Chase, Mary Coyle (1907–1981)
Chase, Mary Coyle (1907–1981)
American playwright, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for her comedy Harvey , one of Broadway's four longest running shows. Born Mary Coyle on February 25, 1907, in West Denver, Colorado; died of a heart attack on October 21, 1981, in Denver; daughter of Frank Coyle (a salesman for a flour mill) and Mary (McDonough) Coyle; attended West Denver High School, 1922, Denver University, 1929-23 (majored in classics), University of Colorado at Boulder, 1923-24; no degree; married Robert Lamont Chase (a newspaper reporter), June 7, 1928; children: Michael Lamont, Colin Robert, and Barry Jerome.
Worked as reporter for Rocky Mountain News (1924–31); was freelance correspondent, International News Service and United Press (1932–36); awarded Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Harvey (1945); awarded Honorary Doctor of Letters, Denver University (1947); named runner-up New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Mrs. McThing (1951–52); appointed to honorary committee of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA, 1981); during lifetime, worked for numerous social causes and was proudest of founding House of Hope, a home for women alcoholics in Denver; member of the Dramatists Guild, the board of trustees of the Bonfils Theater, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and the Christian Science Church; given an honorary life membership in the Women's Press Club of Denver.
Me Third, first produced in Denver, Colo. at the Federal Theater (1936), first produced in New York as Now You've Done It (1937); Too Much Business (one-act, Samuel French, 1940); A Slip of a Girl, first produced in Camp Hall, Colo. (1941); Harvey (three-act), first produced in New York at the 48th Street Theater, November 1, 1944, starring Frank Fay and Josephine Hull (Dramatists Play Service, 1950); The Next Half Hour (previously titled "The Banshee"), first produced in New York, October 29, 1945, starring Fay Bainter; Mrs. McThing (two-act), first produced by ANTA at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway in February 20, 1952, starring Helen Hayes and Brandon de Wilde (Oxford University Press, 1952, rev. ed., Dramatists Play Service, 1954); Bernardine (two-act), first produced at The Playhouse on Broadway on October 16, 1952, starring John
Kerr (Oxford University Press, 1953, rev. ed., Dramatists Play Service, 1954); Midgie Purvis (two-act), first produced on Broadway in 1961 (Dramatists Play Service, 1963); The Prize Play (Dramatists Play Service, 1961); The Dog Sitters (three-act, Dramatists Play Service, 1963); Mickey (two-act, based on her novel Loretta Mason Potts, Dramatists Play Service, 1963); Cocktails with Mimi (Dramatists Play Service, 1974).
Novels for children: (illustrated by Harold Berson) Loretta Mason Potts (Lippincott, 1958); (illus. by Don Bolognese) The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden (Knopf, 1968); also contributed to magazines.
It is only when I am writing that I feel really complete. When I am in one of my writing trances, I am cushioned against the sadnesses and griefs of the world.
One of the most famous and imaginative characters in dramatic literature is a rabbit. Not a garden-variety rabbit but a statuesque, 6′½″ rabbit, who walks erectly, talks intelligently, thinks whimsically, and is totally invisible to a great majority of people—but not all. This is the premise of Mary Chase's timeless comic fantasy that poses the question: Is Elwood P. Dowd demented because he insists that Harvey, known as a pooka in Celtic mythology, is his constant companion?
Chase's original and highly unorthodox play opened on November 1, 1944, at the 48th Street Theater and delighted Broadway audiences for the next five years. Since then it has been translated into numerous languages, has been produced throughout the world, and has kept audiences laughing. Yet according to John Toohey, when the play opened in New York, the author and her husband were so low on funds they had to borrow $300 from a Denver bank in order to attend. "Money has never been anything you made," Chase once said. "It has merely been something you owed." Happily, Harvey changed their lives. Or was it the luck of the Irish? Just before the tryout in Boston, Chase was certain the play would be a success because—as she later confided to Wallis Reef in a Saturday Evening Post interview—she had received three good omens:
A member of the cast gave me a two-dollar bill…. Then, a short time later, Josephine Hull gave me a four-leaf clover. Then, as I was walking to the theater on opening night in Boston, a huge truck drove slowly next to the curb. The driver turned his head and said casually, "Hello, Love." It wasn't an attempted pickup; he didn't even smile. I noticed he wore a dirty leather jacket and his face was solemn and well shaped under the grime, and his eyes were dark and thoughtful. He didn't stop, but drove on without another glance. Somehow, it seemed like a benediction.
