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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

By Dale Wasserman

There are three people to credit for the stage version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  Ken Kesey (1935 – 2001) wrote the original novel in 1962 and based it on his own experiences of working as an orderly on a psychiatric ward, as well as his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD.  The book was a cult success and the film rights were quickly brought by Kirk Douglas.  He then commissioned screenwriter Dale Wasserman (who had worked with Douglas on the film The Vikings) to produce a stage adaptation.  With Douglas playing Randle McMurphy, the play successfully ran for over six years and introduced America to future stars like Danny Devito.

Ultimately Kirk Douglas never did find the time or the money to make the film of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that he had always dreamed of.  Ironically it was his son, Michael, who took on the task of producing the film and, with Milos Forman as director, the film was finally made.  Unfortunately Kirk Douglas was deemed too old for the part of McMurphy and it went to Jack Nicholson, who went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  In fact the film took a total of five Oscars in 1975.

Dale Wasserman’s stage version is truer to the spirit of Kesey’s novel, in as much as the story is semi-narrated by Chief Bromden and viewed from his perspective.  Kesey himself claimed never to have seen Forman’s film version and whether he saw the play or not is debatable.  However, while Nicholson became famously synonymous with the film role, it is the play which truly captures the essence of that rebellious spirit which Kesey personifies in McMurphy initially, but ultimately in the other patients too.  Bromden’s escape at the end represents our own escape from the lunatic asylum that is society.  If we only dare!

The playwright - Dale Wasserman

It seems fair to credit both Ken Kesey and Dale Wasserman here. Their backgrounds are very different yet between them they helped create one of the finest American stage plays of the twentieth century.

Ken Kesey

Kenneth Kesey (1935 – 2001) was born in Colorado. He was an accomplished wrestler who, in 1958, embarked upon a creative writing course at Stanford University. In 1959, Kesey volunteered to take part in a CIA-financed study into the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. Kesey wrote many detailed accounts of his experiences with these drugs, both during the study and in years of private experimentation that followed. These experiences, coupled with his work as an orderley at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, inspired Kesey to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962. Kesey believed that the patients at Menlo Park were not insane, but that society had pushed them out because they did not fit conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave.

Kesey eventually moved to California, where he frequently entertained friends with parties he called “Acid Tests” involving music such as his favorite band, The Grateful Dead. These parties were noted in some of Allen Ginsberg’s poems and are also described in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson.

Kesey’s last major work was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine calling for peace after 9-11. He died on November 10, 2001 following an operation for liver cancer.

Dale Wasserman

Dale Wasserman was born in Wisconsin, although he cannot say exactly where or when since there is no official record of his birth. He started as a self-taught lighting designer, director and producer. In addition to America, he produced and directed plays in places such as London and Paris. It was in the middle of directing a Broadway musical that he abruptly walked out, feeling he “couldn’t possibly write worse than the stuff he was directing” and decided to become a writer.

To date Wasserman has written over forty television plays, fifteen feature films, and a variety of stage plays and musicals. Two of his stage plays dominate his career: Man of La Mancha and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963), whose stagings place him among the most produced American playwrights worldwide. Man of La Mancha ran for five years on Broadway and continues worldwide in more than thirty languages. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ran for six years in the USA and has played around the World ever since. Reclusive by nature, he and his wife live in Arizona.