Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

Harvey was a hit with both the public and the critics when it opened on November 1, 1944. One reason that was often cited was the casting of the actors. Critics were especially impressed with Frank Fay, who was an old vaudeville actor who came out of retirement to take the role of Elwood P. Dowd, and with Josephine Hull, who played his sister, Veta Louise Simmons. As Russell Rhodes put it in a review in 1944, ‘‘For the remarkable performance of these two, the author and producer should rub Harvey’s foot every night in gratitude. Even if he is a pooka.’’

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John L. Toohey’s book, A History of the Pulitzer Prize, gives a brief summation of some of the notices that ran when Harvey first ran on Broadway. Toohey quotes John Chapman in the New York Daily News who could hardly contain his excitement: ‘‘Harvey is the most delightful, droll, endearing, funny and touching piece of stage whimsy I ever saw, and in it Frank Fay gives a performance so perfect that forever hence he will be identified with the character he plays.’’ Toohey also referred to a review in the Herald Tribune, in which Howard Barnes noted that ‘‘The new play is as wise as it is witty; as occult as it is obvious. It is full of laughter and delicate meaning. It is stage sorcery at its whimsical best.’’ Barnes went on to note that ‘‘Frank Fay’s performance of the bum is memorable; Josephine Hull’s daffy dowager is a performance not to be missed.’’ Toohey also cites an unsigned review in the New Yorker: ‘‘A work of pure enchantment— touching, elegant, and lit with a fresh, surprising humor that has nothing to do with standard comedy formulas. The funniest play in town.’’ Most critics agree that it was a splendid piece of theater art, although there are a few who question its winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1944: that year saw the debut of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which has survived as one of the most important works written by one of America’s most important playwrights.

There were a few negative criticisms, but even these were put within an overall context of reviewers’ delight. In an issue of PM immediately after the play’s opening, Louis Kronenberger noted that the script has given ‘‘something funny to the theater, and something fresh,’’ and for that he is willing to forgive ‘‘some pretty serious sins—a first act that keeps going way too long, and a last act that, in a sense, can’t keep going at all.’’ Kronenberger gave credit to Chase for carrying out ‘‘the classic theme of humorists that in wackiness lies the greatest wisdom and the truest happiness.’’ His greatest praise for her, though, is for her creation of Elwood P. Dowd. As with other reviewers, Kronenberger found Fay’s performance of Elwood faultless: ‘‘Somehow Fay manages to transfix the audience and touch them.’’

Today, however, the role of Elwood is associated with the actor James Stewart, who played the role briefly in a 1949 revival before committing it to film in a 1950 version that was co-written by Mary Chase. Audiences remember his film performance as one of the best of his long career. Hull repeated her role as Veta for the film, but Frank Fay retired, and is largely forgotten today. David Mermelstein, of Mr. Showbiz, identifies the movie as ‘‘among the most beloved (pictures) of its era.’’ He gives Mary Chase ‘‘a lot of credit,’’ but attributes the picture’s success to Stewart’s warmhearted performance.

Harvey is still performed regularly today, mostly in community theaters and school productions. The play is seldom studied as a work of literature or included in the anthologies that are used as school texts, but it has not gone out of print. Small theaters are attracted to the play’s immediate name recognition, its manageable cast and stage requirements, and its opportunity for at least the two leads, playing Elwood and Veta, to shine.

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