Though born in West Denver, Colorado, on February 25, 1907, Mary Coyle was steeped in the Irish tradition, the folklore, and the search for the rainbow. At age 16, her mother Mary McDonough (Coyle) had immigrated from Ulster County, Ireland, to keep house for her four brothers, who were unsuccessfully swept up in the Colorado gold fever of the 1880s and '90s. While McDonough attended parochial school, she met her future husband Frank Coyle who had been just as swept up and just as unsuccessful in the Oklahoma land rush. After their marriage, Frank Coyle settled for a salesman's job with a flour mill.
When Mary was born, her circle of admirers included her parents, two brothers, an older sister, and four uncles. Irish folk and fairy tales were told as often as Irish politics were discussed and Irish folk songs sung. Mary heard the English language with an Irish lilt, fostering in her a fondness for rhythm, the poetic turn of phrase, and always the mysterious mystical fairy folk—the leprechauns and pookas.
She recalled a day when her mother chased away some youths as they tossed snowballs at an old woman who was attempting to navigate a slippery surface with her cane. Outraged, Mary McDonough Coyle cautioned her daughter, "Never be unkind or indifferent to a person others say is crazy. Often they have a deep wisdom. We pay them a great respect in the old country and we call them fairy people, and it could be, they are sometimes." In many of Chase's plays, there is a mysterious, magical and sometimes muddled character who is often the wisest: Mrs. McThing, Midgie Purvis, Elwood P. Dowd.
Another Chase theme might have germinated during another youthful incident: while shaking down a gum machine, her older brother was shot and wounded by a police officer. Though the officer was later discharged, Denver's Sunday paper carried the story and the damage to the family name was done. Under the guise of respectability, Mary was instantly ostracized. Perhaps this is why she relished exposing the hypocrisy and prejudices of so-called polite society.
Although her family was poor and her undergarments were often sewn from the mill's floursacks, Mary was rich in imagination and in her insatiable preoccupation with language and literature. By age eight, she had read A Tale of Two Cities; by ten, she was reading Thomas De Quincy and at fifteen she began Xenophon's Anabasis in Greek. From the moment she saw her first play—Shakespeare's Macbeth performed by the Denham Theater Stock Company—she was mesmerized by the theater. She would sometimes play hooky from school to walk the five miles to see a play at a Denver theater; she also devoured books on plays and playwriting. Despite her love of books, she was impatient with college. After studying the classics for two and a half years at Denver University, she transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder but never earned a degree.
By all accounts, Mary Chase was high-spirited, athletic, adventurous and fond of practical jokes, "which contrasted nicely with her Madonna appearance," wrote longtime friend Wallis Reef . She had "wide grey eyes, rich brown hair with hints of red in it, and a white, imperious face." But close friends claimed that although most anecdotes concerning Chase were amusing, she seldom smiled and her eyes contained a hint of melancholy.
While still at college, she talked the Rocky Mountain News into giving her a summer job and soon worked there full-time. Journalists were notorious for doing whatever was necessary to get the story, and Mary rapidly became known as an aggressive reporter. Once, on a particularly sensational socialite divorce story, the Rocky Mountain News wanted a photograph of the husband but requests to the family were turned down flat. Then Chase remembered seeing the gentleman's picture at the Denver Country Club. She jumped on a bus, strolled into the club, and removed the portrait from the wall. Racing out the front door with the manager in hot pursuit, Chase hailed a passing coal truck. "To the Rocky Mountain News—as fast as you can," she ordered. Either enchanted by her looks or stunned by the request, the driver delivered her to the newspaper's door, where she triumphantly handed the picture over to be copied. A few minutes later, the irate club manager arrived.
Like other newswomen of her era, Chase was restricted to covering society news and items for the women's page, but she longed to be a street reporter, she said, so she could "study people, meet life and later put it into plays. I wanted to see how people reacted under stress, how they spoke in times of crisis." Though she worked demanding hours, she also fought for human rights. She once walked with Chicano paper handlers who were striking for a raise, served them coffee and sandwiches, and persuaded the police not to break up the strike. (The strikers got their raise.) In 1928, she married Robert L. Chase, an admiring fellow reporter who would later become an associate editor. Three years later, Chase was consigned to freelance writing when a practical joke backfired, unfortunately on the city editor, and she was discharged from the Rocky Mountain News for her fourth and final time.
