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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Themes and Characters

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Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman. It premiered on Broadway in 1963, with Kirk Douglas in the leading role as Randle Patrick McMurphy. The protagonist is a wildly funny rebel who feigns insanity in order to finish his prison sentence in a mental ward rather than a work farm. However, when he meets the fellow members of the asylum, he discovers that they make a lot more sense than the restrictive and conformist establishment, embodied by a control-freak named Nurse Ratched.

Kesey’s novel was also adapted into an Academy Award winning film, starring the incomparable Jack Nicholson. However, the screenplay was not adapted by Wasserman, and the differences in dialogue vary greatly. Compared to the Milos Forman film, the stage play offers more insight into the mind of Chief Bromden, a patient who refrains from talking to others until he opens up to McMurphy. Bromden’s cerebral monologues strengthen the theme of a machine-like society that forces an unnatural, unhealthy conformity upon its members.

Also, the stage play feels more like an ensemble piece, rather than a “star vehicle.” The result is an emotionally-stirring evening of theater – assuming the cast is as brilliant as the one I witnessed!

R. P. McMurphy: Rebellious Protagonist

McMurphy is not your typical hero. He was originally incarcerated for crimes such as illegal gambling and battery. He was also accused (but not convicted) of statutory rape. In fact, in Act One he jokingly brags about sleeping with a fifteen-year old who claimed she was seventeen. When he first arrives at the institution, he pokes fun at the patients and heckles the staff. From the beginning, McMurphy is anxious to stir up a combination of fun and trouble. Despite these transgressions, McMurphy represents the spirit of freedom. The audience admires his passion to resist conformity and despotism.

Nurse Ratched: The Anti-Florence Nightingale

If you have ever been confronted with an annoying, pointless, freedom-inhibiting rule that was enforced by a seemingly soulless, power-hungry bureaucrat, then you’ve encountered a version of Nurse Ratched. This antagonist claims to care about her patients’ mental recovery. However, she doesn’t want to cure – she wants to control. Her actions reveal her tyrannical nature. Here’s the evidence:

Exhibit A: Nurse Ratched says she wants to foster a democratic community. She urges all of her patients to sit in a circle and help each other with group therapy. But as McMurphy observes, it’s more like a “pecking party” in which the patients take turns picking on each other. McMurphy wants to adjust the hospital rules in order to watch television during the day, but Ratched says that the group must vote in order to change a policy. At first the patients are too frightened to stand up for themselves, until McMurphy builds up their confidence. When the patients unanimously vote to watch the World Series, the evil head nurse vetoes their decision, simply because she hates McMurphy’s defiant attitude.

Exhibit B: Nurse Ratched doesn’t acknowledge medical breakthroughs. Chief Bromden has been diagnosed as catatonic, unable to hear or talk. Bromden’s friendship with McMurphy enables the tall, silent Native American to come out of his mental solitude. Instead of praising Bromden’s miraculous comeback, Nurse Ratched forces him back into her malicious circle of “group therapy” She then belittles the poor man, scolding him for supposedly pretending to be deaf and dumb.

Exhibit C: Nurse Ratched makes her patients feel morally inferior. If you thought the nuns from John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt were strict and self-righteous, this nurse puts them to shame. In fact, that’s her goal. She wants to fill people with shame and humiliation. Nurse Ratched is not content unless her patients loathe themselves. This is best exemplified with her treatment of young Billy Bibbit.

Billy is a suicidal young man who stutters nervously and dreads what his domineering mother thinks of him. Nurse Ratched promises to inform Billy’s mother about any moral infraction – and this fills him with terror. During Act Two, Billy is caught having sex with a female friend of McMurphy. This experience fills Billy with confidence. When Nurse Ratched confronts him, Billy speaks without stuttering. Like Chief Bromden, he exhibits an incredible mental breakthrough. Nurse Ratched does not acknowledge his emotional growth, and instead threatens to tell Billy’s mother about his “shameful” behavior. The tragic result: Billy commits suicide, unable to face the wrath of his either mother or Nurse Ratched.

Vigilant Resistance:

My analysis has already been filled with too many spoilers, so I won’t spell out the ending of the play (which mirrors the ending of the book). But I will reveal that Good doesn’t exactly triumph over Evil in this story. The powers-that-be are still in control by the play’s end. Yet, the final message is still one of hope. The mental and spiritual growth of Chief Bromden shows the audience that no matter the cost, one must still struggle against oppression, conformity, and totalitarianism. That doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

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