Monday, March 7, 2011

Where's the 'Cuckoo's Nest'?: Real and imaginary geographies

Tony Cisek's 'Cuckoo's Nest' set: day and night
By Barry Johnson

Ken Kesey set One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in an unnamed mental hospital in Oregon, but he based it on his experience working in the mental ward of a real veterans hospital outside San Francisco.

Fiction writers do that all the time, overlay an imaginary place with both true and imaginary characteristics, people and events. We are not confused by it a bit. But what about this: What about a stage interpretation, itself an imaginary space to begin with, of that imaginary hospital, an interpretation that draws heavily on a real Oregon mental hospital, a hospital with its own real, sordid history? And what if that real Oregon mental hospital was the setting of a film version, a re-imagination of the original imaginary space created by Kesey? Finally, what if we toss in this: The narrator of the novel has his own description of Kesey’s imaginary hospital, one that is surreal, metaphorical and perhaps more true because of it.

Portland Center Stage’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest obliges us to consider all these shifting geographies in and around Kesey’s novel because it explicitly embraces so many of them. And in the audience we shift uneasily from the imagination of the page to the imagination of the stage to the imagination of film, all hovering in a transitional state between between history and hallucination, between actual and imaginary, with real states -- “Oregon” and “California” -- mixed in.

These creative forces applied to the real and imaginary geographies of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, how critical are they? Well, it’s entirely possible that Kesey didn’t create a place requiring a geography at all, that his hospital is an anti-place that we must leave -- patient, novelist, audience -- to find the freedom that actual places encourage in us. So, perhaps, not important all, but maybe nothing else is quite so important.

Milos Forman’s film version of the novel emphasized the conflict between Randle P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, and the great performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher permanently altered our consideration of Cuckoo’s Nest. But though their battle of wills is rich with both comedy and tragedy and the characters they created indelible, Nicholson and Fletcher aren’t the sum of the novel. They aren’t even the center of it, though I may lay aside Kesey’s other concerns in Cuckoo’s Nest for the enjoyment Nicholson and Fletcher provide.

One of the signs that a work of art is compelling is that it starts to accumulate the imaginations of others -- their distortions, re-creations, inventions. In my imagination, the accumulations of Cuckoo’s Nests have generated various geographies, real and imagined. Each of the places they map contains elements of other maps, except for Kesey’s original novel, which we may think of itself as a set of interpenetrating geographies -- California and Oregon, real and imaginary, places and anti-places. What happens when we start to riffle through some of these different maps? Maybe we learn how to leave them behind.


Rose Riordan, the director of the Portland Center Stage production of Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Kesey’s novel, started me thinking in this way. She had seen Forman’s film version, and when she started thinking about Wasserman stage version, she had a case of whiplash. “I had no idea how impacted I was by the movie until we started talking about the play,” she said. When we talked in December, she was in New York City casting the play (though several of the cast are from Portland), looking out from her hotel room onto Time Square, with the theaters of Broadway only a few blocks away.

She said he realized that some of her clearest memories from the film didn’t exist in the play at all. “I watched the movie again and I was floored by how good a movie it is, but it’s not what the book is about.” So, she started doing research on the mental health therapies of the time, the electroshock and lobotomies, and the research led her to Oregon State Hospital, which was the set for hospital scenes in the Forman’s film. She and set designer Tony Cisek started looking at photographs of the hospital, and it became very important to her to recreate actual images of the interior of the hospital in the set of the production. “We looked at photos of a hallway, lined with doors to rooms we couldn’t see, seemingly never ending. God knows what happened inside those rooms,” she said. And she fell in love with one particular photograph.

Riordan's hall at Oregon State Hospital
The hall in the photograph couldn’t be more ordinary -- worn tile floors, peeling walls, fixtures hanging from the ceiling, closed doors -- but in the context of Cuckoo’s Nest it became ominous to both Riordan and Cisek. “In the play, people start getting taken away, and they never come back the same,” Cisek said. Cisek and Riordan started imagining the effect such a hall might have on the play. Cisek imagined the rattle of Nurse Ratched’s keys as she walked down the corridor toward the day room, like the clock ticking in the alligator’s belly in Peter Pan, for example, and he wanted to draw on the details and emotional power of the building he saw. “We wanted to embrace the characteristics of the actual place. We’re dealing with an established institution that is deeply rooted and not going anywhere. It has 17-foot ceilings and brick walls that are two-and-a-half feet thick. It’s a force to be reckoned with, an environment that diminishes the humanity of the patients. A person is going to feel small relative to the room.”