Her first play Me Third (about a Western politician whose campaign slogan was "God first, the People Second, Me Third") was finished about the time her third son arrived. Presented by Denver's Federal Theater as a WPA project and praised by Denver critics, it was purchased by New York City producer Brock Pemberton and renamed Now You've Done It. Though the New York offering of this rowdy political piece lasted less than two months and was a financial loss, Pemberton urged Chase to continue writing.
Chase is reputed to have had the ability to completely concentrate on the writing task at hand. After her children had gone to sleep and her husband had gone to his night shift at the newspaper, she would work on a miniature stage, manipulating characters by blocking empty thread spools. She also continued her involvement in social causes, forming a local chapter of the American Newspaper Guild and fighting for the rights of Denver's Spanish Americans who, says Reef:
had been getting kicked around. All this was done with a gaiety that astounded some of her dead-serious associates. She was likely to show up in a picket line wearing a fiftydollar hat, fantastic earrings, and a dress best described as slinky. The effect on employers was amazing. At one time, she was running a quiet and effective lobby for an oleomargarine concern and writing a weekly radio program for the Teamster's Union. The group of people whose activities seem to revolve about Mrs. Chase would, on a chart, be a sort of vertical section of Denver's social and economic life.
After two years of hard work, Chase completed the script of Harvey (earlier titles were "The White Rabbit" and "The Pooka"). Initially, the play's pooka—a Celtic spirit that takes animal form—was a canary before it became a man-sized rabbit, and the play's protagonist was a female before it became the amiable Elwood P. Dowd. Chase rewrote the play, tried it out on friends, rewrote the play, read it to her cleaning woman, rewrote the play 50 times before sending it on to New York. And, according to John Gassner, there were 18 more versions prior to its Broadway opening. Chase cautioned Pemberton, the play's producer:
It must be bold humor with a folk-lore quality to it. It must be the kind of production about which the audience will say later, "It's a play about a man who goes around with a 6-foot rabbit," rather then, "It's a play about a woman who tries to get her brother in a sanitarium."
In those days, previews were held on the road in places known as tryout towns, where writers would hole up in bleak hotel rooms frantically revising, rewriting, and repairing the flaws of the new script. It was a time of high stress, and under such duress Pemberton insisted that the audience needed to have a brief glimpse of the pooka. Chase was equally adamant that the mythological creature should be invisible; but the producer's wishes prevailed. In Boston, an anonymous actor in a $650 rubber rabbit suit pursued the director of Chumley's Rest (the sanitarium) at the end of Act II. The decision proved to be a disaster, ruining the effect of the play. From then on, Harvey the Pooka never appeared again to anyone—not even during the curtain call—except on the extraordinary stage of the imagination.
When the play opened in New York City, the critics were enthusiastic. Lewis Nichols in The New York Times found it a "delightful evening—one of the treats of the fall theater." Burton Rascoe in the World-Telegram couldn't recall another opening where he laughed "so hard and so continuously…. The whole fantasy is delicious, subtle, clever and very funny." John Chapman of the Daily News, thought it "the most delightful, droll, endearing, funny and touching piece of stage whimsy I ever saw." Time crowned it the funniest fantasy Broadway "has seen for years."
Though Harvey certainly provided an opportunity for a war-weary audience to escape, there was wisdom as well as whimsy. Consider the comments of the cab driver outside the sanitarium who compares his arriving fares with his departing fares, after they've had the miracle injection to make them "normal."
I've been drivin' this route fifteen years. I've brought 'em out here to get that stuff and drove 'em back after they had it. It changes 'em…. On the way out here they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me. Sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets and look at the birds flyin'. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain't no birds and look at the sunsets when it's rainin'. We have a swell time and I always get a big tip. But afterward…. They crab, crab, crab. They yell at me to watch the lights, watch the brakes, watch the intersection. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith—in me or my buggy—yet it's the same cab—the same driver—and we're goin' back over the very same road. It's no fun—and no tips.
