Thursday, February 12, 2015

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Book by Ken Kesey, and the Play

After I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest  at The Glenmore Playhouse, I happened to see the book when I was at our local library.  On a whim, I checked it out.  It has taken me two months but I have read it.  The book reads easily but the emotions it arouses are strong.  I could only handle a little at a time.


I read the book years and years ago.  Maybe I read a Reader's Digest Condensed Books version.  It is a book I have never forgotten.  Though I didn't remember the details, I remembered the basic plot of the book and the characters...especially Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.  I had forgotten that Chief Bromden was the narrator though I did remember that much of the book read like a nightmare and other parts were just plain funny.  I remembered, too, that the end was tragic but uplifting at the same time.

This time, I found the beginning hard to read.  Partly, this was  because the book starts off almost lighthearted and I know the ending is not  lighthearted.  Also the narrator, Chief Bromden, sometimes expresses his feelings as events when the reader knows the events are not really happening.  Clearly, he is crazy...or is he?

He says as he looks back on the whole set of events...(This story burning into him like steam)..."It's gonna burn me just that way, finally telling about all this, about the hospital, and her, and the guys -- and about McMurphy.  I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please.  It's hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it.  But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."

Like most great fiction, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest works on many different levels.  It can be read as a condemnation of mental health facilities in the 1950s and 1960s.  That is the simplest interpretation.

It can also be read as the conflict between the individual and society as a whole. "Papa says if you don't watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite."( Chief Bromden)

It took me weeks to read Parts I and II which lead to the inevitable end in Part III. I kept deciding I'd rather read something that was FUN. Even though much of Cuckoo's Nest is funny, it is not FUN. But, when I finally made it to Part Three I couldn't put the book down.  Parts One and Two are necessary because they set up Part Three so don't skip them.

 Chief Bromden is a seemingly mute and deaf  patient, who, for most of the play, watches the action. ( He is a major player in the final act.)  In the book, he is the narrator who others think is mute and deaf but who clearly has a deep interest in all that is happening around him.  He is Every Man living his life and trying to make sense of life.   Sometimes his thoughts are poetic as in the following description.

"There were little brown birds occasionally on the fence; when a puff of leaves would hit the fence the birds would fly off with the wind.  It looked at first like the leaves were hitting the fence and turning into birds and flying away."

Randle Patrick McMurphy is the hero, the Individual.  He is a gambler, determined to live life on his terms.  McMurphy stirs up life within the closed-up Chief Bromden when he stirs up the patients on Nurse Ratched's ward.  He also stirs up Nurse Ratched which turns out to be his downfall.

Ron Samad as Chief Bromden and Steffen Whorton as Randle Patrick McMurphy  in The Drama Workshop's rehearsal of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at The Glenmore Playhouse.  McMurphy has learned that Chief Bromden in not deaf and mute.

Nurse Ratched is Society, or the Combine as Chief Bromden calls it,  always interested in keeping the Individuals  under control.  She ignores Chief Bromden because she thinks he is not an issue in her ward.  Since we are seeing through Chief Bromden's eyes, we know this is a big mistake on Nurse Ratched's part.

This is Chief Bromden's description of Nurse Ratched as she recovers from a sudden anger spell.. ".all the patients start coming out of the dorms to check on what's the hullabaloo, and she has to change back before she's caught in the shape of her hideous real self."

Chief Bromden (Ron Samad) and Nurse Ratched (Gretchen Gantner) in rehearsal.  (The Drama Workshop, Glenmore Playhouse)

Because the book does not have time and place restraints as the play does, the action occurs in other places beside the ward and we learn more about the lasting effect of McMurphy's actions and his final gamble on the other inmates.

The play captures the essence of the story and is well worth seeing. But for an in depth view of the story, it is necessary to read the book.

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