On March 2, 1970, beloved actress Helen Hayes appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to plug the revival of the play Harvey in which she and actor Jimmy Stewart were starring on Broadway. The play had been introduced in 1944, enjoyed a record run, and had gone on to become the iconic and highly successful 1950 film in which Mr. Stewart also starred and of which snippets can still be regularly seen in more recent films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Field of Dreams, on television shows like The Simpsons, and now on YouTube.
During the interview Ms. Hayes mentioned that Harvey was a fantasy. Said Ms. Hayes to Mr. Carson: “I believe going to see Harvey is more effective in getting children off marijuana than are the police. If you get your own sweet illusion and hold it to your heart,” she said, “you don’t need outside help.”
Mrs. Chase wrote fourteen plays, three screenplays and two children’s books and in all of her works emphasized the need for imagination to counter the obstacles and fears we all face in the world as a means of remaining sane. A fierce proponent of children’s theater, the playwright Mary Coyle Chase espoused her views from Denver, Colorado where she lived all her life.
Harvey is the story of an imaginary six foot one-half inch rabbit and his slightly tipsy middle-aged companion, Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood’s sister wants to put him away in a sanitarium so that she can get on with her life. The irony is that her sanity becomes a question. Said a critic of the time during which Harvey was produced, “(Harvey is) as much a satire of the world we have made as it is a defense of those who prefer madness to what by mere popular vote has come to be accepted as sanity.”
Mrs. Chase was well aware of the interest in mental health during the time that Harvey was written in the early 1940’s. Sigmund Freud had recently become of interest and thus there was a focus on psychiatry. Harvey is taken to Chumley’s Rest where treatments of hydrotherapy and a shot called Formula 977 similar to the notion of a lobotomy are considered.
Mary Chase herself struggled with the balance between illusion and reality. She had grown up hearing Irish folk tales full of fantasy and had found solace in hearing them. She would continue to offer imagination as a panacea for all the world’s ills. She dwelled on creating scenarios in which laughter, love and beauty would result.
Perhaps as we deal with the opioid crisis today, we should suggest that in all the rehabilitation centers the residents “Watch Harvey.”
Mimi Pockross is currently writing a book about Mary Coyle Chase and Harvey and lives in Denver, Colorado.