Riordan and Cisek succeeded, because the most striking aspect of the Portland Center Stage production of Wasserman’s theater version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the set, which shouldn’t be understood as a slight to the actors. The set is just that memorable: Tile waxed to a fare-the-well and institutionally beige, it starts with a large day room (and tall windows), a nurses station with a bank of controls and lights reminiscent of a cockpit in a big airliner, and a long corridor with several doors on each side, in order from the front of the stage to the back. Thirty-five-feet long and extending into the loading dock of the theater proper,  that hall is a passageway and a threat.


The demolition of a dilapidated wing of the hospital. Credit: Gary Whitehouse
The geography of Cuckoo’s Nest is tied inexplicably to the old, sad building, the Oregon State Hospital, where the state has housed its mental patients since 1883. For most of us, that has to do with Milos Forman’s film, which won five major Academy Award and established Jack Nicholson, once and for all, as both a star and actor of the first order. Just about every account of the hospital I’ve ever read mentions that movie, as though it is a point of pride: “Hey, we were chosen to represent unspeakable mental health practices!” If you are an Oregonian of a certain age, you understand that impulse. For so many years, the state barely existed to the outside world. The filming of Cuckoo’s Nest was a major event, rivaled only perhaps by the filming of Animal House at University of Oregon: “Hey, we were chosen to represent unspeakable education practices, too!” The location was chosen because the director of the hospital, Dean Brooks, agreed to give the film crew great access to the building and grounds (and to help the actors research their parts). He even appeared in the film as a doctor manipulated by Nurse Ratched.

In 1975, the hospital was a shabby, barren place. It only got shabbier, of course. In 2004 on an tour for state officials, one out-building on the campus was pried open and was found to house 3500 copper canisters containing the cremated remains of patients who had died in the hospital. A subsequent series of editorials on hospital conditions and "therapeutic" practices won a Pulitzer Prize for The Oregonian newspaper in 2006. A new wing, a response to the outcry caused by a scathing Department of Justice study completed in 2008 (over such revelations that a patient with a condition that produces an unquenchable thirst was left chained to a water fountain and gained 13 pounds in water weight), opened in November 2010. Studies found patient-on-patient assaults and staff sexual abuse of patients, and also a general failure to provide basic care.

Again, this particular place isn’t part of Kesey’s novel. He didn’t have it in mind when he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest. But because of the film and the recent disclosures of conditions at the hospital, it was on the mind of Riordan and Cisek. And their recreation of the hallway generates the effect they’d hoped for -- in the audience we know that bad things are done down that passageway. As Cisek said, the building itself is “a force to be reckoned with.” 


Cisek observed that the story Kesey tells is classically simple: A stranger (Randle P. McMurphy) arrives; he finds himself in conflict with the established power (Nurse Ratched) in his new place; and things are never the same again -- at least for some of the characters. It’s like Star Wars. McMurphy gains the upper hand in the first act; the Empire and Ratched strike back in the second; the third brief act resolves the conflict. One of the successes of the Center Stage production is to give us a hint of the Empire part of this, the part supplied by the novel and play’s narrator Chief Bromden. Because the imagination of Bromden provides another important map to Cuckoo’s Nest.

Bromden doesn’t call it the Empire, though. He calls it the “Combine.”

As he sweeps the ward -- and he’s been in there longer than everyone but Nurse Ratched -- Chief Bromden falls prey to paranoid fantasies, and in these, Nurse Ratched isn't quite human. She's connected to a mechanical system, the Combine, that governs life in and out of the ward: "The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is," the Chief says. The patients, of course, are the mistakes.

And how does Big Nurse (so close to Orwell's Big Brother) work this system? "Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody's eyes but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend to her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send to the results she wants," the Chief tells us. She isn’t quite human, Nurse Ratched, but then no one else is, either.

The Combine is the System, the enemy in all Sixties counter-culture formulations. Nurse Ratched is McMurphy's adversary, the enemy of the sane man in the mental institution, but he thinks she's a human adversary. Actually, the Chief explains to us, she's a control unit in something much bigger than she is. And if even Chief Bromden has some inkling that actual wires aren't involved (though he sees them vividly enough at times), he also knows the truth, even when he doubts what he sees: "But it's the truth," he says of his account, "even if it didn't happen."

