The Beats | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Beats 

THE BEATS, Writers' Theatre Chicago. This evening of snippets from beat writers, adapted for the stage by Writers' Theatre cofounder Marilyn Campbell, is dedicated "to the memory of Allen Ginsberg." I wish that it had been dedicated to his spirit too. Carefully edited, nicely designed, well-lit, and excellently performed, the show could have used more of Ginsberg's holy anarchy--and his poet's eye for finding the truth behind the cliche.

Campbell's cleaned-up coffeehouse-and-bongos version of the beat movement is as noteworthy for what it omits--Kerouac's On the Road, anything much by William Burroughs, any mention of homosexuality--as for what it includes: inferior poetry by Gregory Corso, great poetry and prose by lesser-known beats like Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, and John Clellon Holmes, and a wonderful 1959 poison-pen feature in Life magazine by Paul O'Neil, who gets it all wrong, right down to how influential the beats will be.

Maybe a Disneyfied version of the beats is all they can take in Glencoe. Certainly the movement's nonconformist, anticapitalist, proproletarian stance can't be popular in a scrubbed, neatly trimmed upper-class suburb where pay phones are as plentiful as public housing. As it was, the show's brief selection from Ginsberg's "Howl" at the end of the first act sent several North Shore ladies scurrying home. Perhaps a harder, truer look at Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, et al would have sent the whole crowd howling into the night.

--Jack Helbig

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