Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1977
Mary Chase’s time-honored play Harvey is a fun play to read and to perform. It isn’t the type of literary work that cries out to be interpreted. In some ways, the play strains to defy interpretation. One of its central subthemes is that interpretation is a hangup that fun-loving people need to ignore. The play shows an eminent psychiatrist and his staff trying to figure out the reason why Elwood P. Dowd, a mildmannered drunkard, thinks he sees a giant, invisible rabbit, but it gives its audience enough evidence to believe that he sees it because the rabbit, a mystical spirit, actually exists. There isn’t any interpretation called for in explaining Harvey the rabbit, just belief.
There is an element to Harvey that goes beyond supernatural explanation, though. Chase teases audiences to see if they can make sense of Elwood’s mental state. While there isn’t enough evidence to explain why he has turned out to be the way he is, there are a lot of loose ends. There are events that might have no significance if Harvey occurred in real life but that have to have some meaning, because the audience knows that the author put them there. They aren’t enough to build a complete psychological profile. They are, however, compelling enough to make readers want to sit down and take another look at the play, pondering what went on in Elwood’s life before the action on stage began.
Of all of the strange and seemingly pointless elements that Chase chose to leave in her play, the one that most defies interpretation must be the business of Elwood’s calling card. Whenever he meets a new person, he hands them his card. In most cases, as he hands the card over he points to the phone numbers on it, indicating one number—the ‘‘old one’’—that the recipient should not call and one that they should.
But why does he have a defunct phone number on his card at all? If the cards had been reprinted since his phone number changed, then he could have left the old number off, and if the new number is just written in by hand then he could have, while writing it, scratched the old one off. And why did he change to a new number anyway?
Most likely, it has something to do with his sister and niece coming to live in his house, but this is only a weak guess that is based on a shortage of other possibilities. He’s not likely to have changed phone numbers because of financial reasons, because his finances seem fine and untouched. The fact that he doesn’t see his old friends any more since taking up with Harvey appears to be their idea, not his—there is no indication that Elwood has ever tried to distance himself from them or shut them out—so it is unlikely that he would change his phone number to keep old friends from reaching him. The play only accounts for two important changes in Elwood’s life, other than the appearance of Harvey. His mother died, which may well have had great impact on Elwood’s psyche—as Veta explains, ‘‘he was always a great home boy’’—but that would be no reason to change his phone number. The only other possible explanation is that he changed his number when new people started inhabiting part of his house, even though there are no other hints that he felt any need to protect his privacy against Veta Louise and Myrtle Mae.
It is interesting that Elwood draws attention to the number when he hands his card to Nurse Kelly and Betty Chumley (saying ‘‘If you should want to call me.’’), but in the last act, giving it to the cab driver, he only mentions the address printed on it. This may indicate nothing more than Chase’s losing interest in the line, although, for balance, she really ought to follow through with what is started and repeat the line every time that he hands the card out. It might be that Elwood is either chivalrous or romantic by inviting women, but not men, to call him if they should want. One thing is for sure, though, and that is that there is something to this pattern, whether Chase was conscious of it or not. The ‘‘new number’’ is mentioned twice, and that makes it significant.
Even though we are not told what has changed in his telephone situation, we know that something has, and the idea of change in this home boy’s life is at the center of the story’s dramatic interest. Another big clue to Elwood’s mind comes in the second scene of the second act. Nurse Kelly and Dr. Sanderson try to get to the bottom of Elwood’s relationship with Harvey, whom they assume is a figment of his imagination. The doctor’s attempt to find out why Elwood’s mind would project such an imaginary figure fails, of course, because, as the audience is shown several times throughout the play, Harvey is in fact real, not projected. The nurse does better by listening to Elwood and getting him to talk about what Harvey means to him. Elwood’s speech about how his invisible friend overshadows the hopes, regrets, and accomplishments of the other bar patrons tells more about the mysteries of Elwood P. Dowd than any therapeutic baths and psychoanalysis that the hospital has to offer him. It may not be clear why Harvey, the magical creature, appears to him, aside from his great, child-like sincerity, but it is clear that having a giant rabbit has been a tremendous boost to Elwood’s self-esteem.
