Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
Mary McDonough Coyle Chase was known primarily for three delicate fantasies written in the post-World War II era. Although peopled by eccentric characters, Chase’s plays are comic, humane, and filled with an optimistic spirit of goodwill. Chase was the daughter of working-class parents: her mother, Mary McDonough, immigrated from Ulster County, Ireland to keep house for her four brothers. Chase’s father, Frank Coyle, drifted into Denver, failing to have made his fortune in an Oklahoma land grab. After marrying, he worked as a salesman for a flour mill. Chase inherited both her work ethic and her sense of fun and whimsy from her family.
During childhood, Chase listened wide-eyed to tales of Irish folklore told by her mother and her Uncle Timothy. Although a self-admitted tomboy, Chase was also a book lover. She was heard to joke that, in school, she had the highest grades for study and the lowest grades for conduct. Her interest in theater began at age eleven when she would skip school to walk five miles to attend a matinee. After graduating from high school at age fifteen, Chase attended the University of Denver for two and a half years before transferring to the University of Colorado. On summer vacations, she worked as an apprentice reporter for The Rocky Mountain News. After a year at Colorado, she took a paying job with the newspaper, where she wrote society columns, club notes, and human-interest stories, managing to be fired and rehired three times, before she married Robert Chase, who was to become managing editor of The Rocky Mountain News.
Chase’s newspaper work was an internship for her later career as a playwright. As society reporter, she had a unique opportunity to observe and comment on social structures, conventions, and personalities which she would later satirize in her plays. As a human-interest writer (“sob-sister”), she learned to overwrite and manipulate her reading audience into tears or laughter.
Chase’s first play Me, Third, a political satire, was produced in Denver as a Federal Theatre Project. Seen by Broadway producer Brock Pemberton, who brought it to New York in 1937, the play opened as Now I’ve Done It, but was not successful; however, Chase took the disappointment as a learning experience and continued to write. Her Sorority House became a film, but A Slip of a Girl was another disappointment. Still, optimism and perseverance were native to Chase’s character, and she was willing to provide one rewrite after another to improve her efforts.
Usually writing at night while her three children were sleeping and her husband at work, Chase wanted to write a play that could make Americans, depressed by war years and loss of loved ones, laugh again. After numerous rewrites, Chase’s second New York production, Harvey, opened November 1, 1944, even though producer Brock Pemberton was advised against undertaking a script about a genial tippler and his best friend, an Irish pooka who appears as a giant white rabbit. While strong on humor and fantasy, the play lacked substance. Still, audiences and critics were charmed, and the production lasted for 1,175 performances. At age thirty-seven, Mary Coyle Chase became an overnight sensation. Harvey was chosen as one of the ten best plays of the 1944-1945 season and won the Pulitzer Prize for that year. Chase’s mixture of Irish legends, her newspaper experiences, and a homey philosophy of acceptance did make war-saddened Americans laugh again. It was made into a motion picture in 1950. The popularity of the story remained unchanged, and the film earned James Stewart his fourth Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. The play has become a staple of high school, college, community, and repertory theaters around the world because of its earnest conviction that people are good at heart.
There seem to be times when theater audiences want fantasy and escapist fare, and Harvey appeared at just such a time. Chase’s next effort, The Next Half Hour, opened and closed quickly in 1945. Based in Irish folklore, the tragic irony in the play did not bring the sort of entertainment her audiences expected. Chase then decided to write a play to bring children between the ages of seven and fourteen into the theater and began work on Mrs. McThing. The American National Theatre and Academy decided to give the play a two-week, limited run as a worthwhile, but noncommercial, vehicle. The public, however, embraced the play, and it ran past the season’s end and was runner-up for the Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year (1952). Critics said that seldom was so little expected of so much. The public was, once again, ready for fantasy, and the script has remained a favorite play of children’s theaters, high school, college, and community groups. That same year, Bernardine opened in New York and enjoyed a respectable run. Using a group of teenage boys, Chase’s formula of reality vs. fantasy plus her usual themes of toleration and acceptance were interwoven in the script. Made into a film in 1957, this script was more easily outdated than her others. Chase’s last Broadway effort, Midgie Purvis, opened in 1961 and closed after twenty-one performances.
When Chase died in 1981, she had created six scripts produced on Broadway: Three of them were successes, an enviable record for any playwright. If, however, she had written only Harvey, her place in American theater would still have been assured as author of one of the most popular comedies of all times. Chase infused her plays with optimism, positivism, sweetness, and both genial and gentle humor and the triumph of the human spirit.
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