When reading or seeing a play, one always wonders where playwrights get their ideas for plot and characterization. I contacted Jeffrey Stanley, author of Medicine Man, which premiered at Dallas' Theater Three this spring, to find his answers.

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SMITH: The characters in "Medicine, Man" are reminiscent of those in Daddy's Dyin'; Who's Got The Will, Sordid Lives and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Were you at all influenced by Del Shores, or Dale Wasserman and Ken Kesey? If so, what was the extent of their influence?
STANLEY: Actually I haven't seen any of Del Shores' work at all. I've seen Cuckoo's Nest and consider it a favorite film, but it didn't at all enter my consciousness where my play is concerned. I think some issues in our society are universal and tend to get revisited and re-explored by writers; because these things keep getting experienced by all of us in our own lives. Hospitals, a dying loved one, a fight over a will, sibling rivalry, a general mistrust of doctors, a yearning to understand life on a spiritual level, and a need to laugh during the dark moments - these are situations we've all been through or will be going through soon enough.

SMITH: How much of the play was autobiographical, and at what point did it veer into fiction?
STANLEY: The play is loosely inspired by the death of my grandmother, Ethel Ferguson, a few years ago, and it's set in my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. Those hard facts aside, it's a fictional tale. There was no fight over a will when my grandmother was hospitalized, and there was no ghost walking through walls handing out fruit. But my grandmother did die very quickly - during the course of a day and a half - of a mysterious illness the doctors never quite pinpointed. Although she was old, her death still felt sudden and sad. I was living in New York at the time, and the whole thing happened so fast, I was unable to get there before she was gone. Basically the whole family was there gathered round her bed when she died except for me. I think I felt guilty about that. In some ways, the play is my imagining of what it might have been like that day. It's my way of placing myself there. But the humor had to be in the play too, and the religion had to be there; because that's my grandmother, and that's my family; we're often a bunch of loudmouths with strong opinions.

SMITH: Was the deaf-mute Indian Chief Bromden in Cuckoo's Nest a template in writing the character of 'Swimmer'? If so, in what way? If not, where did the idea of 'Swimmer' originate?
STANLEY: No, not at all. Swimmer, or Ayunini, is an historical figure. He was the last of the Cherokee medicine men. Before he died in the 1800s, a white anthropologist named James Mooney convinced him to reveal the secret prayers and rituals that Cherokee shamans performed and which had only been handed down orally to a select few until that point. Swimmer finally agreed, knowing that after he died it would be the end of the line for this sacred knowledge. Everything he revealed is written down in Mooney's book, "History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees," which is still in print. Swimmer's physical description in the play is based on his photo which can be found in the book, and an authentic prayer of Swimmer's is also in the play.
At one point in the play Swimmer also sings "Amazing Grace" in Cherokee. This Christian touch is also historically accurate. Many Cherokees by Swimmer's time had been assimilated, sometimes by force, and had generally abandoned their ancient spiritual beliefs to embrace Christianity and Western culture.

SMITH: Which playwrights have most informed your writing style and choice of subjects?
STANLEY: This question always makes me smile; because there are so many, and they're pretty varied. I'm a big fan of Joe Orton and his ability to blend humor with a depiction of unethical people behaving badly. I'm also a fan and former student of David Ives; I consider him a hero. My writing style is nothing like his on the surface, but I admire his wordplay and his injection of the impossible into his plays - like Leon Trotsky walking around with a mountaineering ice pick sticking out of his skull in All In The Timing. He was murdered that way you know. I'm also a fan of Constance Congdon. She can put real people into sad situations, but she also lets you know it's to chuckle at them despite the despair. Then there's Shakespeare; well of course that's easy to say, but really, Banquo's ghost in Macbeth, my favorite Shakespeare play, found his way into Medicine, Man in the guise of Swimmer. Banquo represents Macbeth's guilty conscience and his regret about his deeds - his inability to deal with his past actions. Swimmer's similar - he's the characters' regrets and unfulfilled dreams continually haunting them on an unconscious level. He's their sorrow, their sudden awarness of thir own mortality. Like all of us, they may or may not follow his advice to try to change their futures for the better.

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Stanley, like most good playwrights, finds the universal theme in the individual experience - that universality that dwells deep within the human psyche and works its cathartic magic on the playwright as well as on the reader and the audience.

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Key Subjects: 
Jeffrey Stanley, Medicine Man; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Macbeth
Writer: 
Rita Faye Smith
Date: 
May 2005
Subtitle: 
Playwright Jeffrey Stanley