There is one more perplexing clue to what Elwood thinks. Early in the play, he makes a mysterious reference to a psychological condition, but Dr. Sanderson passes over the moment quickly, treating it as a joke. It is in the second scene, after Elwood has been institutionalized and then released. Sanderson, fearing that he might sue the asylum, is nervous and eager to please, which may account for his letting go of what seems a very significant hint. Sanderson is trying to explain what ‘‘trauma’’ is, and as an example he offers up ‘‘the birth trauma’’: ‘‘the shock to the act of being born.’’
‘‘That’s the one we never get over,’’ Elwood responds. Sanderson, trying to be agreeable, compliments his astuteness and lets the matter drop, missing a chance to really understand what really drives Elwood P. Dowd. Psychiatrists explain that the ‘‘birth trauma’’ is a discomfort felt by all human beings throughout their entire lives, a response to the sudden shock of going from gloating in a sack of warm amniotic fluid to being brought out into the cold air, cut from the umbilical cord, slapped on the bottom, and thrown into an environment of bright lights and harsh sounds. For most people, it is a trauma that is eventually accepted, forgotten, or buried, although psychiatrists might insist that it affects all aspects of life. It certainly means much to Elwood P. Dowd, who accepts the concept as being natural and obvious. To him, perpetual trauma is the normal state of being.
And so the play Harvey presents us with an Elwood Dowd who professes to be familiar with the feelings of the birth trauma, whether he has actually ever heard the concept expressed in words or not. He is a homebody who, according to his old friend Judge Gaffney, ‘‘was always so calm about any change in plans,’’ to such an extent that it made the judge suspicious. And he is someone who, for whatever reason, probably the arrival of new people in his house, has changed his phone number, with whatever disruption of his routine is implied with that. This isn’t much of a psychological profile, and it certainly does not explain Harvey as a hallucination, but it is enough to explain Elwood’s fondness for his big, invisible friend.
And if Harvey’s function, not just in the play but in the whole world at large, is not clear enough, Chase shows her audience the effects that he has on people other than Elwood P. Dowd. Among the play’s great unexplained oddities, for instance, is Veta’s relationship with Harvey. Why does she see him only sporadically, and why is her shouting, ‘‘To hell with you,’’ so effective in getting rid of him? Obviously, if Harvey represents childlike freedom, Veta has a childish streak that she is generally able to repress, but not completely. Shouting out an obscenity might seem completely out of character for her, but it is effective precisely because it is so crass, so extreme. The fact that she is as desperate to not see the pooka as Elwood is to see him serves to establish for readers how fearful people usually are of standing out.
The other character who sees Harvey is Dr. Chumley. Like Veta, it is important to Chumley that people not know he sees the invisible rabbit—even more so for him, since his career as a noted psychiatrist could be threatened if there were any suspicion about his sanity. Unlike Veta, but like Elwood, the doctor’s relationship with Harvey is brought about by heavy drinking. In Dr. Chumley’s past, Chase hints at the same sort of personal mysteries that are vaguely insinuated with Elwood. Most telling is his fantasy about what he would do if Harvey overcame time and space and objection for him. He has a particular place in mind, a cottage camp outside of Akron, Ohio—it isn’t a common vision of paradise, but it is his own. He has a woman in mind, one who would not know his name and would not speak, indicating that the pressure of his professional fame is a burden. She would feel sorry for his burdens and stroke his head in pity. And he would drink only beer, which is a weak alcoholic stimulant, instead of going for the powerful inebriation of strong liquor. Without any more telling background than his professional reputation, these strange, distinct facts paint a touchingly pathetic portrait of Dr. Chumley.
Dr. Chumley is at the center of one of the oddest mysteries in the play, one that nearly matches Elwood’s new telephone number in terms of its obscurity. Describing his night out with Chumley, Elwood says that the distinguished psychiatrist began disturbing ‘‘a beautiful blonde woman—a Mrs. Smethills.’’ The doctor claimed to have met her in Chicago, Elwood says, and her escort (conspicuously, he does not refer to the man as Mr. Smethills) issues an implied threat. Nothing more is made of Chicago or Mrs. Smethills or of their relationship. Like other loose ends in this play, the facts given serve to establish a mood, not to weave a web of reality.
