The Play

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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 left behind from Elwood’s visit, he notices two holes cut in the hat—just the right size and position to accommodate rabbit ears. He concludes that Elwood is the madman after all and berates Sanderson for misdiagnosing Veta. In an emotional reaction, and in fear of possible lawsuits, he fires Sanderson.

Act 2 returns the action to Elwood’s home, where Myrtle Mae is conferring with Judge Gaffney in the attempt to have Elwood declared insane. The popularity of Elwood in the community and his own personal affection for the man make the judge reluctant to commit Elwood to an institution. Suddenly Veta appears at the door, disheveled from her ordeal with the psychiatrists. Dr. Chumley arrives, with his strong-arm orderly Wilson, looking for Elwood. While Veta threatens to sue Dr. Chumley, Wilson flirts with Myrtle Mae. When everyone leaves the room on various errands, Elwood arrives and replaces the portrait of his mother, the focal point of the room, with one of himself and a giant rabbit—obviously Harvey. Elwood leaves and Veta returns. When she notices the painting, she knows Elwood has been there.

The scene returns to Chumley’s Rest, four hours later. Dr. Sanderson is packing to leave; Kelly attempts to express her true feelings about him, but Sanderson’s brusqueness makes it impossible. When Elwood arrives, it is clear that Wilson thinks he has harmed Dr. Chumley, but Elwood says that the psychiatrist is with Harvey. When Chumley appears in act 3, he asks for a private meeting with Elwood. When the two are alone, Chumley reveals that he, too, now sees Harvey, and sees Elwood as a true visionary rather than a crackpot. He is selfish enough, however, to pretend to agree with Dr. Sanderson’s diagnosis, tricking Elwood into taking a serum that will “cure” him from the “hallucination” of seeing the giant rabbit. By doing so, Chumley hopes to “keep” Harvey for himself. Elwood agrees to the injection to please Veta, but at the last moment Veta realizes...

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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that making Elwood “normal” will erase his finest qualities: affability, generosity, magnanimity. When it comes down to it, she realizes that she will miss Harvey. Veta and Myrtle Mae, now reconciled to living with an eccentric uncle and a six-foot rabbit, leave to go home. Elwood follows, and the door to Chumley’s office opens, presumably to accommodate Harvey. Elwood puts his arm around the invisible rabbit and the two exit together.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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Shock Therapy
Sigmund Freud, considered to be the father of modern psychiatry, became well-known to the American public during the 1920s. His fame started when intellectuals, who heard about the research he was doing in Europe, began undergoing psychoanalysis themselves. From their writings and their life stories, the general populace became familiar with Freud’s ideas about the subconscious, an idea that would have perplexed people of earlier centuries, when eccentric behavior was treated as harshly as criminal behavior. Freud’s work became familiar, but it was also considered something of a luxury, a hobby that the wealthy could afford to indulge in. In the more extreme cases of mental disorder, science hurried past trying to understand patients and went right for effective treatment of behavior. For severe depression in particular, this meant ‘‘shock treatment’’ (referred to today as ‘‘Electroconvulsive Therapy,’’ or ‘‘ECT’’). ECT proved to have quicker and more certain effects than psychotherapy. It has been controversial since its inception in the 1930s: its supporters claim that ECT offers relief for patients who suffer from emotional instability, while opponents point to side effects—deadening of the personality and weakening of the memory. During the 1950s, psychiatry turned to anti-psychotic drugs to help patients cope with delusions, but these too have proven to have negative effects after long-term use. In recent years, a more controlled form of ECT is used in conjunction with drug therapy, showing positive effects with few of the negative ones.

Small Town America
In the 1940s, American culture experienced a notably large population shift away from small towns and toward big cities. This sort of shift had happened before, most notably during the Industrial Revolution of the 1870s and the economic boom of the 1920s, when descendants of farmers were drawn to big cities by wealth. During tight economic times, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was no more attraction to moving to cities than there was to staying put. When America entered World War II in 1941, a need for large quantities of manufactured goods arose, and there was a labor shortage because much of the work force was in the armed service. Large cities drew workers again.

