January 11, 2005: Wasserman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. [some names illegible] Mackenzie Crook as Billie Bibbitt.

The audience loved this revival of Wasserman’s play. In a program note Dominic Cavendish defends the play (and the film it spawned) from its worri­some status as a museum piece, irrelevant now that the barbaric treatment of frontal lobotomy is no longer practiced; EST — electric shock therapy — is still sometimes used, after all, he urges us to note. But surely the state of health care for the insane or “mentally challenged” (one of the more absurd of the politically correct euphemisms now current) is not a very meaningful criterion for justifying the revival of a play whose materials are drawn from the shabby state of mental health departments’ health care in the 1960s.

Ken Kesey wrote the novel that stands behind both play and film but whose real subject is the deadly conflict that erupts between the angry rebellious­ness of a floundering young man and the oppressive institutions founded to keep such lawlessness in check and “out of harm’s way.” The question is, does this conflict still resonate for us?

The answer, to judge from the very enthusiastic response of the audience, is — maybe. The play is very well acted and produced and directed, a fact one takes pretty much for granted throughout the West End and beyond. And it offers a neat resume of the sure-fire basic conflicts that have been the stuff of melodrama for over two hundred years. That is, it reduces complex moral abstractions into flesh-and-blood realities of personal conflict upgraded only slightly to a 1920s conflict between a hapless, hopeless individual and a mono­lithic, impassive institution — but one that is represented by the menacing, powerful figure of Nurse Ratched, pronounced “rat shit.” It draws a laugh every time he says it. But laughs of this kind are cheap, and they give way to horror as the irremediable McMurphy is first given EST and then, when that doesn’t produce the desired results, a lobotomy. As we watch his inert form in post-surgical recovery, to our added horror the faux-catatonic Chief Brompton (Brendan Dempsey), a full-blooded monster from the great Northeast, smothers him with a pillow. End of play, and triumph, we supposedly are to think, of the evil institution that has overcome McMurphy and at the same time allowed things to go so out of control that a murder occurs.

In fact, it is not the first death in the play. McMurphy generates a party and invites a couple of prostitutes, one of whom, Candy, seduces the virginal mother’s boy Billy; when Nurse Ratched finds out, she humiliates Billie before the rest; and when she sends him to the doctor’s office he finds a sharp instru­ment and cuts his throat. Nurse Ratched, ignoring her obvious part in this cata­strophe, blames it on McMurphy, with the results we finally see.

I for one am unhappy about the simplistic level of accountability manifested in this series of actions, despite my admiration for Frances Barber’s ability to triumph over the Jenny-one-note character she was hired to play. Her Nurse Ratched is someone with a big, husky purr of a voice who maintains for the most part a deadly, threatening mien but who is the central figure in a vindictive, guilt-tripping process. She has absolutely no redeeming features whatever and is, it seems, no more than a man-hating Amazon in nurse’s garb. In fact, when McMurphy in a rage tears open her dress we see she is wearing a super-woman metallic bodice that covers her down to the waist: armor she wears into war against obstreperous men. This is the inhuman nemesis that McMurphy, in all his human rebelliousness, meets and succumbs to. The problem with this, as in all melodrama, is that evil is reduced to a single character; only get him — her — out of the way, and the young hero will find the happiness he deserves.

The inverted ending of the play seems to turn the ethos of melodrama upside down; but we can’t find time to think serious, perplexed thoughts about the wretched state of mental health care in the United States (or anywhere else) when we are made to hate Nurse Rat Shit so completely and feel so sorry for the full-of-life McMurphy on whom she sets her deadly sights from the start. Instead of moving us to action — or, as in the plays of the 1920s and 1930s ( Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal come to mind) in which puny human beings are defeated by a huge impersonal force, partly of social malaise, partly of existential despair, this play moves us only to pity.

Tremendous energies, principally by the human dynamo Christian Slater, contribute to this first-rate revival of a second-rate play. We can be thankful about the terrific ensemble that Johnson and Harvey have assembled on the stage of the Gielgud, but this play succeeds also in distracting us completely from the still-urgent issues and burning questions that used to be addressed to mental health care in every country of the world.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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