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Mary Coyle Chase: Writing for the Human Spirit

From Insights, 2002
By Marlo M. Ihler

 

Mary Coyle Chase was born February 25, 1907, in Denver, Colorado. Her parents, Frank Bernard and Mary McDonough Coyle, came to the United States from Ireland, whose legends and folklore would later play a part in Mary's writings. At the age of fifteen, she graduated from West High School (Denver) and attended both the University of Denver and the University of Colorado (Boulder). When she was eighteen, she became a newspaper reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, Denver's oldest newspaper, and in 1928 she married fellow reporter, Robert L. Chase. She left the newspaper in 1931 to raise three sons and to work as a freelance writer. Throughout the rest of her life she wrote numerous children's books, short stories, newspaper articles and plays. Harvey was by far her most successful work. She died in 1981 at the age of 74.

Chase's first plays brought her marginal success. Me, Third was produced by a Works Project Administration (WPA) theatre in Denver and was later produced on Broadway, renamed Now You've Done It. Her next play, Sorority House, was the most autobiographical of her plays. It played in Denver and was later made into a movie in 1939. Too Much Business, a children's play, premiered in 1940 while A Slip of a Girl, a short comedy, was written and performed for army camps around the Denver area.

In 1942 she began working on Harvey, a play about a friendly inebriate named Elwood P. Dowd and his invisible companion, a six-foot one-and-a-half inch white rabbit. Its inspiration came from two experiences in her life. The first was a dream she had about a psychiatrist being chased by a giant white rabbit. It reminded her of stories her Irish uncles had told about pookas, "mischievous goblins or spectors . . . in Irish folklore [who] appear only to those who believe" in them (Penrose Library Special Collections, www.penlib.du.edu/specoll/Chase/Chasebio.html).

The second inspiration came when one day she took notice of her widowed neighbor who had lost her only son in war just two months earlier. In reflection Chase asked herself: "Would I ever possibly write anything that might make this woman laugh again?" (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 228. Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, p. 44). Hoping to bring laughter and respite to war-torn America, she set to work.
The play took Chase two years to write, during which time she also wrote a weekly radio program for the Teamster's Union. She would write in the evenings after her children were in bed and her husband had gone to work. Harvey was rewritten over fifty times and was finally submitted to New York producer Brock Pemberton who accepted it immediately. It opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 1944 and ran for four and a half years at the 48th Street Theatre. It played for a total of 1,755 performances, making it one of the longest running shows in Broadway history.

Critic Louis Nichols was pleasantly surprised by Harvey, calling it "one of the delights of the season" (New York Times, 11 Nov. 1944). Other reviewers attributed its overwhelming success to "its escapist theme [that] appealed to audiences trying to take leave of the harsh realities of the world . . . during World War II" (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 228. Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, p. 45). Following its success on Broadway, Chase received the Pulitzer Prize for Harvey as the best drama of the 1944-45 season. It also grabbed Hollywood's attention. A 1947 New York Times article reported that Universal-International purchased the play with intent of making it a movie for $1 million, more than any previously purchased play or book. In 1950 the movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull was also a great success, the latter receiving an Oscar for her performance.

Chase continued to write, but nothing brought the kind of recognition and success that Harvey had. Between 1952 and 1974, she wrote seven more plays and nine books, most of which she used as the basis for her plays. Her works were usually a satirical view of current American life. Her play Bernadine (1952) ran for 157 performances on Broadway and was later made into a movie by 20th Century-Fox. Midgie Purvis, a work based on a character from another of her plays, premiered in 1961 but received negative reviews and was her last play produced on Broadway.

She decided at this point to refocus her writing efforts. She wanted to develop meaningful theatre for children that would in turn help create future audience members. In addition, she had no desire to write for audiences that could hurt her like those she had encountered in the past. She retreated to writing literature and plays solely for children. Mrs. McThing (1952) was the first American play written for children to be produced successfully on Broadway. Her children's novel, The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden (1968), earned her a nomination for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award for children's literature (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 228. Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, p. 48, 51). In recent years she has received posthumous recognition for her literary contributions and been inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame and the Colorado Performing Arts Hall of Fame. Her manuscripts, personal correspondence, and play revisions are archived at the University of Denver's Penrose Library and the Library of Special Collections at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

Chase believed in writing for the human spirit and her audience and in making people laugh. She endeared herself to the American public, despite often poor reviews by critics. Her philosophy of life was one that Elwood P. Dowd reiterates in Harvey: "My mother used to say to me 'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.' For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant" (Dramatists Play Service, Inc. Harvey, Act 3, p. 64).


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