This sort of shifting population is what creates the impersonal attitude that is associated with large urban areas. The small town where Elwood P. Down lives in Harvey is large enough to support all of the businesses that he mentions (Charlie’s, Blondie’s Chicken Inn, Bennie’s Drive-In, and so on, not to mention two cab companies and a sanitarium), but it is small and stable enough for a colorful local character to be accepted as part of the scenery. Dowd and his family live off of the accomplishments of a past generation—their mother arrived in an ox team and was one of the town’s founders. Audiences feeling the pressures of urban growth in 1944 could be nostalgic about a slower pace, where eccentrics could peacefully while their time away in the dusty library of an old Victorian mansion.

World War II
This play was produced at a time when the Second World War had the nation’s attention every day. The war had been going on for several years, and the Allies, led by American troops, were starting to win victories. Germany was being assaulted with bombing raids. D-Day, the huge assault by American and British troops to chase the Axis troops out of France, took place on June 6th of that year. This push went through the summer of 1944, with Paris finally liberated from the Germans. The first signs of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became apparent when the Allies entered Maidauck, a concentration camp in Poland, and found gas chambers and crematoriums that were responsible for taking one and a half million lives. Harvey opened on Broadway on November 1st of that year.

Popular entertainment served as a distraction from the terrors of the war. Some plays and films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, worked the war into their plots, but since the outcome was far from determined, most works steered away from the subject, offering audiences lighter, happier fare. Romantic comedies such as those starring Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne were popular on Broadway, while movies favored comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace and suspense stories like Double Indemnity. Harvey is a good representative of the type of escapist plays produced during World War II as a diversion from news of the war.

Literary Style

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The scenes in this play alternate between the library of the Dowd mansion and the foyer of the sanitarium. These two settings help to accentuate the different possible ways of looking at Elwood P. Dowd’s eccentricities.

Within his home environment, Dowd’s behavior almost makes sense. The big, ornate mansion with relics of an earlier time, which the set direction describes as ‘‘faded grandeur,’’ gives readers an understanding of his personality even before Dowd arrives. He is a throwback, courtly and generous, with all of his real human relations behind him. In many ways the charade of Veta and Myrtle hosting the Wednesday Forum is as delusional as his association with an invisible rabbit. The way that the ladies scurry out of the society tea when Dowd starts introducing Harvey around, which is odd but not really offensive, is a hint at how distant a dream it is to hope that Myrtle will be accepted into society. The Dowd mansion setting is appropriate to Dowds, but not to others.

At the sanitarium, the mood is not as desperate for social acceptance, but is steeped in scientific objectivity. The actual events that go on there, though, are just as nonsensical at times. The seriousness of the hospital setting is contrasted most sharply in the end by Dr. Chumley, the leader of the institution, cowering in fear of a giant invisible rabbit.

Both sets are described by the script to include several doors. This allows for a chaotic mood, as characters continually enter and leave the stage. The flow of characters kept in constant motion is in keeping with the central question of stability and instability.

Thanks to this play, and the popularity of the subsequent movie adaptation of it, the giant white rabbit has come to represent child-like imagination in American culture. Characters, usually ghosts, that are only seen by select characters almost always symbolize something in literature, such as suppressed guilt or fear or longing. The end of the second scene of Act II of Harvey goes to great lengths to eliminate possible ideas that the large rabbit might symbolize to Elwood P. Dowd. It is not a substitute for his father or for a lost childhood friend. The author, Mary Chase, makes sure to show readers that Harvey is not a desperate substitute for something that is missing in Dowd’s life. Instead, he functions as the response of a quiet, polite middleaged man who has always lived at home to the great crimes and accomplishments of others. This makes sense in terms of what Harvey actually is. Rabbits are not thought of as violent or aggressive creatures, and his size, as Dowd explains to Kelly, is a match for anything that others bring into bars with them, ‘‘bigger and grander than anything they offer me.’’

Harvey is somewhat of a childish idea because, as the oil painting of him shows, Dowd sees him wearing a collar and tie: he is not so much like a real rabbit as a cartoon or puppet, which, again, is more symbolic of imagination than of neurosis.

