Ken Kesey, Checking In on His Famous Nest

  Ken Kesey, Checking In on His Famous Nest

Posted by FoM on May 10, 2001 at 08:02:38 PT
By David D. Kirkpatrick 
Source: New York Times 

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 prankster ways."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 novel.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 electroshock room."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 school productions.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 -- 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.Source: New York Times (NY)Author: David D. KirkpatrickPublished: May 10, 2001Copyright: 2001 The New York Times CompanyContact: letters nytimes.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Sites about Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters Individually, We Must Ease Up on Earth Finally Makes Trip from 60s to 00s Kesey Gets On The Bus With Movie

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