By Elaine Pilkington
Opening on November 1, 1944, Harvey ran for 1,775 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for the best drama of the 1944-45 season (Kathleen M. Gough, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series [The Gale Group, 2000], http:www.galenet.com/servlet/LitRC). What accounts for the initial critical acceptance, worldwide popularity, and lasting success of this seemingly simple tale written by a Denver newspaper reporter and freelance correspondent? Is it the escapism, the farce, or the fantasy? Or is it the deeper perceptions and human truths the play reveals that make it as enjoyable for today’s audiences as it was for a country fighting a world war?
Mary Chase, the daughter of working class American Irish parents, “said that the idea for Harvey came . . . in 1942 [when she] . . . saw a neighbor, a middle-aged woman, walking slowly toward the bus stop. As she told Eleanor Harris in 1954, ‘She was a widow who had worked for years to send her only son through college. The day I looked at her, her boy had been dead about two months, killed in action in the Pacific. I asked myself . . . could I ever possibly write anything that might make this woman laugh again?’” (Gough).
The first production of Harvey warmed a war-wearied country and made it laugh again. Reviewers raved about the play. Joseph Wood Krutch wrote, “The whole play bubbles with sheer—as well as astonishingly unhackneyed—fun” (The Nation, November 18, 1944, p. 624); Lewis Nichols praised “its warm and gentle humor” (The New York Times, Section 2, November 12, 1944, p. 1); and Newsweek called it “one of the funniest comedies that has been Broadway’s luck in a long time” (“Harvey the Rabbit,” November 13, 1944, pp.82 3).
Harvey created an almost serene world in which the greatest problem was the embarrassment Elwood P. Dowd causes his society-conscious sister Veta and her man-hungry daughter when he introduces everyone he meets to his beloved friend Harvey, an invisible six-foot one-and-a-half-inch pooka in the form of a rabbit. When Veta tries to commit Elwood to the Chumley’s Rest sanitarium to be rid of Harvey forever, Dr. Sanderson doubts her sanity, and she unwillingly becomes a patient herself. The laughs caused by this case of mistaken insanity have entertained audiences for years and might be sufficient in themselves to explain the play’s continued popularity, but the almost magical relationship of Harvey and Elwood is the true center of the play.
Initially, it seems that Harvey is merely a figment of Elwood’s imagination or an alcohol-induced hallucination, but Veta’s statement that this situation is not Elwood’s fault, that she knows who is to blame, and her question to Myrtle Mae, “Is Harvey with him?” prepare us for her admission that she too has seen Harvey (Mary Chase, Harvey [New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1971], 9). Still it is easy to question his existence until he “speaks” to Wilson, an orderly at the Chumley’s Rest sanitarium, as he is reading in the encyclopedia, “‘Pooka. From old Celtic mythology. A fairy spirit in animal form. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one at his own caprice. A wise but mischievous creature. Very fond of rum-pots, crack pots; and how are you, Mr. Wilson. How are you, Mr. Wilson? Who in the encyclopedia wants to know?” (33).
Later we “see” Harvey as doors open and close and locks turn for no other apparent reason. Dr. Chumley sees him as well, asking Elwood “And where on the face of this tired old earth did you find a thing like him?” (62), concluding that he has “been spending . . . [his] life among fly-specks while miracles have been leaning on lamp-posts” (59). Awed by Harvey’s ability to move in and out of time, he wonders if perhaps the pooka would give him two weeks under a maple tree in Akron with a beautiful woman who reaches out “a soft white hand,” strokes his head, and says nothing but, “‘Poor thing! Oh, you poor, poor thing!’” (63).
Elwood, on the other hand, has never been able to think of any place he would rather be. “I always have a wonderful time just where I am” (62). With Harvey, he has carved out an idyllic existence. Though still a member of the Country Club and the University Club, he has left behind the dances, horse shows, and notes on scented blue stationery from attractive women for Charlie’s Place, Eddie’s Bar, and the Pinochle Club at the Fourth Avenue Fire House. He and Harvey go to bars, have a drink or two, meet new people, talk to them, and warm themselves “in all these golden moments.” Having entered as strangers, they soon have friends who “tell about the big terrible things they have done. The big wonderful things they will do. Their hopes, their regrets, their loves, their hates. All very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar” (54).
Elwood celebrates the least occasion, invites strangers to dine at his home, and finds nothing bad in anyone. When Dr. Chumley urges him to righteous indignation by telling him Veta “had commitment papers drawn up. She’s got your power of attorney and the key to your safety box. She brought you out here—” Elwood responds only with admiration, “My sister did all that in one afternoon? Veta certainly is a whirlwind.” (64). Elwood objects to nothing, “I plan to leave. You want me to stay. An element of conflict in any discussion is a good thing. It means that everybody is taking part and nobody is left out. I like that” (61). He agrees to take the injection that will change him into a normal human being, making it so that he will no longer see Harvey, because Veta wants him to and he has always believed that Veta should have whatever she wants.
He sums up his lifestyle when he tells Dr. Chumley that his mother used to tell him, “‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant” (64). Elwood freely admits, “I wrestled with reality for forty years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it” (49). Elwood doesn’t deny reality; he simply prefers the fantasy world of Harvey where more possibilities for contentment exist than in the conventional routine of “a perfectly normal human being.” As the taxi driver says, “You know what bastards they are!” (69).
Elwood chooses to participate in an alternate version of reality, and by the end of the play, even Veta believes that the alternative is better. Harvey teaches audiences that we all have the power to choose happiness over sorrow, contentment over dissatisfaction, and pleasure over pain. Elwood chooses Harvey. Granted for the rest of us, the choice may not be offered; Harvey does not reveal himself to everyone, but if we should see him, shouldn’t we too participate in the fantasy?