This play has a false climax and then an even grander climactic moment. At first, it seems that the play has reached its highest point when Elwood Dowd agrees to accept the injection that will make him stop seeing Harvey. The whole play, after all, is focused on their relationship, and his willing participation in shock therapy signals the end of that. The entrance of the cab driver, E. J. Lofgren, seems almost inconsequential at first, because audiences have their attention directed toward what is happening to Dowd.

As it turns out, though, the climactic choice made in Harvey is not Dowd’s after all, but Veta’s. It becomes clear after she stops the injection that this has not been a play about whether Elwood P. Dowd would change, but whether the people in his family would accept him as he is. Looking at it this way, all of the elements lead toward the climax, with the characters in the play divided between those sympathetic ones like Judge Gaffney and Nurse Kelly, who appreciate Dowd and accept his delusion, and those like Myrtle and Wilson, who feel that something must be done about him.

Compare and Contrast

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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 for five years.

Today: The nations of the world sometimes become involved in smaller conflicts by contributing peacekeeping forces to group efforts by the United Nations or NATO, but, especially in the United States, war is not the central concern of many.

1944: Excessive drinking is viewed as a harmless pastime that is frowned upon by prudes.

Today: Alcoholism is recognized as a serious, chronic disease.

1944: People fear that the use of drugs to control psychological abnormalities will leave patients as zombies, void of personality.

Today: Even though the use of drug therapy is more widespread than ever before, people still fear that psychologists will prescribe psychoactive drugs unnecessarily.

1944: People receive their daily news from newspapers and the radio. Once a week, they may be able to see film of important events in the newsreels that run at theaters along with movies.

Today: Global link-ups allow instantaneous television broadcasts from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world.

1944: The National System of Interstate Highways is established by an act of Congress, making it possible to travel across the country quickly by automobile.

Today: Because of the pollution associated with burning fossil fuels, government regulations try to discourage automobile use and encourage the use of public transportation.

1944: Most telephone calls are placed by talking to an operator and telling her who you were trying to reach.

Today: Many telephone calls involve picking options off of a service menu, with no contact to a live person ever being made.

Media Adaptations

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The 1950 film of Harvey has become a classic of the American cinema, containing two great performances: James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, and Josephine Hull, who played Veta on Broadway and won an Academy Award for her performance as Veta in the film. The screenplay, by Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney, was directed by Henry Koster. Available from MCA/Universal Home Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. 163–86.

Kronenberger, Louis, Review of Harvey in PM, November 2, 1944.

Levin, Harry, Playboys [and] Killjoys, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 19.

Mr. Showbiz, moviereviews/movies/Harvey_1950.html (May 24, 2000).

Phelan, Kappo, ‘‘The Stage and the Screen,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 41, No. 5, November 17, 1944, p. 123.

Rhodes, Russell, in Rob Wagner’s Script, Vol. 30, No. 694, December 16, 1944, p. 24.

Richards, Stanley, The Most Popular Plays of the American Theatre: Ten of Broadway’s Longest Running Plays, Stein [and] Day, 1979, p. 226.

Toohey, John L., A History of the Pulitzer Prize Plays, The Citadel Press, 1967, pp. 199–200.

Further Reading
Erikson, Erik H., Toys and Reason: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience, W. W. Norton [and] Co., 1977. Erikson, a world-renown psychiatrist, looks at the importance of play to the psyche. His thesis that play is a way of buffering the contact of the self with the reality of the social world might explain Elwood P. Dowd’s behavior.

Frommer, Myrna Katz, and Harvey Frommer, It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way, Harcourt Brace, 1998. The history of the Broadway stage at the height of its greatness is told by actors, authors, producers, and others who have worked there.

Shipley, Joseph T., The Crown Guide to the World’s Best Plays, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1986, . A brief overview (pp. 141–2) of how Harvey was received when it was first produced and of its cultural significance, along with a list of revivals through the 1980s.

Simon, Neil, Rewrites, Touchstone Books, 1998. More than any other contemporary playwright, Simon comes close to capturing the humorous spirit of Chase’s writing. In his acclaimed autobiography he relates some of the background that is involved in mounting a comedy on Broadway.


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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 Says.” In More Post Biographies, edited by John E. Drewry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1947.

Sievers, W. David. Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama. New York: Hermitage House, 1955.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide