Critical Context

The subgenre into which this comedy fits, fantasy, proved to be the most comfortable form for Mary Chase’s creative imagination. Shortly after the success of Harvey, Chase tried writing in a more serious style with The Next Half Hour (pr. 1945), which failed on Broadway. Although the plot turned on the paranormal element of clairvoyance, the stylistic emphasis was on the realistic actions of the characters, not on the fantasy. She returned to fantasy, however, with two Broadway hits in the same year, Mrs. McThing (pr., pb. 1952) and Bernardine (pr. 1952, pb. 1953). The fantasy in Mrs. McThing involves not apparitions but a magic spell, which causes a wealthy dowager and her playboy son to lose all their money—and they turn out the happier for it. The fantasy in Bernardine is the hormone-induced dreamworld of male adolescence, as a group of teenage boys weave sexual fantasies about their dream girl. As different as these plots are, the surreal vision of the main characters is familiar to audiences who know Harvey.

Reviewers most often compare Chase’s style with that of William Saroyan, perhaps because of similarities between Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey and the genial drunk Joe in The Time of Your Life (pr., pb. 1939). Yet the comparison is usually a disparaging one, as if her comedy were merely diluted from Saroyan. What these critics see in Saroyan and find missing in Chase is an edginess, a consciousness of the harsh realities, the struggle of human existence. A second common comparison with Harvey is Joseph O. Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace (pr. 1941, pb. 1944), a comparison natural to the reviewers of the first production of Chase’s hit, because Josephine Hull, who originated the role of Veta Simmons, also created one of the eccentric Brewster sisters in Kesselring’s comedy.