, and has been performing it off and on ever since. He has created about eight hours of material, and he performs about two hours’ worth at a time. After hundreds of performances, he has achieved the confidence and the skill of a veteran jazz musician, improvising freely and sometimes recklessly on material that’s utterly familiar to him, yet new every night.

Balestri works with a minimum of props–a portable typewriter on a table containing bottles of wine and Jack Daniels, a rack of well-thumbed paperback editions of Kerouac’s books, and a jazz saxophonist named William Bateman. His “script” is a 600-word autobiographical blurb Kerouac once wrote. Balestri has removed the page containing the brief biography from one of Kerouac’s books, and he holds the battered, flaccid paper like a piece of ancient parchment as he reads passages to the audience. The front side of the paper is act one, the back side act two. Balestri reads a sentence or two, then elaborates on the information or acts out a scene. For example, in the essay Kerouac mentions that when he was four years old, he watched his brother Gerard die from rheumatic fever. This inspires Balestri to reenact a scene from a TV show in which Kerouac recites a poem for his brother while host Steve Allen improvises on the piano. After the recitation, Balestri plays an audio tape of the actual event.

Such free-form biography persists throughout the show. The essentials of Kerouac’s life are there: growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts; getting a football scholarship to Columbia University; dropping out; meeting Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and the other Beat writers; typing the manuscript of On the Road on a continuous roll of paper; appearing drunk and disorderly on William Buckley’s Firing Line, and of course, the long, pathetic slide to death from alcoholism.

Balestri mimics Kerouac’s voice with amazing accuracy, and deftly impersonates the writer’s brash, contemptuous manner. He even becomes gradually more garrulous as age and alcohol take their toll. But Balestri always leaves himself enough freedom to improvise. When talking about the publication of Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, for example, Balestri describes the editing process as consisting of a little man who gouges away at his flesh with a sharp knife until he gets to the author’s heart, which he promptly rips out and stomps on. “Now we can sell it to the public,” the little man says. That moment may be Balestri’s creation; yet, it remains utterly faithful to Kerouac’s spirit.

Balestri takes his biggest risk when he invites people in the audience to ask him questions. Asking people to play along in this way is always awkward–it demands too much of the willing suspension of disbelief–but Balestri fields the questions with such calm assurance that he makes the exchange playful and fun. Usually he attempts to stay in character. When a man in the audience said, “Allen Ginsberg called you noble; do you feel noble?” Balestri was quick to retort, “Ginsberg called his penis noble,” a statement that captured Kerouac’s growing contempt for the poet. But Balestri is not obsessive about staying in character. The night I attended, he incorporated into one of his answers a phrase from a recent Tribune review of the show, and then stopped to explain and make fun of the comment.

Kerouac is remembered for his spontaneous prose. He focused attention on the art of writing, not on the craft, and emphasized self-discovery over reader comfort. His writing technique certainly did produce vibrant, penetrating passages, but his refusal to edit and revise his material was self-indulgent, and left readers with unwieldy books containing gibberish and mental effluvia that have no business in print. Much of his prose is indeed “stupefying.”

Balestri, of course, isn’t interested in what the critics thought of Kerouac’s work. Instead, he goes after “the essence” of the man–the energy and the mad passion to create–and by looking deeply and openly at his subject, he begins to generate the “telepathic shock and meaning-excitement” that Kerouac hoped to evoke with his prose. Consequently, this portrait is in tune with our times, even though it’s about a man who has been dead for 18 years. In a program note, Balestri asserts that the actor is a lightning rod who attracts and stores the thoughts and emotions of the age. “The true actor’s eyes are his country’s eyes,” he says.

With his risky, free-form portrayal of Kerouac, Balestri confronts a contemporary issue–the need for a vibrant, virile form of theater that goes beyond realistic narrative, into a realm where emotion and meaning are expressed in less literal ways. Such a show may not produce a comprehensive portrait of the writer Jack Kerouac, but it certainly embodies “the essence of Jack.”