Harvey is full of allusions that shoot out into space, not returning to connect with other points in the play. In another work, this would be a flaw, a sign that the playwright has not fulfilled her mission completely. She seems to have included such details at her own whim, not to complete an artistic design. Whimsy is what this play is all about, though. This is a play about mystery, though, not certainty; about magic, not scientific knowledge; about being pleasant, not smart. Something has to be left beyond the reach of reason, and the disjointed facts that Mary Chase weaves into this play serve to open its audience up to the wonders of possibility that could actually make a giant invisible rabbit exist.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and drama at two colleges in Illinois.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2553
The classic comedy play Harvey, by Mary Ellen Chase, met with instant popularity on stage, and has remained, along with the movie adaptation, an audience favorite. The six-foot white rabbit who accompanies the wealthy, amiable drunk, Elwood Dowd, has become a staple of American culture, referred to by Stanley Richards as ‘‘part of our theatrical folklore.’’ The presence of Harvey is a focal point of the play’s central thematic concern with the realm of dreams and the imagination versus the realm of facts and reality. The element of fantasy, and the question of reality, which hovers around the ‘‘character’’ of Harvey, is in part indicated by the differing interpretations offered by critics in regard to Harvey’s existence. Richards points out that critics interpreted the existence of Harvey in a variety of ways: ‘‘some critics referred to Harvey as an invisible rabbit; others as a rabbit seen only by Elwood; and still others, as an imaginary rabbit.’’ The fact that Harvey is never seen by the audience is important to the effect of the play in maintaining the ambiguity of Harvey’s existence. Interestingly, Chase originally included a scene in Act II in which the giant white rabbit actually appears on stage, but was persuaded to rewrite it so that Harvey remains invisible to the audience throughout the performance. Richards describes the lastminute change in staging of this scene:
Since the stage directions specifically stated that Harvey crosses the stage and enters Dr. Chumley’s office, an actor garbed in a rabbit’s costume played the scene, somewhat to the detriment of the fantasy. Finally, producer Brock Pemberton convinced the author that the rabbit should not be visible to the audience, strengthening the theory that even literalminded playgoers might accept the idea that Elwood could persuade others to believe in his pooka. In the New York production, the effect of Harvey’s crossing the stage was attained by having a door open, followed by a pause of about eight seconds, then having the opposite door to Dr. Chumley’s office open. It became one of the play’s more memorable moments.
The decision to maintain Harvey’s status as invisible is key to developing the theme of fantasy versus reality in the play. Harvey, clearly, represents the realm of dreams and fantasy, as he is invisible only to those who are dead set on living only in the world of facts and reality. Throughout the play, Harvey’s effect on people—those who actually see him or who are otherwise affected by his presence—is to free them from the bind of facts and reality and to release them into the world of their own imagination. Harvey certainly has this effect on Elwood, who sees him all the time, but also on Dr. Chumley, Dr. Sanderson, Kelly, and even Veta.
Harvey represents the realm of the imagination, dreams, hopes, art, poetry, love, and romance, as opposed to the realm of reality, facts, and science. Elwood clearly values the realm of the imagination above the realm of reality. When Dr. Sanderson tells Elwood that ‘‘We all have to face reality . . . sooner or later,’’ Elwood responds that ‘‘I wrestled with reality for forty years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.’’ Elwood’s ability to see Harvey represents the triumph of his imagination over reality. Elwood and Harvey are also associated with the realm of the imagination as expressed through art and poetry. They are associated with art through the oil painting of the two of them together, which Elwood brings home and places on the mantle piece. This painting later becomes the basis of a discussion on the importance of ‘‘dreams’’ in art (discussed below). Elwood is also associated with the imaginative realm of poetry when he recites a line from Ovid’s ‘‘Fifth Elegy’’ to Miss Kelly, ‘‘’Diviner grace has never brightened this enchanting face!’’’ Elwood comments that ‘‘Ovid has always been my favorite poet.’’
