In unrelated conversations this week, I became aware that two milestones of popular culture, at least as I’ve experienced it, have recently had their 50th anniversaries. Both are important in my life, albeit in very different ways. And the juxtaposition is intriguing. What does it tell us about the cultural landscape of the 1960’s that both of these creations came to fruition at about the same time? As one of my German professors was fond of saying; “Hier finden wir Geistesgeschichte”….’this is intellectual history’.
Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, premiered in New York during the 1963 – 1964 season. A decade or so later, in Racine Wisconsin, it became the first ‘community theater’ production I ever saw. I don’t recall what I thought of the production but seeing it was the first time I connected to the notion that one could experience theater without traveling to a big city. That led me to join the audiences for college productions, local professional theaters, and eventually to New York and Chicago and Seattle and San Francisco and Miami and Phoenix and…..
I went to see that production of “… Cuckoo’s Nest” because my, then, brother-in-law was playing McMurphy. Also, having read the novel, I was familiar with the story. When I was in high school everyone had to read Cuckoo’s Nest. When I say ‘had to read‘, I don’t mean it was part of the curriculum. I mean it was cool and oh-so daring. It was among a short list of controversial novels that were popular at the time. Being seen carrying one of them conferred instant intellectual “cred”. That list also included Hesse’s Siddhartha, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Kurt Vonnegut books might be included as well but he was a wild card. Anyone reading Slaughterhouse 5 could hang with the Cuckoo’s Nest folk but someone reading Cat’s Cradle could just as easily be a part of that whole Lord of the Rings crowd. Every ‘us’ must have a ‘them’.
I learned of the other milestone by listening to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Gilligan’s Island. I don’t remember whether we watched the show in its original network run but I certainly grew up seeing it in syndication. By any objective standard the show is mediocre, at best. Yet if anything deserves to be called iconic in this context it is Gilligan’s Island. I’m sure it has been a couple of decades since I last saw an episode but I still know all the words to the theme song. When traveling, the phrase ‘three-hour tour’ conjures an image immediately. At breakfast this morning, Harper’s Other Dad referred to the hair style in an old family photo with the comment; “she looks like Mary Ann”. There was no need to ask; “Mary Ann who?”.
Listening to Pop Culture Happy Hour has made me fan of NPR writer Glen Wheldon. Actually, I’d call it a ‘man crush‘ but I’m not sure that term applies when both men are among the ranks of nature’s bachelors. In any event, I can always count on Wheldon to say exactly what I’m thinking, only more articulately and with greater wit. In talking about Gilligan’s Island he noted that, for many children, Gilligan’s Island was their first exposure to both Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the music of Bizet’s opera Carmen. It was as if he were reading my mind.
In one episode, for whatever contrived reason, the castaways mounted a musical version of Hamlet. Because that’s what you do when you’re shipwrecked on an island. I’d forgotten Gilligan, as Hamlet, singing the musical soliloquy ‘To Be or Not To Be” but my memory of the Skipper’s “Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be…” is crystal clear. I still know the words. More significantly, in the intervening years I have seen both Hamlet and Carmen several times. Both are great works or artistic expression. I don’t think I’ve ever left a production of Hamlet without a Bizet ear worm. And I’m absolutely certain I’ve never gotten through Act II of Carmen, without picturing Alan Hale, Jr…. as the Skipper…. as Polonius.