No Great Society

Dances With Jack

In 1968, a year before his death, a grumpy, overweight and drunk Jack Kerouac appeared on William F. Buckley’s ‘Firing Line’ television show. The resulting show went down in Beat and TV history, as an outright farce. It is painful viewing. For Kerouac lovers, it is akin to witnessing a relative’s physical and mental decline which will lead ultimately to their passing, except that in this case that decline was nationally televised. And for those with little care for Kerouac or the Beat movement, the episode was an adequate indictment of what they perceived to be a pathetic and over hyped blight on the annals of American history.

Either way, Kerouac’s appearance, alongside Ed Sanders, became notorious. It is now widely available on the internet, and features in the first few minutes of What Happened to Kerouac?

And in 2007, that shaming of a loved one, the tragic downfall of a literary legend, became part of theatre history. It makes up the first half of theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service’s ‘No Great Society: Dances With Jack’. (The second half of the show is comprised of a re-enactment of Kerouac’s appearance on the Steve Allen show.

So what? We have a stage show made up of a cast playing interviewers and guests on two of Kerouac’s TV spots… Sounds dull, eh?

Well, jog on and do one.

‘No Great Society’ is unusual and unreal, as well as brilliantly observed and masterfully played out. It’s nothing you’d expect.

For one, Kerouac is played by a woman. That’s right. Susie Sokol plays the madcap Jack perfectly, despite being half his size and of a different gender. And in the second part, she slips back and forth between herself, the actress, and her character, Jack Kerouac, to perhaps add to his disillusionment and identity-confusion.

‘No Great Society’ played in the early months of 2007 in the New York Theatre Workshop, and was a welcome addition to the legacy of Beat memorials.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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