Dale Wasserman

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

February 12 - 28
Ivy Tech Waldron Auditorium

Keseyan Sketches


The Keseyan Sketches Behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

What’s Next for Cardinal Stage Company

By Jordan Goodmon

1960: the US Army hires willing and able-bodied students to test brand new psychotomimetic drugs and Ken Kesey, future rock star of the beatnik-to-hippie generation who had then only been under the influence on the eve of his wedding, signs up. It was the Cold War age, and the country’s need to arm itself in every way imaginable had led it to a new frontier of paranoia and psychological warfare. All it needed was the tools.

On Tuesdays, Kesey would go to the VA hospital at Menlo Park to get his first tastes of lysergic acid diethylamide-25, the mind-altering (some would say, mind-blowing) drug LSD that would hopefully give the CIA what it needed to stay ahead in the field of interrogation and would certainly give Kesey the impetus for a lifelong career with the psychedelic. Six weeks after beginning the drug tests, Kesey writes, he was seeking grass for his own personal “experiments.” Soon after that, he found himself working as a nurse’s aide on the psychiatric ward at Menlo Park. It was during his return tenure at the VA hospital—this time in a less hush-hush capacity—that he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on sketches of his patients. The play adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman is the next show on the docket for Cardinal Stage Company, a contrasting piece following its family-friendly production of Mary Poppins.

Kesey’s sketches of the various faces he saw on the ward were first collected in a self-acknowledged hodgepodge of a book called Kesey’s Garage Sale, which was published in 1973 and contains a series of essays and stories based on Kesey’s life, work, and his cavorting with a band of contemporaries known as The Merry Pranksters. The penciled drawings are surreal, borderline Picasso, and exposed. Kenneth Barnes, who “narrates” Kesey’s Garage Sale as the archive’s self-proclaimed curator, expresses hope (in a hand-drawn speech bubble clearly of an age prior to the computer) that Cuckoo’s Nest would be published in the future with Kesey’s drawings and sketches. The 2002 Penguin edition of the novel took Barnes’ advice and includes the drawings along with a forward by Kesey that suggests why the drawings are almost exclusively of faces: “Patients straggled by in the hall outside, their faces all ghastly confessions. Sometimes I looked at them and sometimes they looked at me, but rarely did we look at one another. It was too naked and painful. More was revealed in a human face than a human being can bear, face-to-face.”

Unable to look the patients in the eye, Kesey took them to the page, using his free time and free access to the typewriter in the nurse’s station during night shifts to turn his drawings into the varied and nuanced characters in Cuckoo’s Nest. The effeminate and troubled husband, Harding, the stuttering virgin, Billy Bibbit, and the allegedly “deaf and dumb” narrator, Chief Bromden, are just a few of the characters manifested from Kesey’s experiences during those late nights in the early sixties on the psychiatric ward. One night near Halloween, Kesey writes in Garage Sale, a patient appeared “wild-eyed and hair flying and looking like a demented composer” at the door to the nurse’s station where Kesey sat typing and sipping a king-sized Coke. Threatening Kesey with the Coke bottle and an allegation that he had been trying to undermine the competency of the medical staff by earlier giving him contraband aspirin, the bedraggled patient gave Kesey what he could only describe as: “Inspiration. A rare and unreliable commodity responding to no formula, available by no appointment.” And like that, Kesey had his novel and the anthem for his stardom that would usher in the anti-establishment, drug-spurred counterculture in search of separating the corrupted powerful from the powerless many.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is known for its plea against the “Combine,” Chief Bromden’s name for America’s mechanized society that takes an unwittingly malleable public and spits it out, repressed and uniform, just the way it wants. Randle Patrick McMurphy is the story’s hero that leads the society of the ward into the fray against its oppressor, Nurse Ratched—much like Captain Ahab from Melville’s classic leads his crew up against the formidable white whale, as scholars frequently note. Unlike many of the other characters, McMurphy was not inspired by the faces of Kesey’s drawings, but is rather the voice that Kesey imagined his patients at Menlo Park sorely lacked. Cuckoo’s Nest and its fabled author are situated among the likes of Ginsberg and Wolfe in the beatnik-hippie literature of the 1960s, but the story’s warning against sanitizing the unknown and potentially dangerous is still poignant. With faces of Syrian refugees denied entry into the US flashed on news channels almost daily, Cardinal’s production of Cuckoo’s Nest, with its faces of those oppressed by top-down methods of control, is particularly relevant.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs February 12-28 at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Auditorium and will star Mike Price, Constance Macy, and Jeremy Proulx as the faces of McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and Chief Bromden. Tickets can be purchased at the Cardinal office or at www.cardinalstage.org.