Because the audience is not acquainted with Elwood before the arrival of Harvey in his life, one cannot say definitely in what ways the giant white rabbit affected him. However, since Elwood is closely associated with Harvey, it is fair to speculate that Elwood’s character represents Harvey’s potential effect on other people as well. While Elwood’s family sees Harvey as an embarrassment, and others who are introduced to Harvey generally respond to Elwood with something like ‘‘horrified fascination,’’ the audience is presented with the character of Elwood as extremely amiable and friendly. Harvey thus seems to bring out in Elwood an openness and warmth toward other people, which dispenses with the usual social barriers of propriety. Elwood responds to everyone he encounters with an immediate offer of warmth, friendship, and companionship, always offering his ‘‘card’’ with the expression, ‘‘If you should want to call me—.’’ Elwood even does his best to make friends with someone, who he believes has mistakenly called the wrong number, over the telephone. In Act I, while he is in the library, a phone solicitor calls with the intention of selling membership to a club along with several magazine subscriptions. Elwood responds with, ‘‘Oh, you’ve got the wrong number. But how are you, anyway?’’ After agreeing to order several subscriptions, Elwood addresses the person on the other end with affection and an offer of friendship, telling her, ‘‘I hope I will have the pleasure of meeting you some time, my dear.’’ Furthermore, Elwood’s expressions of friendship to everyone he meets are not just kind words; he always makes a point of inviting everyone he meets to join him on a specific date. After the woman on the phone makes what would normally be an empty gesture of telling Elwood that she would like to meet him, he insists, ‘‘When? When would you like to meet me, Miss Greenawalt? Why not right now?’’ Elwood’s warmth and openness toward others is in part what made it possible for him to ‘‘see’’ Harvey in the first place, as well as to become his ‘‘best friend.’’ Harvey thus represents this approach to social interaction, which values relationships with other people above all else.
To some extent, the power of the imagination of any individual character in the play is proven by his or her ability to ‘‘see’’ Harvey. Those who are in touch with their own imagination can see Harvey, while those who are cut off from their imagination cannot. In addition, a whole cluster of values is associated with this power of imagination. Elwood, or course, represents the character in the play with the strongest imagination. This quality makes him the most likable character in the play. He is warm, kind, and generous to everyone, only seeing the best in them, even if they are rude or unpleasant to him; he considers everyone his friend and treats them as such. Elwood’s sense of imagination is further associated with the ability to dream, with the creative element of the imagination, such as painting and poetry, and even with the capacity for love and romance. At Chumley’s Rest sanitarium, Elwood encounters the young Dr. Sanderson and his nurse assistant, Miss Kelly. Miss Kelly is clearly in love with Dr. Sanderson, but Dr. Sanderson fails to ‘‘see’’ her in this light. The cluster of values that oppose the imagination are that of reality, facts, and science. Dr. Sanderson, a psychiatrist, is so preoccupied with the realm of the science of psychology that he fails to use his imagination in his relationship to Miss Kelly. The influence of Elwood, and, by association, Harvey, on Dr. Sanderson is to open his eyes to the potential romance between himself and Miss Kelly. Because Elwood has a strong sense of imagination, he immediately notices and attends to Kelly’s feminine charms—but only in a very gentle manly way. When he enters the waiting room at Chumley’s Rest, and Kelly offers him a magazine to look at, he responds that ‘‘I would much rather look at you, Miss Kelly, if you don’t mind. You really are very lovely.’’ Referring to Dr. Sanderson, Kelly responds that ‘‘Some people don’t seem to think so.’’ Elwood then comments that ‘‘Some people are blind. That is often brought to my attention.’’ Clearly, Elwood is referring to the fact that ‘‘some,’’ if not most, people fail to ‘‘see’’ Harvey. He is also indicating that many people lack the imaginative powers to ‘‘see’’ the finer things in life, such as love and romance. Elwood’s imaginative powers, particularly in the realm of love and romance, lead him so far as to misinterpret what Kelly and Dr. Sanderson are talking about, to the extent that he thinks they are referring to a romantic encounter that he believes has already occurred between the two of them. In fact, they are attempting to apologize for accidentally committing Elwood to the sanitarium, when they believe they were supposed to have committed his sister, Veta. Miss Kelly and Dr. Sanderson, however, do not even realize that Elwood is interpreting the situation in romantic terms:
Sanderson: . . . Miss Kelly and I have made a mistake here this afternoon, Mr. Dowd, and we’d like to explain it to you. Kelly: It wasn’t Doctor Sanderson’s fault, Mr. Dowd. It was mine. Sanderson: A human failing—as I said. Elwood: I find it very interesting, nevertheless. You and Miss Kelly here? [They nod] This afternoon—you say? [They nod. Elwood gives Harvey a knowing look] Kelly: We do hope you’ll understand, Mr. Dowd. Elwood: Oh yes. Yes. These things are often the basis of a long and warm friendship.
Although at this point, though Elwood’s perception is a misunderstanding, it demonstrates his insight into their true feelings toward each other. In Act III, Elwood finally has the effect of opening Dr. Sanderson’s eyes to his love for Kelly and to her love for him.
