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Underbelly is a fictional take on the life and work of William S. Burroughs and the Beats

By Brian Carroll on March 1, 2014

The 1950s were a time when it was easy to despair. To despair for the future, which seemed doomed to nuclear holocaust. The atrocities and horrors of WWII made it easy to despair about humanity. The McCarthy era trampled on hard-won liberties. That despair led some young people to unrest and dissatisfaction, which needed to be voiced. Those voices became the Beat Movement.

Three personalities emerged to define the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac (who coined the term), Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Playwright and actor Jayson McDonald has chosen to explore this time through the eyes of Burroughs, with strategic appearances by Ginsberg and Kerouac. Underbelly is his fictional take on the life and work of Burroughs and the Beats.

Burroughs, in particular, gives voice to the despair. The future is Armageddon. Humans are doomed to loneliness by a failure to communicate. Humanity is slouching inexorably to its self-destruction.

The Beats’ reaction is to live in the moment, since there is no future. Be-at the here and now. If anything gets in the way of life in the here and now, it must be resisted. That resistance must have a voice, in poetry, in words, in actions.

While all three experiment with drugs, Burroughs is, in fact, addicted. His literature features the lives of junkies, yes. But it also parodies the hypocrisies of 1950s authority. He intermingles fact and fiction, hallucination and reality. He advocates escaping the illusions imposed by those who control his society. Escaping into experience of life, wherever that may take one. Escaping into the alternate experience of drugs.

The Beats see the hypocrisies of their time: the war on foreigners, the war on drugs, the war on freedom, lies and litigation. Their response is the Beat Machine, the Soft Machine, the Dream Machine, the Love Machine. And the Machine is powered by poetry. Evocative poetry by Ginsberg. Stirring poetry by Kerouac. Fantastical poetry by Burroughs.

David Cronenberg used animation and special effects to bring drug experiences to the screen in his film version of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Hector Berlioz used symphony orchestras to do the same in his Symphonie Fantastique. McDonald uses nothing more than words, gestures, a couple of props, and a few lighting effects to do the same. He invokes cinematic imagery of 50s westerns, bug monster science fiction, and atomic war movies to bring to the stage both the seduction of drugs and the subsequent crash when the high disintegrates.

Try as he might, Burroughs can’t escape the reality of his times. No matter how high he gets, reality finds a way to come crashing in.

In spite of his hallucinations, Burroughs still has crystal clear flashes of insight into the ills of his society.

“They built a city called Manifest Destiny. And a network of cities called America.”

“Always call it bullshit, when it’s bullshit!”

Just when we feel that we are drowning in Burroughs psychedelic visions and as his life heads into crisis, reality pulls an ace from its sleeve and sends his friends with it to trump despair. They cause Burroughs to re-evaluate his outlook. Sorry, no spoilers. You’ll have to find out what the trump card is for yourself.

Ginsberg and Kerouac add poetic depth and resonance to the play. These are treats for poetry and hip-hop fans. I wanted more development of their poetic presence. It could make clearer why they have such influence on Burroughs in the end.

The 21st Century is a time when it is easy to despair. To despair for the future which seems doomed to irreversible environmental disaster. The atrocities and horrors of wars and genocide make it easy to despair about humanity. Governments are trampling on hard-won liberties. That despair has led some young people to unrest and dissatisfaction; witness the Occupy movements and the various colour revolutions around the world.

Were I to see Underbelly again, I’d bring a pessimist as a guest. I’d arrange to take my guest for a beverage afterwards. The discussion would be pretty interesting.

The Beats were harbingers to the the decades that followed. Yes there followed experimentation with drugs. But those decades also brought organized resistance: to war, to racism, to sexism, to environmental degradation, to homophobia.

Jayson McDonald wants to introduce you to the Beat Machine.

That beat back despair.

Underbelly presented by Black Sheep Theatre is playing at The Gladstone Theatre till March 8th. Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30PM. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30PM. Adult tickets are $34. Seniors: $30. Students, Artists and Unwaged: $20.