About the Playwright: Mary Chase

Posted on: May 15th, 2012 by Education @ Roundabout

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.

Mary Chase

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.

'Me Third' Poster; Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries

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.

Original Playbill for the 1948 Broadway production of 'Harvey'

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.

Poster for the 1950 film of 'Harvey' starring James Stewart

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.

Related Categories:
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Harvey, Upstage

  1. Peter Quinn

    May 21, 2012

    Saw HARVEY last nite …Wonderful evening of theater …Hard to believe it just started previewing a few days ago…Standing ovations directed at all involved…

  2. Bobbi Mendel

    May 27, 2012

    HARVEY was absolutely delightful. Jessica Hecht (Veta Louise) and Tracee Chimo (Myrtle Mae) jump start the show with the their fantastic energy and the rest of the cast keep it moving matching their pacing. Jim Parsons (Elwood P. Dowd) and Harvey are calming, affable presences in the chaos.

    I hesitate to refer to Jim Parsons’ character of Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” but could not help thinking of Elwood as Sheldon at 39 when Elwood says,
    “Years ago my mother used to say to me, …’In this world, Elwood, you must be…oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

    Go see the show!

  3. love beauty magic

    June 6, 2012

    I loved this play so much I had a look at Chase’s astrological chart. Here’s what I found:

  4. Sandy Huddle

    June 11, 2012

    Harvey takes us back to the place of innocence, of trust and accepting people for exactly who they are. The character of Elwood P. Dowd is one that enjoys the company of all people and takes true joy in making a personal connection with every soul he meets. He is able to dismiss negativity and find optimism buried even in the strongest of pessimists. He does not judge others but wants desperately to understand the complexity of the human spirit. The themes are simple, yet complex and multi layered much like human nature itself. Another fine ensemble cast that moved the audience bringing us laughter, optimism and having us jumping to our feet for standing ovations for all! There is nothing quite like theatre – thank you Roundabout.

  5. Jill LaZare

    June 13, 2012

    It made me laugh. The show was originally written to bring laughter to those who had lost loved ones in WWII. Well I recently lost a beloved daughter three days shy of her 24th birthday. And true to its heritage, the play made me and my now family of four – laugh (Brooke, our fifth, was hopefully watching and laughing too?).

    Jim Parsons was a wonderful Mr. Dowd. The whole cast was a joy. It was a shame that it was raining so hard outside the theatre that we had to finally leave the stage door before Mr. Parsons appeared.

    Hoping to catch another performance of this great story and cast! Thanks for bringing laughter back to us.

  6. Phyllis Kirigin

    June 24, 2012

    Saw the show Saturday afternoon. Loved this adorable production. Harvey has always been one of my favorite plays. I have seen a few productions. I saw it with Joe E. Brown and at the Shaw Festival, a community theater production and, of course, the film. Jim Parson is right up there with the best. Loved the directors unique touches of whimsy. Kudos to an all-round delightful production!

  7. Joyce Giannini

    July 10, 2012

    Saw Harvey this past Saturday night on July 7th. I’ve always enjoyed the film with Jimmy Stewart so I was particularly excited about seeing the play revived with my favorite guy from The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons. He was fabulous! I knew he would totally fit the role, he’s an excellent character actor. It’s such a heartwarming, tender story of innocence yet an understanding of the human spirit, as it’s meant to be. The whole cast was just great! I also love the line (as the other comment quotes above) when Elwood quotes his mother referring to being smart or pleasant and Elwood recommends ‘pleasant’. . . . especially since we know what Sheldon’s response would be! Jim Parsons is such a fine actor, he really brings his characters alive! I hope it comes back next summer with the same cast, as I will see it again . . . and yet again!

  8. Steve Atchley

    August 6, 2012

    My finace and I saw Harvey on August 3rd. It was an absolutely wonderful experience and one we are so thrilled we had the chance to share. The entire cast was fantastic. The sets made really made me believe we were looking back into the 1940’s. Jim Parsons did a tremendous job of bringing Elwood (and Harvey) to life. He was so affable and charming that I couldn’t help but hope the others would come to see things his way. Thank you cast, Mr. Parsons and Roundabout Theater for a fantastic experience!

  9. “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I’m with.” « Observations Along the Road

    November 22, 2014

    […] pooka. That movie, in turn, was an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play from 1944 by Mary Chase (yes, there was a day when stories moved from the stage to the screen, not vice-versa) called […]



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