Dr. Chumley, the head psychiatrist of Chumley’s Rest, while representing the pinnacle of a scientific mind, eventually finds that he, too, sees Harvey. Being able to see Harvey allows Dr. Chumley to get in touch with his imagination in terms of his dreams and fantasies. When this happens, Dr. Chumley regards Harvey as a ‘‘miracle.’’ He tells Myrtle, ‘‘I’ve been spending my life among fly-specks while miracles have been leaning on lampposts on Eighteenth and Fairfax,’’ where Elwood first met Harvey. Dr. Chumley later learns from Elwood that Harvey can indeed make it possible for people to live out their own dreams and fantasies. Elwood explains that Harvey has the capacity to ‘‘stop clocks,’’ and allow people to ‘‘go away as long as you like with whomever you like and go as far as you like.’’ Dr. Chumley then describes to Elwood his fantasy dream of drinking a cold beer under a tree in Akron, Ohio, with a strange young woman, ‘‘Cold beer at Akron and one last fling!’’ Seeing Harvey thus allows Dr. Chumley access to his own imagination, which brings forth dreams and fantasies which have been denied by his scientific grip on reality. Dr. Chumley even attempts to steal Harvey away from Elwood, hoping that Harvey will allow him to live out this fantasy.
Until Dr. Chumley finally sees Harvey, Veta is the only other character in the play, besides Elwood, who does so. Veta, however, only sees Harvey occasionally. This suggests that she has a potentially strong sense of imagination, but that she does her best to cling to ‘‘reality’’ in denying to others the existence of Harvey. Veta’s ultimate belief in Harvey, and thus in the importance of the realm of the imagination, is expressed at two key points in the play. In fact, Veta most clearly expresses the significance of Harvey to the meaning of the play. She does this during a conversation with Dr. Chumley, after he has just seen the oil painting portrait of Elwood with Harvey. During this exchange, Veta’s back is turned to the portrait, which she has not yet seen. And yet, she inadvertently expresses the significance of Harvey’s image in the portrait:
I took a course in art this last winter. The difference between a fine oil painting and a mechanical thing like a photograph is simply this: a photograph shows only the reality; a painting shows not only the reality but the dream behind it—. It’s our dreams that keep us going. That separate us from the beasts. I wouldn’t even want to live if I thought it was all just eating and sleeping and taking off my clothes. Well—putting them on again—
The portrait of Elwood with Harvey expresses exactly what Veta has been describing: the ‘‘dream’’ (represented by Harvey) behind the ‘‘reality’’ (represented by Elwood). In the painting, Harvey literally stands behind Elwood, who sits in a chair. Despite this insight, however, Veta continues to deny Harvey’s presence in talking to others; her problem is thus not a lack of imagination, but being overly concerned with what other people would think of her if she admitted that she, too, sees Harvey at times.
In the final scene of the play, Veta, Myrtle, the Judge, Dr. Sanderson, and Dr. Chumley prepare to inject Elwood with ‘‘formula 977,’’ in order to restore him back to reality. Again, Elwood’s imagi native abilities to see Harvey are contrasted with such dull aspects of reality as ‘‘responsibilities’’ and ‘‘duties.’’ The Judge tells Elwood that, once given the injection, ‘‘you won’t see this rabbit any more.’’ And Sanderson adds, ‘‘But you will see your responsibilities, your duties—’’ Elwood, however, replies that he ‘‘wouldn’t care for it.’’ Nonetheless, Veta decides to go ahead with the injection.
The cab driver, however, explains to them the effect of ‘‘formula 977,’’ which is, essentially, to remove any sense of imagination, leaving people with only a dull and unpleasant grip on ‘‘reality.’’ The cab driver explains that, on the way to the sanitarium, before receiving the injection, ‘‘they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me. Sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets and look at the birds flyin’. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain’t no birds and look at the sunsets when it’s rainin’. We have a swell time.’’ The cab driver goes on to explain that, after receiving the injection, these people become fixated on reality and no longer enjoy life; they ‘‘crab, crab, crab. They yell at me to watch the lights, watch the brakes, watch the intersections. They scream at me to hurry. . . . It’s no fun.’’ The cab driver concludes that, after receiving the injection, Elwood will be ‘‘a perfectly normal human being and you know what bastards they are!’’ At this point Veta, who has been ashamed of Elwood’s insistence on Harvey’s existence, realizes that Harvey represents what she likes most about her brother, and other people: their capacity to be imaginative. She concludes that she doesn’t want Elwood to be given the injection and forced to exist only in the realm of reality, because ‘‘I don’t want Elwood that way. I don’t like people like that.’’
