The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

This three-act comedy follows the frustrated attempts of society matron Veta Louise Simmons to keep the eccentricities of her brother, Elwood P. Dowd, from public view. Elwood drinks and keeps introducing strangers to a companion whom no one else can see: a six-foot-one-and-a-half-inch-tall rabbit named Harvey. Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae worries that her Uncle Elwood’s preoccupation with Harvey will scare away any marriage prospects for her. In the opening scene the guest of honor at a piano recital hosted by Veta is frightened away when Elwood tries to introduce her to Harvey. This incident is the last straw for Veta. In the next scene she visits Chumley’s Rest, a sanatorium for mental patients, and asks to have her brother Elwood committed. As Veta gives the information to the head nurse, Ruth Kelly, it becomes clear that Kelly is interested in Dr. Sanderson, the new assistant to Dr. Chumley. As Veta becomes more and more agitated in describing the effect that “living with Harvey” has had on her nerves, Dr. Sanderson begins to suspect that Veta’s attempt to commit Elwood is just a cover-up for her own psychosis. He orders Veta restrained and apologizes to Elwood for what he now thinks is his blunder. The fact that Elwood really does claim to see Harvey is comically suspended, as his attempts to introduce the rabbit to the psychiatrist are continually interrupted.

When Elwood leaves, Kelly’s romantic interest in Dr. Sanderson begins to unravel. Elwood’s charm and polite attention to her contrast sharply with Sanderson’s professional aloofness. In retaliation, Kelly disavows any interest in Sanderson. When Dr. Chumley arrives and finds a hat...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most central device in Harvey is the use of mime to create the illusion of an invisible giant rabbit. There are a few instances of related mechanical effects, such as doors opening without any visible human agency, but for the most part the illusion must be carried by gestures and looks: a friendly arm around the rabbit’s waist, a wink at a shared private joke, endless attempts to introduce the giant pooka to acquaintances. This mime element is so crucial that amateur productions, of which there are hundreds each year, succeed or fail according to how well it is carried off. No matter how good the acting is, the production will fail if Harvey is not sufficiently realized through mime.

One of the ways in which Chase reinforces the effect of mime is with dialogue, and in turn, she reinforces the mime and dialogue with characterization. One example is the flirtatiousness of Dr. Chumley. At the end of act 2, scene 1, when he first meets Myrtle Mae, the stage direction instructs the actor to show a libidinous interest in her. Yet, in case the audience misses or misinterprets it, Wilson, shortly thereafter, makes a verbal reference to the effect of Myrtle’s attractiveness on Chumley.

Chase’s use of misdirection to focus suspenseful interest on a prop is used effectively with the large framed painting in act 2, scene 1. Myrtle Mae announces that she has an item that will prove conclusively that her uncle is crazy. When she returns with the painting, it is still wrapped in brown paper, so the audience cannot see what makes it so conclusive as evidence. She is distracted by the conversation and forgets about the painting, but leaves it in conspicuous view of the audience. Chase takes care to leave the room empty for a few beats after the family exits and Elwood enters, the mystery painting solely commanding attention. When Elwood sees it, he tears off the paper and a portrait of Elwood and a giant white rabbit appears—the unveiling all the more effective for the postponement.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Shock Therapy
Sigmund Freud, considered to be the father of modern psychiatry, became well-known to the American public during...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The scenes in this play alternate between the library of the Dowd mansion and the foyer of the sanitarium. These two...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1944: Most of the nations of the world have direct or indirect involvement in the Second World War, which has been going on in Europe...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Many of the recent breakthroughs in psychiatry have been in the use of drugs to help with mental conditions. Research one such...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The 1950 film of Harvey has become a classic of the American cinema, containing two great performances: James Stewart as Elwood P....

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Ken Kesey’s 1963 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also raises questions about whether the people running psychiatric...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Craig, Pat, ‘‘Onstage Has a Good Hare Day,’’ in Contra Costa Times, January 25, 2000, p. E04.


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Berger, Maurice Albert. Mary Coyle Chase, Her Battle Field of Illusion. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1970.

Kerr, Walter. God on the Gymnasium Floor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Miller, Jordan Y. American Dramatic Literature: Ten Modern Plays in Historical Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

Nathan, George Jean. The Theatre Book of the Year, 1944-1945: A Record and Interpretation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.

Reef, Wallis M. “She Didn’t Write It for Money, She...

(The entire section is 110 words.)