Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1493
Mary Chase’s comedies are not only composed of fantasy: They are also about fantasy, its importance in refreshing the human spirit. In Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd is graced with visions of a giant white rabbit named Harvey, but in the end it is clear that other people—his sister Veta and psychiatrist Dr. Chumley—need Harvey more than Elwood does. Mrs. McThing presents two sets of fantasies: Mrs. Larue’s idealization of the well-behaved child she wishes her son Howay to be and Howay’s daydream of his ideal life of adventure. In Bernardine, the fantasy is the erotic wish-fulfillment of teenage boys in 1950’s America: The title character is the ideal woman created by a gang of boys.
In addition to fantasy, all three plays deal with the theme of respect for nonconformity. It might be more precise to say that in all three plays, a major character comes to realize that the only thing to which the supposed eccentric does not conform is other people’s expectations. In Harvey, Elwood drinks too much to suit his sister, who also wishes he would not rave about his giant rabbit friend. In Mrs. McThing, Mrs. Larue expects her son to behave like a “normal” boy who does as he is told, without realizing that her son’s behavior is normal and that her idealization is a fantasy. In Bernardine, the mother of an older child, this time a teenager, similarly expects her son to be her best friend and ridicules the gang with which he finds a more liberating self-identity.
An incident from Chase’s childhood may have inspired the character of Elwood P. Dowd, the protagonist of Harvey, and her mother’s admonishment supplied a major theme. Chase’s mother stopped a group of boys from throwing snowballs at an old woman. The playwright’s mother shooed away the hooligans and told her daughter never to be unkind to a person others say is crazy because “crazy” people often have a deep wisdom. That lesson stuck with young Mary, and she turned it into a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy. The audience’s sympathies in the comedy are tilted heavily in Elwood’s favor, and theatergoers half believe that the giant rabbit Elwood sees is real—especially when doors open and close when no one is on stage.
Chase has been accused of satirizing modern psychiatry in Harvey, but the actual target of the satire—if barbs as blunt and soft as hers can be called satire—is a tendency for twentieth century America to confuse respectability and conformity with sanity. Even if Elwood’s visions of a rabbit named Harvey are delusional (and the action of the play suggests they are not), the only thing threatened by the delusion is his sister’s social status. Virtually every character in the play except for Elwood exhibits a manic energy: his niece Myrtle, in her search for a husband; his sister, in her quest for acceptance in high society; the psychiatrists, in pursuit of acceptance of their theories (as well as what turns out to be a rather unhealthy desire to control people); and the strong-arm orderly, in his attempt to find a chance to turn his verbal threats into physical violence. In the midst of all this turmoil, Elwood’s calm suggests to the audience, subconsciously, even before the idea is corroborated by dialogue, that this supposed madman is the most rational character in the play.
However, the one irrational force that dominates the play is not fantasy but love—both in the romantic sense (though that is minor incident) and in the philosophical sense of self-giving. Elwood encourages young love wherever he finds it, particularly between the young psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly. His sister Veta, on the other hand, suspects the sanitarium staff of having designs on her person. Both Dr. Chumley and his orderly Wilson have a well-developed eye for the ladies. Finally, Elwood is very fond of his invisible companion, but he is willing to give up Harvey to please his sister Veta.
The fantasy in Mrs. McThing is effected in a way different from how it is brought about in Chase’s other plays, though it is most closely related perhaps to Harvey. Just as theatergoers are made to partake in Elwood’s delusion (if it is that) when they see doors open, presumably to accommodate a giant rabbit, in Mrs. McThing, they see everything from the point of the youngster Howay Larue. The ringleader of a crime mob seems to be at the top of the heap until his mother appears and slaps him for staying out late the night before. When the police search the gang for weapons, they discover only comic books, cereal, and bubble gum. The world of the play is the real world but seen through a child’s eyes, suggesting a further point about Chase’s fantasy: It is fantastic only if people hold certain presuppositions about the nature of reality, which Chase’s Celtic imagination does not automatically grant.
A more serious point to the fantasy, however, involves Howay’s mother. In the opening scene, she is amazed and delighted to find Howay behaving exactly as she always wanted: polite, obedient, and anticipating and fulfilling her every wish. However, the delight turns sour as she realizes that the “Howay” who seems to be her maternal wish-fulfillment is a hollow construct—in the language of the play, a “stick.” The fantasy logic of the play asserts that the real Howay has been replaced by a stick-Howay by the magic of a witch named Mrs. McThing. However, the magic is very realistic, because if a real little boy began to act out his mother’s image of how the ideal little boy should act, behaviorists would use the same sort of language: The boy, in acting out his mother’s needs rather than his own, becomes hollow, less real, a stick figure standing in for the “real” boy.
Part of the impossible ideal that Mrs. Larue wants to create for Howay is a matter of class—something that she has in common with Veta in Harvey and Mrs. Weldy in Bernardine. The cartoonish gangsters, like Wilson the orderly in Harvey or the teenage gang in Bernardine, are the supposedly undesirable element that the maternal figure—Mrs. Larue, Veta, and Mrs. Weldy—must learn to embrace or at least not to fear. To Howay, the gangsters represent the untidiness and avoidance of authority that is part of being a boy.
The teenage boys in Bernardine struggle in the same conflict as Howay in Mrs. McThing, though further along in the continuum. They, too, are pressured to conform to their mothers’ expectations, and their gang behavior is in a large part a reactionary refusal to do so, much like Howay’s idyll with gangsters. One minor character, Vernon Kinswood, represents the filial ideal of the only mother who appears in the play, Mrs. Ruth Weldy. Her son Buford, or “Wormy” as he is known to the gang, is pressured to be more like Kinswood, every mother’s dream. Instead he wants to be more like Beaumont, the leader of the gang, particularly when it comes to women. Yet Mrs. Weldy keeps her son on such a short leash that he feels he has no time for the rituals of courtship and so gains a reputation—both in the gang and among the girls of his high school—as a lecher.
The plot of Bernardine demonstrates a painful paradox about the nature of fantasy—that the more it becomes embodied in a real human being, the less real it becomes. Wormy’s friend Kinswood embodies the maternal ideal of Mrs. Weldy and her circle of friends. Yet when Kinswood rather sycophantically insinuates himself into adult conversation with the ladies, their delight wears off: His eagerness to please their parental expectations is too much for them to take. Similarly, for Wormy, Kinswood is merely tolerated as a cover. The more central fantasy, however, the adolescent male erotic dream that the boys call Bernardine, follows the same process of disillusionment on being embodied in Enid Lacy.
Wormy, tired of rejection by high school girls, vows to pick up an older, sophisticated woman in the lobby of the swankiest hotel in town. When the boys, who have come along to watch Wormy in his attempt, see the beautiful Enid, who so perfectly matches their made-up ideal, they instinctively proclaim her Bernardine. Yet when Wormy almost triumphs, getting into her hotel room, he discovers that the joy in a fantasy is precisely its unreality. Enid, who is going along with the pickup to feed her own fantasy, discovers the same lesson, underscored when she discovers that Wormy’s mother is one of her adult friends. Yet in exploring the limits of fantasy, Bernardine affirms the value of fantasy in helping people cope with the world.