Playwright Dale Wasserman disarmingly admits that his 1963 play, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," based on Ken Kesey's novel and slated to bow on Broadway at the Royale Theatre April 8, may be presenting a sentimentalized account of psychiatric cases. To wit: asylum inmates, at least in this play, are spontaneous, fun-loving eccentrics (if they'd only been given the freedom to express their true unimpeded selves) and the tragedy, lies in the fact that these asylum inmates are beaten into submission, perhaps even psychosis, by authoritarian forces representing the repressive society at large.
"Yes, it may be a sentimental account, but I regard theatre—all theatre—as a form of propaganda and propaganda is not a bad word," Wasserman asserts during a phone interview from his home in Paradise Valley (not far from Phoenix), Arizona.
"I am concerned that the play might be a little dated, however," he continues. "Most mental patients are no longer in institutions. They're now pitched out onto the street; two thirds of them are schizophrenics and they're all on medication—an even worse form of suppression [than the institution itself].
"I believe the story is as fundamentally true now as it was in 1962 when Ken Kesey's novel was published."
Wasserman, best known for his book for the Tony Award-winning musical "Man of La Mancha" (1966), says that the unifying theme that runs through all his work is "the individual vs. the world."
"Cuckoo's Nest" is a dark yet, at moments, comic look at the evolving relationships among a group of deadened, institutionalized nuts who come to life when new patient Randall McMurphy (Gary Sinise) comes on board.
A spirited rogue, he teaches them how to have fun, assert themselves, and, if necessary, rebel. The particular target of his mushrooming aggression is nurse Ratched (Amy Morton), a chillingly malign martinet. She doesn't like him much either. And their mutually shared rage escalates with tragic consequences.
Curiously, all the male inmates are victims of abusive women whom we never meet—mostly wives and mothers who are responsible for their husbands' and/or sons' pitiful mental conditions.
The only palatable women in this story are the, yes, gold-hearted hookers who break into the ward to party with the patients and bring some joy into their otherwise bleak existences.
Misogynistic stereotypes flourish here, Wasserman acknowledges, adding, "It puts me in a peculiar position because I don't have those views; they make me uncomfortable and always have, even back in 1962 when I read the novel. But I felt if I was going to turn the novel into a play, I had to be true to the novel." So says the 70-something Rhinelander, Wis. native, who has won over 40 awards in all media.
A Conscious Curmudgeon
"Cuckoo's Nest" has had a checkered past. When Wasserman first read the novel, still in galleys, he was immediately drawn to its theatrical potential.
"I wanted to turn it into a movie; so did Kirk Douglas, who wanted the starring role, although he wanted to do it on Broadway first," Wasserman remembers. "Kirk Douglas and I knew each other. That doesn't mean we liked each other, but we decided to work on the project together. I wrote the script and then Kirk brought in three writers—I call them submarines—to work on it some more.
"What they finally produced [in 1963] was not my play at all and the reviews were just dreadful. Kirk decided to make McMurphy loveable, heroic, and endearing. McMurphy should be an ambiguous character—part con-man, part Christ figure."
A little more than a decade later (1975), when Michael Douglas, Kirk's son, decided to produce the movie (starring Jack Nicholson), Wasserman played no role in the screen adaptation and has no regrets.
"The movie was good, but it is neither the novel nor the play. It's aggressively realistic. None of the surrealistic elements on stage [one of the featured characters has hallucinatory moments that are dramatized] were in the film and without them the script has little value."
The current production, mounted by the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is true to his vision, notes Wasserman, who lets it be known he is not easily satisfied.
Consider these quips:
On agents: "I do not have one. I am difficult to work with, especially in the face of stupidity."
On movies: "I don't do screenplays. I hate working by committee."
On awards: "I don't go to the ceremonies because I don't believe in competition with other writers. My awards that most amuse me are the honorary doctorates. I never went to school."
Wasserman is an entertaining curmudgeonly amalgam. By his own admission, he is a self-educated hobo, who hopped freight trains for five years during the depression. "I worked a little, stole a little, and in each town I'd lift two books from the local library, read them, and then return them to a library in the next town. I brought the Dewey Decimal system to its knees."
The writers he most admires are Cervantes and Twain. " 'Man of La Mancha,' based on Cervante's 'Don Quixote,' is my most personal play. And I love Twain because he had a bitterly wicked view of the world. I still read a lot, but nothing sticks anymore."
A Quality of Desperation
Wasserman had a rugged beginning. His father, who built movie theatres, died when Dale was five. Four years later, Mom passed away. "All the kids—an even dozen—were dealt out to orphanages and/or relatives," Wasserman recalls. "I lived with an older brother in South Dakota until I was 14, when I ran away to live on freight trains. I had no goals, short of survival. When I was 19, I drifted into the Bohemian radical scene in Los Angeles and I slept on rooftops."
Doubtless, his early lifestyle was awash in risk, he admits, noting a connection between his youthful experiences and his writing esthetic. "Perhaps it gives my plays a quality of desperation—the sense that extreme danger and death may be coming around every corner." He chortles.
Within short order, Wasserman found himself gravitating towards theatre —producing, directing, lighting design (but still with no special ambitions in mind.) By the time he arrived in New York in the '40s, "I mostly lit and staged spectacular and folkloric productions from other countries, making them flow and cutting them down if they were too long."
Wasserman decided to try his hand at writing after walking off the set of a big musical [he doesn't name it] that he was helming in 1953. As he tells it, the show was particularly wretched.
"I found directing bad material an absurdity," he comments, vaguely irritated even in retrospect. "This is no life for a grown man—playing daddy to intransigent children [e.g., the actors]. I decided the answer to my problem was to be the creator, which means to be the writer.
"I gave myself one year to learn how to write. Between 1953 and 1954, I almost starved, but I lucked into the Golden Age of TV, which offered new young writers the chance to practice and learn how to write."
Despite the opportunities he had in TV, Wasserman remains convinced that it is easier for writers to launch a career today because the market is so much larger, not necessarily on Broadway or even Off-Broadway, but in regional theatres and perhaps on cable TV and/or in independent films.
Looking back, Wasserman says that if he had the chance to relive his life, he'd do it differently. "I'd start out to be a writer at three, not 33. I'd cultivate the right state of mind and the right ambitions, and I would get an education. If I had begun early, I'd be a much better writer than I am."
Wasserman has clearly scored, yet, he feels starting late is suicide for many writers who may give up more quickly (perhaps too quickly) than, paradoxically, those who have been at it for decades.
At the moment, however, Wasserman's thoughts are focused on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and his hope that contemporary audiences walk out of the theatre, able to appreciate "those individuals who don't conform and have the courage not to obey. I'd like everyone in the theatre to feel good about people like that and undergo a kind of catharsis!"