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662
For a four year old boy to have an invisible friend is nothing extraordinary. However, when the ‘‘boy’’ is a forty-seven year old alcoholic bachelor with a horrified set of relatives, comedy ensues. This simple formula is complicated when other supposedly sane characters also admit to occasionally seeing the invisible friend, a six-foot white rabbit named Harvey. By the end of the play, the question is, who is better off, the sane but anxious Myrtle May or the deluded, pleasant, gentle Elwood? A big audience success, recipient of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, and mostly glowing reviews, Harvey baffles the careful reader by somehow working, in spite of its flimsy premise, creaky construction, and poorly sketched minor characters. Indeed, as Kappo Phelan complained in Commonweal, the play could clearly have used another careful revision. Still, more than fifty years later, the play remains popular in amateur and summer stock productions. After all, as one recent review suggests, the central question of the play, ‘‘just what is ‘normal,’ anyway? [Harvey] resonates even more with audiences today than it did when the show was new’’ (Craig).
Written in 1944 during the dark years of World War II, Mary Chase’s Harvey was intended as pure escapist entertainment, with no deeper meaning whatsoever. The literary student will search in vain for Freudian symbols or profound socio-historic significance. However, like all top-notch comedies (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest come to mind), the play pokes fun at social mores as well as manages to raise important questions about the nature of perception and reality. In fact, one way to explain the success of the play is that it adheres to conventions as old as comedy itself.
In the words of literary critic Harry Levin, all ‘‘comedy recycles the oldest devices.’’ Whether a cartoon, a TV sitcom, a comic novel, or a dramatic entertainment, comedy uses elements as old as the form itself. Character types such as foolish parents, young lovers, braggarts, or clever servants are first found in the comedy of ancient Greece and Rome and have survived to the present day. Psychiatrists like Dr. Chumley, who turn out to be as crazy as their patients, may be a more recent invention, but they are as familiar to any fan of New Yorker cartoons as are the ancient characters. Comic targets like pomposity, self-importance, and hype are equally common in the plays of fourth century B.C. Greek dramatist Aristophanes or this week’s episode of Saturday Night Live. Plots and deeper structures have also remained the same. Harvey is part of that tradition, and a knowledge of the traditional elements of comedy will enhance the reader’s understanding of this play’s enduring popularity.
Certainly, the play has many aspects familiar to students of comedy, in drama and fiction alike. The efforts of the mother, Mrs. Veta Louise Simmons, to introduce her unpromising, plain, and acerbic daughter, Myrtle Mae, into polite society with marriage as the final goal, are familiar from such works as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In fact, early on, Myrtle Mae is shaping up to be the heroine familiar from countless romantic comedies, whose ability to marry is blocked by the opposing patriarchal force of her uncle Elwood, who controls the family home and fortune. However, this formula is quickly reversed since Myrtle quickly turns out not to be the heroine at all but instead the blocking force. In her single-minded anxiety to marry—anyone, at any cost—she becomes absurd, as she tries to force her family into line with her obsession and evict her uncle, whom she despises, from his own house. Veta Louise, on the other hand, is equally horrified but also genuinely fond of her gentle brother. Thus, this play cleverly reverses the comic cliché that parents are the conservative proponents of law and order and the children the rebellious advocates of freedom. Here, the older characters are far more tolerant and able to entertain ambiguity than the young, self-righteous characters such as Myrtle Mae, Kelly, and Doctor Sanderson.
The play also pokes some familiar fun at the socalled high society (at least in its own estimation) of the unnamed western city (presumably Chase’s Denver) in which they live. To meet eligible young men, Myrtle Mae has to sit demurely through tedious afternoons with old ladies, in hopes of an eventual introduction to their grandsons. In the meantime, she is of course quite capable of looking out for herself, as the reader sees when she quickly hitches up with the socially unsuitable Wilson, the big burly ‘‘black-browned’’ hospital attendant.
