Mary Coyle Chase Critical Essays

Mary Chase


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 1493 words.)