Feb 032010
Authors: Jim Sojourner

With the CSU School of the Art’s theatre rendition of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” opening today, I thought it pertinent to revisit the novel that inspired the play.

Yes, I do realize the book was written in 1962. And no, I don’t care because Kesey’s first novel is a masterpiece and you need to read it.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells the story of the free-spirited renegade Randal Patrick McMurphy, a convict who fakes insanity in order to be transferred from prison to a mental hospital.

Initially planning to fall into step with procedure at the all-male facility in order to secure a quick release, McMurphy soon finds himself determined to buck the tyrannical authority of the mental ward leader, and story villain, Nurse Ratched.

Over the course of his incarceration, McMurphy makes it his mission to antagonize the nurse and her minions by upsetting the ward’s daily routine, running a gambling ring and smuggling booze and prostitutes into the hospital with the goal of helping the ward’s patients to reclaim their individuality and freedom.

The scene is set for a clash of wills: the unbound, masculine spirit pitted against insidious, absolute, feminine authority –– and only one can emerge victorious.

On the surface, Kesey’s story is nothing more than a battle of individuals, but in the context of the early ‘60s and the social upheaval taking place, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” becomes a metaphorical masterpiece.

Kesey’s mental patients are the failed, nervous product of a society that imposes its own rigid conformism on free individuals and emasculates its men. McMurphy is the embodiment of freedom and rugged individualism and Ratched is the incarnation of social oppression.

The novel explores the powder-keg issues of the 1960s, including racial tensions, gender roles, repressed sexuality and the rejection of authority as he melds the anti-authority attitudes of the beat generation and the hippies. Kesey pulls no punches with harsh language, politically incorrect perspectives and graphic subject matter.

But readers find the true genius of Kesey’s novel in its narrator. Unlike the much-celebrated, but less-impressive film, Kesey explores his own American Indian heritage and narrates from the perspective of the schizophrenic Native American Chief Bromden.

Bromden’s mental illness allows Kesey to create some of the most interesting portions of the story: disturbed hallucinations (no doubt inspired by the author’s extensive psychedelic drug use) that expose the true nature of all authority as a massive, twisted machine –– what Bromden calls the Combine –– chugging endlessly to destroy the individual spirit, a machine in which Ratched is only one cog.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a quintessential tale of the struggle between individual freedom and repressive authority, and no one provides a better insight into the ‘60s mindset or the issues that shaped America for generations to come than Kesey.

His novel may be 40 years dated but its themes are never more relevant than they are today.
Pick up the book and see the play.

Projects Editor Jim Sojourner can be reached at news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 6:18 pm

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