May 10, 2001
Ken Kesey, Checking In on His Famous Nest
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
At 65, Ken Kesey no longer cruises around in a multicolored school bus with
his band of Merry Pranksters. But standing backstage at the Royale Theater
after the Steppenwolf Theater Company's
performance of the play based on his 1962 novel, "One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest," he made it clear that he has not entirely abandoned his
"You did a great performance," he told the play's star, Gary Sinise, "but
not quite as good as the one where you were going into space 'Apollo 13,'
" the 1995 film in which Mr. Sinise played an astronaut. Mr.
Sinise, recovering from his all-out three-hour performance with a mug of
tea, smiled politely and held out a faded paperback copy of the novel for
Mr. Kesey to autograph. Mr. Kesey added that he had long suspected that Mr.
Sinise was the illegitimate son of the actor DeForest Kelley, who played
the doctor on
the television show "Star Trek," because of their physical resemblance.
Mr. Kesey went on to tell Mr. Sinise that he admired this production's
spirit, especially the
music. "Adding Jimi Hendrix and the other stuff really helped bring it up
to date," he said.
But it was not his favorite production, he added. That designation he
reserved for a production he saw 15 years ago at a Sacramento high school,
staged so that an elaborate display of grinding cogs and gears
appeared in silhouette between scenes to illustrate the play's sinister
"Combine," a metaphor for society's grinding machinery.
"I gave that one the A," he said. "Oh yeah?" Mr. Sinise replied, forcing a
smile before thanking him for the autograph and heading back to his
dressing room. "He is a character," he said.
In town after visiting his editor at his home in Amenia, N.Y., Mr. Kesey
arranged to take in the play on a lark. He keeps his excursions low-key
these days, and the drugs he takes are mainly to treat hepatitis C. No one
in the audience recognized him, although he was dressed in a costume
straight out of his glory days. His shirt, suspenders and necktie were each
in a different pattern of red, white and blue stripes. The cast reported
spotting his bright red beret from the stage.
Mr. Kesey wrote "Cuckoo's Nest" while studying for a graduate degree in
creative writing at Stanford. The story of a good-hearted troublemaker
transferred from a work farm to a mental hospital, the novel was the
byproduct of two related part-time jobs, as night-shift orderly in a
psychiatric ward and as subject in a medical research project testing LSD
and other drugs. The drugs, he said, enabled him tell the hero's story as
seen through the fearful eyes of a schizophrenic patient on the ward.
The story's villain, Miss Ratched, the manipulative and authoritarian
nurse, was inspired by a real woman, Mr. Kesey recalled, and he ran into
her a few years ago at an aquarium near Newport, Ore. "Do you remember me,
'Nurse Ratched?' " said the woman, who had been the real head nurse of the
psychiatric ward where Mr. Kesey worked.
"She was much smaller than I remembered, and a whole lot more human," he
said. "I didn't know what to say, whether to apologize or what. It was a
tremendous relief to me to find that she didn't hold it against me, because
you don't want someone like that walking around out there."
Critics have observed that the play's depiction of women is one aspect that
seems dated. Aside from the domineering nurse, the only other significant
female characters are a pair of amiable prostitutes. The patients on the
ward are all male, and their problems are almost all linked to overbearing
mothers and wives.
"The book and the play are fearfully misogynist, and the women are treated
terribly," Dale Wasserman, who wrote the script based on the novel, said in
an interview, explaining that he felt an obligation to be faithful to the
Mr. Kesey acknowledged the criticisms over drinks after the show. "That
whole thing reached its peak about 15 years ago," he said.
In his defense, Mr. Kesey noted that his novel included another, more
positive female character, "along with the big castrator of a nurse and the
two prostitutes." She was an Asian nurse who worked in the hospital's
"She is just as tough and snappy as anything," he said. "It is good to have
one positive woman there."
Mr. Kesey said he never saw the 1975 film version of his book, directed by
Milos Forman and with Jack Nicholson as the lead, R. P. McMurphy. "It has
been the smartest thing I never did," Mr. Kesey said, "because Jack
Nicholson is great but he is not McMurphy he is too short." He added that
Mr. Nicholson also seemed too shrewd for the character.
But he eagerly attended the first theatrical adaptation of the novel, in
1963, starring Kirk Douglas. "Kirk Douglas was so good it was like I had
written it for him," Mr. Kesey recalled.
They sat in Schrafft's together after the show waiting for the newspaper
reviews, which turned out to be more bad than good. But the play was later
revived off Broadway, and these days more than 150 productions are staged
each year around the world. Mr. Kesey said he had attended scores of high
During the three-day drive back to California in 1963 after the play's
premiere, Mr. Kesey said, he heard the news that President John F. Kennedy
had been shot. "It was a real heavy year for America," he recalled. It was
also on that drive, he said, that he conceived of the idea of making the
trip back with a few friends to visit the 1964 World's Fair. That return
turned into into the Merry Pranksters' most famous voyage aboard their
Day-Glo school bus, spreading the nascent gospel of psychedelic drugs and
the hippie counterculture.
Mr. Kesey has written four other novels as well as two children's books
since "Cuckoo's Nest." But lately he spends much of his time at home in
Pleasant Hills, Ore., reviewing his Prankster years. He says he is going
over stacks of old journals, writings and drawings, hoping to edit them
into a kind of memoir that he plans to call a "sortabiography."
He spends most of his time with his son, Zane, 40, and a few old Prankster
friends tackling a project that has bedeviled them for more than three
decades: making a movie out of the reams of film they shot on their
drug-infused journey across the country.
He said the Pranksters always imagined that someone from the film business
would pay them for the clips and turn them into a movie. A few tried. But
finally Mr. Kesey decided to do it with some friends, using digital
film-editing equipment. "We've been working at it real hard for a couple of
years," he said.
He's calling the film "Intrepid Traveler and his Merry Band of Pranksters
Look for a Kool Place." The first half is available already, from Mr.
Kesey's Web site, www.intrepidtrips.com. He said he had sold about 7,000
copies of the videotape for $29 each, each one in a box that he
hand-painted and decorated.
"I get into a box-painting frenzy with my kids and grandkids," he said. He
answers all his e-mail at the Web site himself, he said.
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