Nurse Ratched knows what you're thinking, and she knows what buttons to push to cow you into submission. And if those don't work, she has other ways of making you kowtow to the Combine. "She can sign something and you'll have your brain operated on!" Riordan exclaims, and her voiced jumps a half-octave at least and lingers on the word brain for an emphatic couple of seconds.

"It's hard to look at that existence from a relatively healthy frame," Riordan says. But on the other hand, it's not prudent to take your eye off Nurse Ratched if she's around. She may be leading you down that long hallway.

The long hallway, buzzing with wires. At night, when the Chief sweeps alone, he hears the booming of the machinery in the levels below the day room. We hear it, too, in the audience, the same ominous pounding that Bromden hears. The geography that Bromden supplies is a wiring schematic, a building plan, a communication network and even an X-ray that reveals humanoids stuffed with wiring, bodies that “bleed rust.” It is an imaginary space for Bromden and a metaphorical space for us, one of many that artists of various sorts have created to warn us about the way technology dehumanizes us, though in our nightmares these days the factory floor has been replaced by a ubiquitous communication network, commanded and controlled by forces whose purposes we only dimly understand.


The hallway in the Center Stage production doesn’t exist in Kesey’s novel, not specifically anyway, not with the sort of visual and psychological impact of the stage production. If Kesey had detailed a hallway in Cuckoo’s Nest, it wouldn’t be this particular one; and the novel doesn’t describe the rest of the mental hospital closely, either. Kesey is more interested in the Chief’s imaginary Combine than in marking his set for us -- because what is there to describe? When we first enter the day room, we learn that the “acutes” (patients who are presumably curable) sit on one side and the “chronics” huddle on the other, and the Nurse’s station has a big log book in which patients are encouraged to leave their observations about other patients. That’s about it. How many feet long or wide? How many windows? The shade of institutional color -- beige, pea green, gray? The nature of the lighting fixtures? Nothing like that.

But if Kesey had wanted to, he could have described a real hospital from personal experience because he had worked in a veterans hospital in Menlo Park and, famously, served as a guinea pig in government tests there of various psychoactive drugs. He had graduated from the University of Oregon in 1957 and enrolled in Stanford University’s writing program on a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in 1958, where he was mentored by Wallace Stegner. His class included Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olson, Ernest Gaines and Wendell Berry. Cuckoo’s Nest was Kesey’s third novel (first published), and he started it while working with Stegner.

One of his earlier novels, Zoo, was set in the Beat community of North Beach in San Francisco, and Cuckoo’s Nest is a Beat novel of sorts. This is a non-quite-random passage from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

“Molcoch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!”
Kesey’s novel aspires to that sort of energy, an excess that is antic on the one hand and manic on the other. It is sexual, social, political and psychological in the same way. He had read and met Allen Ginsberg by the time he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest, and though his relationship with Neal Cassady came later, McMurphy is a good stand-in for him.

The geography of Cuckoo’s Nest is determined by the intensity -- intellectual, sexual, psychotropic -- of that time in Kesey’s life, and it maps Kesey’s mental state better than it does any particular hospital or even Chief Bromden’s Combine fantasies, his identification with the patients against the mental health System, his judgment that the system de-humanizes essentially, healthy humans (such as McMurphy), his ribald sense of humor, the cartoons (fueled by the hallucinogenics he was taking as part of government-conducted drug experiments) in his head, his memories and early conclusions about the way things worked.


Gretchen Corbett and PJ Sisko in PCS's 'Cuckoo's Nest'/Credit: Owen Carey
Now, we can track the evolution of Kesey’s mental hospital setting.

1. Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, the real place, where Kesey both worked and was a subject of medical experiments
2. Kesey’s abstraction of that hospital in Cuckoo’s Nest, which he moved to an unnamed hospital in Oregon
3. Chief Bromden’s paranoid fantasy of the hospital/Combine, invented by Kesey
4. Dale Wasserman’s stage script, which concentrates on the day room and is another level of abstraction removed from Menlo Park
5. Milos Forman’s film, which established Oregon State Hospital as the physical site of the script/novel
6. Oregon State Hospital, the real place
7. Rose Riordan and Tony Cisek’s appropriation of the real hospital for their version of Wasserman’s script

Wasserman’s script takes some interesting liberties with the novel, though it is more faithful to the book than Forman’s film. Wasserman gives McMurphy the choice to leave the hospital or to stay behind and help the Chief “get big again,” a moral decision. His Nurse Ratched isn’t as outlandish as Kesey’s novel version nor as particular and subtle as Louise Fletcher’s performance in the film (which won Fletcher one of the movie’s five Academy Awards). And he gives one of the patients a key role in the escape of the Chief, proving perhaps that the “therapeutic community” idea that the hospital and Nurse Ratched subvert to their own ends may have some validity after all.

