Allen Ginsberg wrote in Howl that he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. But I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation, a new play about the Beat generation of writers, was destroyed by something far more mundane: copyright violation.
The Runaways Lab Theater’s mostly-improvised play, directed by Olivia Lilley, was based on Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson’s memoir of her life in the 50s, which included a casual friendship with Ginsberg and an affair with Jack Kerouac around the time On the Road was published and hailed as a work of genius by the New York Times.
When I reviewed the play, I wasn’t particularly impressed (I found it chaotic and confusing), but it did get me interested enough in Johnson and her friend Elise Cowen to read Minor Characters again and get really pissed off about how women were (and still are) relegated to the role of “minor characters” while the men get to be geniuses. I wrote a blog post about it. Which was how Johnson found out about the play, which she had not authorized. (As it turned out, she’d already written her own dramatic adaptation of the book.)
“We were very, very stupid,” Lilley admits now.
“This constitutes an outrageous violation of copyright and my rights as an author,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail to me. “The play, from the way it has been described, also appears to be a complete distortion of my work, and the publicity for it gives the false impression that the production had my sanction.”
The Runaways’ intent was not malicious. “We didn’t know how to contact her,” Lilley says. “We thought our production was so small, no one would notice.”
Johnson called Lilley yesterday morning. “It was shocking,” Lilley says. “She was very, very angry. I have the utmost respect for her. I asked what she would like us to do.”
In response, Lilley shut down the entire production and asked that all publicity materials be taken down. It will not be revived. “It’s unfortunately not an option,” she says. “She’s set on what she wants. Last night, instead of a performance we had a party to cope and mourn.”
In the meantime, Johnson is still alive and well. Her most recent book, The Voice is All, a literary biography and analysis of Kerouac’s work, came out in 2012 to, she notes, “some of the most virulently sexist reviews I have ever gotten in my lifetime.” (You can read her response to Andrew O’Hagan’s New York Review of Books review here; O’Hagan’s original review is behind a paywall.) And her back catalog, including Come and Join the Dance, the book she was working on during the period of Minor Characters, will be rereleased as e-books next month.