Unaware of Harvey's impending success, Chase returned to Denver the day after the opening to catch up on her house cleaning. "From then on, the telephone never stopped ringing," she said. Three years later, when her husband tracked her down in a local movie house to tell her Harvey had won the Pulitzer Prize for 1947, she screamed so loud that she nearly started a panic in the theater. But success had its downside, noted Chase in an interview in Cosmopolitan:
Any precipitous change is a terrible shock in itself, whether you lose all your money or make a fortune. But nobody seems to realize this. If you lose everything overnight, everyone gives you sympathy. But if you make a great deal of money, no one sympathizes or even seems to understand what a shattering thing has happened to you. I became deeply unhappy, and suspicious of everyone. A poison took possession of me, a kind of soul sickness.
Harvey was also produced in London and was revived in New York in 1970. When it was made into a film in 1962 starring James Stewart, Universal-International paid $1 million for script rights, a then unheard of sum. A decade later, Harvey had been translated into many languages and was a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" television broadcast.
Her following play, The Next Half Hour, was about a banshee, the Irish spirit who allegedly warns families about the impending death of a relative. But it was wartime and Pemberton thought the timing was poor for such a topic. In the fall of 1945, it was brought to Broadway, directed by George S. Kaufman, but it only lasted a week.
Seven years later Mrs. McThing, which was intended for children and a two-week run at the ANTA Theater during the holiday season, became an unexpected success. Starring the venerable Helen Hayes , it was a runner-up in the 1951–52 season for the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In this unusual play, a lonely house and its lonelier inhabitants, leading altogether superficial lives, are threatened. It takes fierce love and respect and just a touch of magic to teach them how to transform a mansion into a home. Mrs. McThing—sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful—holds the power. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times expressed gratitude to Ireland for "Mrs. Chase's rich make-believe sense of humor and her compassion for the needs of adults and children." Comparing Mrs. McThing to Harvey, he believed that it was "a richer play with a broader point of view, a greater area of compassion, and a more innocent sense of comedy."
Bernardine, which explores the fragility of adolescent egos, opened on Broadway in autumn of 1952; Midgie Purvis, created for Tallulah Bankhead , opened in 1961. In the play, a well-to-do matron dons a cleaning woman's attire and discovers the superficiality of her previous existence. The show, full of hilarious mistaken identity, was clearly a tour de force for Bankhead, who was obliged to perform rapidfire character changes. But underneath the comedy is a force for life; Midgie Purvis' plea could just as easily be that of Mary Chase:
And when I do go—really go—finally go…. I don't want anybody acting like I haven't gone. I don't want anybody saying—we won't act like she's gone. We'll act like she's only stepped into another room. That's the way she'd want it. Well—that's not the way I want it. I want them to scream and yell and howl—for months. I want one of those stars up there to go out—when I go out and never turn on again—I want somebody some place—to miss me.
Although Mary Chase died, age 75, of a heart attack on October 21, 1981, the gentle charm of her Irish pooka will continue to capture the affection of audiences.
Barnes, Clive. 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre. NY: Crown, 1970.
Chase, Mary. Bernardine. NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1954.
——. Harvey. NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1945.
——. Mrs. McThing. NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1954.
Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Londa Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre. NY: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.
Harris, Eleanor. "Mary Chase—Success Almost Ruined Her," in Cosmopolitan. February 1954.
"Harvey is Winner of Pulitzer Prize," in The New York Times. May 8, 1952.
Mackay, Barbara. "Harvey Author Mary Chase Dies," in Denver Post. October 21, 1981.
Melrose, Frances. "Mary Chase Colorado's Pulitzer Prize Winner Dies," in Rocky Mountain News. October 21, 1981.
Mitgang, Herbert. "Mary Chase," in The New York Times. October 23, 1981.
Miller, Jordan. American Dramatic Literature. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
Reef, Wallis M. "She Didn't Write it for Money—She Says," in Saturday Evening Post. September 1, 1945.
Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.
Robinson, Alice, Vera Roberts, and Millie Barringer. Notable Women in American Theatre. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Sherwin, Mary. Comedy Tonight. NY: Doubleday, 1977.
Toohey, John L. A History of the Pulitzer Prize Plays. NY: Citadel Press, 1967.
Sorority House (film), screenplay by Mary Chase, RKO-Radio, 1938.
Harvey (film), starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull, Universal, 1950.
"Harvey" (television special), starring James Stewart, "Hallmark Hall of Fame," 1972.
Joanna H. Kraus , Professor of Theatre, State University of New York College at Brockport, and author of Remember My Name (Samuel French), Tenure Track (Players Press), The Ice Wolf in New Women's Theatre (Vintage Books) and Tall Boy's Journey (Carolrhoda Books)