Kesey washed hands of the film version because it de-centered Chief Bromden, but it’s a great film from my favorite era in American filmmaking. I’ve already mentioned Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched and Nicholson’s McMurphy, both deeper and rounder character portraits than the stage version or the novel manages. We lose the Chief’s rants and his commentary, and that’s a big part of the novel, that voice, because it also carries the explicit critique of an America that creates places like this hospital. Film makes things particular. Both the stage and the novel make more general claims: Not this hospital; the entire Establishment.

Somehow, neither the play nor the movie are quite as funny to me as the novel. And neither gets inside my head to the extent that the novel does, Kesey going off, man versus system.

8. The Chief’s journey once he escapes the hospital, a journey the audience plots on their own.


Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, before the dam
A few years before Kesey wrote the novel, the completion of The Dalles Dam flooded the Native American fishing grounds at Celilo Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. The episode figures in Chief Bromden’s biography (though the time-frame is wrong -- Bromden entered the hospital a long time before the dam was build) -- his father had sold out the tribe’s interest in the land to the federal government, making the dam possible but displacing the tribe in the process.

In both the play and movie versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Chief escapes -- into the night, into the unknown, headed perhaps for Canada.

In the novel, though, the Chief has more specific plans. Sure, he may head for Canada, but first he wants to look up his old friends in Portland, Hood River and The Dalles, those “who haven’t drunk themselves goofy,” anyway. “Mostly, I’d just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again,” the Chief says. And then the final line: “I been away a long time.”

Oregon towns, the Columbia River, the Gorge: This is the most specific mapping in the entire novel. Where the play and the film go abstract; Kesey goes literal. The Chief isn’t really free until he reconnects and remembers, until he returns to his place.

The hospital isn’t a place, Kesey suggests. We can argue about what it is -- a symbol, a state of mind, a man-made disaster, a setting for a novel or play or film, human minds imploding and crashing into each other -- but if you’ve ever seen the Columbia River Gorge, you know that it’s a place in a way a hospital never can be.

I imagine Kesey fleeing the novel the same way the Chief did -- for a place, for a journey, to talk to friends.


1. A One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest timeline:

1962: The novel is published. Kesey, then 27, had moved to Oregon at the age of 11, become a champion wrestler and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1957. He won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford with Wallace Stegner, among others, and begun the novel there. While in California he took part in government-run experiments on the effects of psychoactive drugs and worked as an aide at a veteran's hospital in Menlo Park. The novel is loosely based on those experiences, though it is set in an unnamed Oregon mental hospital.

1963: The novel is adapted to the stage by Dale Wasserman, a scriptwriter whose biggest credit is the book for "Man of LaMancha." The play version receives two Broadway productions, one starring Kirk Douglas (1964) and the other, which originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, Gary Sinise (2001).

1975: The film version is a hit, winning five Academy Awards, including best production, best director (Milos Forman), best actress (Louise Fletcher), best actor (Jack Nicholson) and best screenplay. It is filmed at the Oregon State Hospital.

2. The Portland Center Stage production stars PJ Sosko as McMurphy, Gretchen Corbett as Nurse Ratched and Tim Sampson as Chief Bromden. Sampson is the son of the late Will Sampson, who played the Chief in the film version. Tim himself played the Chief in the Steppenwolf Theater production. As in the film, a lot of the laughs come by way of the patients, in this case (Stephen Coffrey, Ryan Tresser, Ebbe Roe Smith, Craig Bockhorn, John Shuman and Rich Cashin). Both Sosko and Corbett get the play right, I think: The impulsiveness of McMurphy, the steely self-confidence of Nurse Ratched. On the technical side, it’s a first-rate production that manages to imply Bromden’s surreal Combine description, embody the “day room,” which is a very abstract space, and give us the concrete power of the corridor.

3. I talked to director Rose Riordan, scenic designer Tony Cisek and Gretchen Corbett to prepare for an article that appeared in the February issue of Portland Monthly.

4. We should note that Center Stage has adapted Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion for the stage, too, and that Sosko starred in that 2008 production. After Kesey finished Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964, he constituted the Merry Pranksters and commissioned the bus Furthur and started making a different sort of history.