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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey, at the Charles Playhouse

By Celia B. Betsky

YOU AINT ANY CRAZIER than the average asshole on the street," decides Randle P. McMurphy, the hero of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest after only a short time inside a state mental hospital. From Shakespeare to Marnt-Sade to Durrenmatt, writers have attempted to probe the implications of insanity and to articulate the paradoxes that best madness. McMurphy soon learns that, as one of the doctors puts it, "the asylum is 'society in miniature.'" From his first boisterous appearance, crashing in as a recent "committal" from the state prison farm, to when he lies stretched out under a sheet, a dead "Vegetable," McMurphy is determined to prove that he can function in this society as well as in any other. His roles are many: "bull-goose loony," "Jesus Q. Christ," father figure, and, for Kesey's autobiographical purposes, perhaps, Chief among his Merry Pranksters. He continues to function, all right, but can be survive in this mad microcosm that supposedly reflects the outside world? This is the question Kesey set out to answer in his novel and in his life, and the reply came back a tragic "No."

For the dramatic adaptation of One Flow Over the Cuckoo's Nest, comparison with the novel is unavoidable. The play holds its own as entertainment but it loses much of the pathos, horror, physical breadth and psychological depth of the novel. In the play, George Welbes's McMurphy is the center of all action; he lords it over the stage and story, supported by a cast of intermittently insane characters. It is only when the insane borders on the zany, the pathetic on the ludicrous that I found myself questioning Wasserman's skillful adaptation. This speeded-up version of a long and often agonizing story is hilariously funny. At times I fought my laughter, waiting guiltily for each new joke or comical incident, wondering who I was to laugh at the tragedy of mutilated minds, twisted psyches and lobotomized egos. In the book, laughter had come as relief from too much suffering, for both the characters and the reader, and accompanied the happier episodes of McMurphy's struggle against authority and self-surrender. On stage, the inmates become caricatures and the plot a rather lengthy bout with laughing gas.

CHIEF BROMDEN, THE NARRATOR OF THE BOOK, compared his fellow inmates to cartoon figures, to puppets "that you were supposed to laugh at," who might have been "real funny if it weren't for the cartoon figures being real guys." Unfortunately on stage, the "real" fell rather flat. Effeminate Dale Harding (Roger Harkenrider) flips his hands a little too obviously: Billy Bibbitt (Lawrason Driscoll) undergoes a rather facile transformation from stuttering virgin to surly stud.

George Welbes' McMurphy doesn't enlist much sympathy, engaging clown though he is. Although he gives a generally laudable performance, his somewhat nasty and unnatural laugh, that echoes throughout the play, came to represent the outside world, the spectators, laughing at his comrades, instead of with them or for them. His swaggering and posturing, his gambling with cigarettes or human lives, is often too funny for comfort or credibility. A continuous lack of subtlety brought out the more humorous sides of the situation, and only towards the very end, in a scene like the one in which he gets Chief Bromden (Frank Savino) to talk, does the underlying seriousness become apparent. Faced with the prospect of remaining "committed" for life, he keeps up his laughter, if desperately, finally realizing that "you gotta laugh, especially when things sin't so funny."

But if the emphasis throughout had to be placed on the ridiculous rather than the human, then I was faced not only with a lack of subtlety, but also with the absence of some essentially grotesque props. Not to knock De Ann Mears's lusty portrayal of Big Nurse, for instance, but where, oh where was her frequently discussed and out-sized bosom?

Transposing character and subject matter from the pirated page to the theatre is always a touchy operation, and here taking away the narration and point of view from Chief Bromden, and focusing attention on the figure of McMurphy only serves to exaggerate the action in its more light-hearted moments. Obsessed by the idea of a "Combine" that feeds society's mistakes into the machines of the asylum, a "factory" for patching up misfits to meet the Combine's humiliating standards, the Bromden of the book depicts an entire world that remains authoritarian and hostile both inside the institution and out.

TEMPORALLY, THE EFFECTS OF THE COMBINE reach back as far as the Chief's childhood, when the white man cajoled his tribe off of their land, drove his father to drunken and death, and the half-breed boy towards stimulated deafness and dumbness, because "so one ever listened." Then came the war experience which left the Chief completely catatonic, wrapped in a mist of alternation, blown in periodically by the Combine's "log machines." World War II ranks high on the list of society's crimes against her individual members; it set Frank Scanion (Jon Richards) to building bombs with which to blow up his world, and gave Anthony Martial (William Preston) imaginary campanions and a phantom machine gun that jerks in his arms.

Physically, the Combine continues to regulate the present. Even when McMurphy taken his friends out on a fishing trip, the exhilarating freedom is more than most of them can cope with anymore, andthe "wires" of authority and their own weakness pull them back to the asylum. The fishing trip is not included in the play, nor does one here ever get a sense of the outside world. By confining the action to the hospital, however, the claustrophobic feeling engendered by the rules and restrictions of the Combine is lacking. Even the basic process symbolized by the story, of democracy and individualism trying to shake off the hand of authority, fails to emerge clearly. The inmates seem rather like a bunch of raucous boys at prep school, or the junior members of a family where father where father McMurphy fights with mother Big Nurse for dominance in their sick little world.

"I am big again," says Chief Bromden, as he steps through the hospital window, escaping to the outside world, and leaving the dead pile of his self-sacrificing mentor behind. So ends the play. The final sentence of Kesey's novel runs. "I been away a long time"--away from a larger and more concrete world, out of touch with reality, after having surrendered to a society that is cruel, but not ultimately invincible. He may be "big again" in the play, but it was McMurphy who taught him to walk tall, and McMurphy is dead. Regaining contact with reality, leaving behind a nightmare world of the psyche, where things are "true, even if they never really happened," is a much more convincing conclusion to a book that takes both the full character and the existence of the outside world into account. The Chief learns to assert himself on stage, too, but only inside the four walls of the ward, and not within the confines of his mind. Stepping through the window, he would merely end up back-stage, not on the road back to normal life. He would not be able to fly over the cuckoo's nest.

PERHAPS, HOWEVER, HIS BREAK from the asylum is rendered impossible not because of the lack of realistic alternatives, offered by a limited stage adaptation, but because he has experienced all too well a condition Billy Bibbitt blurts out in a group therapy session. Big Nurse is goading Billy to tears, as she accuses him of being selfish, of not stopping to think about why he does the things he does. Her analyses are abundant and readily articulated, but Billy has already born his psyche to shreds in his efforts at self-explanation. "But don't you see," he cries, breaking into tears, "that I have considered everything!" Chief Bromden has been in the institution for many years and has had lots of time to do his brooding: it only takes McMurphy a short while to learn the art of picking apart his ago in search of all the answers. Like Billy, like the Chief, he realizes that the final explanation never comes, that this maze of endless questioning is more than enough to drive a man mad, that once he has started to explore the depths of his own mind, he will never find the way out.

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