The comedy involved in the mistaken identity at the sanitarium, where Doctor Sanderson mistakes Veta Louise for the patient, is also a comic staple, dating back as far as the Latin New Comedy of Terence and Plautus (first century A.D.). Shakespeare also used the trope, for instance in A Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night. In Harvey, the comedy arises in part from Dr. Sanderson’s distracted interest in the pretty young nurse, which renders his judgment less than professional. Moreover, Veta hilariously mistakes the staff at the sanitarium for white slavers. Adding to the confusion is the inversion of gender roles. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s heroine, Viola, disguises herself as a young man, promptly falls in love with her boss (the Count Orsino), who thinks he loves Olivia, a young woman who fancies herself in love with the disguised Viola. As Viola sighs, ‘‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I / It is too hard a knot for me to untie.’’ In Harvey, Veta and Myrtle take on many stereotypically masculine attributes, active and busy, while Elwood is extremely feminized— passive, gentle, and reactive. ‘‘My sister did all that [attempted to get Elwood committed] in one afternoon,’’ he says wonderingly. ‘‘Veta is certainly a whirlwind.’’ Of course, the joke is that by the end of the play, Elwood’s way wins out.
The typical comic plot is that it moves from conflict to harmony, from a state of disorder to order. However, to arrive at this order, the middle of the comedy is usually characterized by disorder in a world where all normal values have gone topsyturvy. As critic Northrop Frye has pointed out, in Shakespearean comedy, such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the increased disorder is accompanied by a move from civilized society into a so-called ‘‘green world,’’ often quite literally a forest. Here the repressive rules of normal society are relaxed, often through magic, and in the end, after much confusion, the protagonists return strengthened to a redeemed society. A similar pattern occurs in Harvey, which moves from the repressive world of Denver high society, to the topsyturvy world of the insane asylum (with some offstage visits to a few local bars), and then, much improved, back to normal society. Decency and propriety have been defeated; ‘‘To hell with decency,’’ says Dr. Chumley, ‘‘I’ve got to have that rabbit!’’ Moreover, the young lovers have been united, Myrtle Mae has found a man, and Veta and Dr. Chumley have admitted to their own need for an invisible friend like Harvey.
So what exactly is Harvey the rabbit supposed to signify? Apparently as accommodating as his friend Elwood, he is the perfect friend for lonely hearts everywhere. Moreover, he welcomes pleasure, as he appears to spend most of his time partying. He is also a trickster figure who vanishes and reappears as he sees fit. In fact, he is a clear descendant of the vice figure familiar from medieval and Renaissance drama, such as Falstaff, Puck, and Ariel—the latter two are also invisible. Yet in spite of the name, the Vice figure is usually reasonably good-natured, his tricks and mischief rarely cause real harm. Indeed, by the end of the play, those characters who can admit to their need for Harvey’s company appear far better off than those who continue to deny him.
Thus, Harvey, like all comedy, is a celebration of pleasure: a victory of love over duty, freedom over restrictions, fellowship over hard work, community over isolation. City comedies of the Renaissance typically end with a feast, everyone going off to have dinner together. Likewise, Elwood is always inviting near strangers over for dinner. Characters who refuse to join in the good cheer, like Shakespeare’s Malvolio or the judge in Harvey, are banished from the conclusion. In the final scene of the play, this theme is sounded repeatedly. Veta decides to obey her instincts and not have Elwood admitted to the asylum after the cab driver tells her that after treatment, the patients become ‘‘perfectly normal human being[s] and you know what bastards they are!’’ When they are still insane, they ‘‘sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me. . . . We have a swell time and I always get a big tip. But afterward—oh— oh. . . . They crab, crab, crab. . . . They scream at me to hurry.’’ Moreover, thanks to Elwood’s intervention, the two young lovers are united, with Miss Kelly telling Elwood, ‘‘I will never feel happier, I know it.’’ Perhaps Elwood himself states the theme of pleasure most clearly when he recalls his mother’s advice: ‘‘’In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant’. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.’’
Thus, the ‘‘meaning’’ of Harvey is its absence of meaning, its pretense that those who enjoy themselves and live in the moment are better off than the rest of the people who insist on taking life terribly seriously. One can certainly understand why this was a welcome message in 1944, and why it would still seem to resonate today.
Source: Kirsten Herold, in an essay for Drama For Students, Gale Group, 2001. Herold has a Ph.D. and specializes in the history of dramatic literature.