Harvey, the invisible rabbit at the center of Mary Chase’s Harvey, is a pooka from Celtic mythology, plopped into the middle of an American family’s struggle to fit into society. Chase, like many first-generation Americans, wove the folklore of her family’s homeland into tales set in her own time and place.
Mary Coyle Chase was born on February 25, 1906, in Denver, Colorado. Her mother, Mary McDonough, emigrated from Londenderry, Ireland at the age of sixteen, following four older brothers to Colorado’s gold rush. McDonough later married Frank Coyle. Chase was the last of their four children, born nine years after her nearest sibling. The Coyle family was poor but stable, making a life in the working class, immigrant neighborhoods of Denver.
Chase’s childhood world revolved around the fairies, pookas, and spirits of Irish folktales told by her mother and uncles. Celtic legend also influenced young Chase’s understanding of mental illness. She quoted her mother as saying, “Never be unkind or indifferent to a person others say is crazy. Often they have deep wisdom. We pay them great respect in the old country, and we call them fairy people, and it could be they are sometimes.”
In the years before television or radio, theatre-going was a popular and more affordable past time. Denver, a city of about 250,000 during Chase’s childhood, supported seven major theaters. Chase’s first theatrical experience was a production of Macbeth at the Denham Theatre. From then on, she regularly skipped school to see plays.
Chase graduated from West High School in 1921, at the age of fifteen. She enrolled at the University of Denver and later transferred to the University of Colorado, but left without graduating after a summer job writing for the Denver Times turned into full time work. Chase was just seventeen. She was first assigned to the society pages, but worked her way up to writing features and captions for a flapper-era comic strip, “Charlie and Mary.”
Chase was a determined reporter who let nothing stand in the way of getting the story. She hitched rides on the sides of trucks, rode the back of her photographer’s motorcycle, and sometimes dressed as a man to get the scoop. In 1928, she wooed and married fellow reporter Robert Chase. In 1931, she left the newspaper to raise a family and pursue freelance writing projects.
Chase gave birth to three sons between 1932 and 1937. By her own account, her family life was fulfilling and her husband deeply supportive of her writing work.
In 1936, Chase’s first full-length play, Me, Third, was produced in Works Progress Administration theaters across the west, to rave reviews. The 1937 Broadway transfer, retitled Now You’ve Done It, flopped, but established Chase’s relationship with producer Brock Pemberton and producer-director Antoinette Perry.
In the late 1930s and into the early years of WWII, Chase wrote several plays that were staged in the Denver area and one that RKO Pictures turned into the successful film Sorority House. Chase was inspired to write Harvey during the war. She described the genesis of the play in her final interview:
“As I was leaving home every morning at 8:15 with my boys, a woman would emerge from the door of the apartment house and go in the opposite direction, to the bus to go downtown to work…I didn’t know the woman, but I heard that she was a widow with one son who was…a bombardier in the Pacific. One day, I heard that her son was lost. Things like that were happening to so many people then, that wasn’t what jolted me so much as the fact that in a week or 10 days, I saw the woman leaving the apartment house, going a little more slowly, to catch the bus to go back to her old job. I couldn’t endure it. She began to haunt me. And the question began to haunt me. Could I ever think of anything to make that woman laugh again?”
Chase thought about the woman day and night, working through idea after idea for a new script. Then, early one morning, she had a vision of a psychiatrist walking across her bedroom floor, pursued by a large white rabbit. Harvey was born.
Once the script (originally titled The Pooka, a nod to Harvey's roots in Celtic folklore) was complete, Chase contacted Pemberton and Perry, who immediately agreed to produce it. The play opened on November 1, 1944, directed by Perry and starring Frank Fay and Josephine Hull. It was an instant sensation. War-weary audiences, many of whom had lost someone on the front, laughed with abandon again.
Chase later recalled overhearing an audience member remark that it was the first time his mother had laughed “since Joe was killed." A that moment, Chase knew she had succeeded. Additionally, the play was presented on the fronts during the closing months of WWII.
Mary Coyle Chase won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945 for Harvey. She was the fourth woman, and remains the only Coloradoan, to do so.
The success of Harvey left Chase financially well-off for the first time in her life. The play ran on Broadway for five years, and in 1950 Universal Studios paid Chase one million dollars for the screenplay. The strain of Chase’s sudden fame and financial success proved difficult for her. She increasingly turned to drinking, and realized that she struggled with alcoholism. In 1955, she founded House of Hope in Denver, a non-profit that provided support to women with alcoholism.
Chase's subsequent three plays, The Next Half Hour (1945), Bernadine (1952), and the children's play Mrs. McThing (1954), opened on Broadway with some success, but nothing came close to Harvey. In 1961, Chase’s play Midgie Purvis, starring Tallulah Bankhead, flopped on Broadway, but a 1970 revival of Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes ran for 79 performances. Chase wrote numerous children’s stories during this time.
In 1981, after years of urging, Chase allowed Harvey to be adapted into a musical, titled Say Hello to Harvey. Chase flew to Toronto for the process. Critical response was negative, and the show closed after six weeks. Chase returned to Denver, where she suffered a heart attack in her home and died on October 20, 1981. She was survived by her husband, three sons, and eleven grandchildren.
Harvey plays at Studio 54 through August 5, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Harvey, Upstage