Just finished the first weekend’s run for the Camille Playhouse’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which I play the protagonist, Randall McMurphy. The theater gave us only 3 weeks of rehearsals before opening night, so I’ve had very little time to work on the development of this character, let alone write about the process.
Now, half of the run is already finished, so I can look back at some of the things I had to work on specifically, to get ready to bring Randle McMurphy to life.
First, the physicality. McMurphy is a fighter. The novel tells us he was a decorated Korean War hero who was later dishonorably discharged for insubordination. McMurphy has a history of violence, though not of the stereotypical “angry white male” variety. He just has a hot temper that he doesn’t try very hard to control. He instantly balks at restrictive rules, and pushes back against authority if he doesn’t feel like he’s getting a fair shake. He’s tough in every sense of the word.
Thankfully, I was pretty close physically to what the character needed. I’m a “gym rat” for the past several years, but I’m not pretty; I don’t have muscles sculpted to Greek perfection, and I still like to eat. You can see in a rehearsal photo above that I’m pretty built, but also that I’m still just a little bit “soft”, like a real guy who works hard and plays hard (and eats like an ox). At 6’1″ and 225 pounds, carrying off the sheer size of the role wasn’t difficult or anything I had to prepare for.
Next, let’s look inside the man’s psyche. What makes this person who he is? What motivates him? Why was he willing to push this little contest with Nurse Ratched to its extreme climax?
There is a rambunctiousness and irreverence in McMurphy that, to a lesser degree, also inhabits me (and I suspect, many other people, particularly men, who travel through life in unconventional ways). McMurphy finds his joy in simple, albeit sinful pleasures: gambling, partying, booze, sex. In some ways, this makes him the stereotypical alpha male that the character needs to be in order to lead this group of men. In my own life, my irreverence shows up in other ways – I balk, for example, at wearing a suit and tie, even though my day job is as a financial advisor. I’m the guy in your circle who will tell the off-color joke, and say what everyone else is thinking but keeps to themselves. At some place along the way in my life, my Give-A-Shit broke, and I really don’t worry too much what other people think of me.
McMurphy is very much like that. At no time in the ward, and I suspect at no time in his life before it, does he worry about how others see him. No, McMurphy approaches everyone in life and thinks, “I wonder what I’m going to think of them.” (May we all find our inner McMurphy in that regard.)
Second, McMurphy is a natural leader. It’s unequivocal. The novel gives many more examples than 2 hours of theater can permit, but he is a determined leader, and to his credit, once he pulls the leadership position to himself, he is a fiercely loyal and caring commander. The man genuinely loves his “troops”, and is willing, almost by instinct, to put himself in harm’s way to protect them. When he sees his new “squad” of inmates being abused and mistreated by hospital staff, McMurphy declares war. And when the Big Nurse keeps increasing the consequences for his disobedience, McMurphy weighs first the impact his acquiescence will have on his followers. In the end, he decides his own life matters less than ending the tyranny the men have had to endure. And though he ultimately pays for it with his life, his men find a measure of freedom that will never go away.
Another amazing attribute of McMurphy’s leadership is his skill at giving each member of his new “family” exactly what they need to develop. As General George Patton once said, a true leader goes to his men where they are; he doesn’t expect them to come back to headquarters. McMurphy does exactly that. He is always the one approaching a character in retreat, probing what the issues are, how he can help, and giving the occasional pat on the shoulder or kick in the pants (whichever that character needed more). McMurphy instinctively knows how each man will respond best, and what each one needs to see and hear to grow. His leadership style is extremely effective, even if the battles he charges into aren’t always the best decisions.
Finally, there is a strong parallel in the character of McMurphy to that of Jesus Christ. I’m certain, as I’ve read the novel and now portrayed him, there are multitudes of allegories to the Christian story, and not just the greater one of self-sacrifice.
For instance, in the novel, the ward is McMurphy plus 12 inmates. Jesus had his 12 disciples. McMurphy gets the mute to talk (and also, in the Chief, the “deaf” to hear), the stutterer to speak calmly, the coward to stand tall. Like Jesus, McMurphy shows immediate disdain for rules and authority that govern the lives of others when those rules are not compassionate and unfair. His electro-shock therapy references the Bible repeatedly: McMurphy asks if he gets a “crown of thorns”, and mentions that the nurse’s aid “annointeth my head with conductant”. He leads a rebellion against the current powers that be to its awful conclusion, where he is finally sacrificed. And yet, through his sacrifice, the other inmates find healing and freedom.
I want to write some final thoughts on this character after our last weekend. Stay tuned for one more on this character.