(Note: This article contains spoilers for the play and movie Harvey.)
Since becoming involved in a community theater production of Mary Chase’s classic Harvey, I’ve been thinking of the popular Facebook blurb, “I’m in a relationship and it’s complicated.” What complicates the relationship between Elwood P. Dowd and Harvey is
a) Harvey is a white rabbit, six feet tall. b) Harvey is invisible.
But, then, as we believers know, any time you consort with an invisible friend, complications ensue.
To briefly review the plot: The social-climbing Veta Louise Simmons is upset over her brother Elwood’s friendship with the invisible being he calls a “pooka.” When Elwood crashes her party, introducing Harvey to the prim and proper matrons in attendance, it’s the last straw. To save her and her niece further embarrassment, she attempts to have him committed to a sanitarium. However, the desperate Veta lets slip that sometimes she sees the rabbit too, and the doctors commit her instead of Elwood.
When the truth comes out, the hunt is on for the mild-mannered tippler and his “imaginary” friend. In the climax, Elwood is faced with a choice: Give up the provocative pooka or lose his sister.
What is it about this story of an apparent alcoholic and his long-eared pal that continues to appeal to young and old alike? Let’s take a closer look to see if we can understand Harvey’s longevity. As I adjust the rabbit ears on this set, two themes emerge clearly.
The first is the destructive power of pride. Though psychiatrists long ago put away their white coats and nurses doffed their clunky white shoes for more comfortable footwear, though times change, people remain the same. In the movie version of Harvey, a cab driver, speaking of “normal” human beings, adds, “And you know what stinkers they are.” The people whom humble Elwood Dowd has to contend with, though starched and pressed, nevertheless give off the odor to which the cabbie refers. If pride is a disease, there’s more than a little irony in how greatly the psychiatrists in the play, Doctors Chumley and Sanderson, are afflicted with it.
Sanderson is a young stud, bent on proving himself in the world. Like those of many young men, his motivations are erotic and hubristic. He wants sex and he wants power. He is the young sinner. Chumley is the old sinner. His pride has landed him respect and affluence, but it’s not enough. The old man’s sexual prowess has waned. The only way out that he can see is to go back in time for one last fling. He sees Harvey as the genie that will open a magical escape hatch for him. It’s interesting that Harvey, who’s made himself visible to Chumley, loses interest in him in the end.
Though prudish and prim, Elwood’s sister, Veta, is nevertheless as sopping with pride as the psychiatrists on whom she sets her hopes for a respectable household. Here, the playwright seems to be using be using Elwood’s apparent alcoholism as means of satirizing his sister’s social ambitions. (Interestingly, though he often speaks of his drinking, we see him drunk in neither the play nor the film. We never even see him imbibe.) Then as now, bar-hopping was viewed as the antithesis of the responsible life. In short, alcohol brings into sharp focus Veta’s fundamental sin, the basic failing of the human race, pride.
The Bible warns of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). I don’t know whether Mary Chase read the Bible, but her comedy illustrates the folly of human pride as well as any sermon I’ve ever heard. Subtly and powerfully, she contrasts the lust of the eyes, the desire for the world and all it offers, with the desire for what we can’t see.
This is the second great theme in Harvey: the power of the Unseen. Here, the channel of that power isn’t actually the pooka, but Elwood P. Dowd. Dowd is a fascinating character, as mysterious as he is delightful. We don’t know where he came from. All he says to Dr. Chumley on that subject is “Didn’t I give you one of my cards?” From certain clues dropped along the way, it seems that Dowd was once like other men, albeit a bit “different” in some respects. Perhaps, when younger, he felt a growing temptation to join the rat-race, but managed somehow to resist it. After telling the astonished Chumley what his mother used to tell him, “In this world you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant,” he adds that for years he was smart, but now recommends pleasant.
In fact, you can easily compare Elwood to Christ. Like Jesus, Elwood is misunderstood and rejected. He’s too courtly, too old-fashioned, too dumb for the modern “I want it all and I want it now” crowd. Like the lilies of the field, he toils not, neither does he spin. Still, he displays his own kind of rumpled glory. He loves his pooka, but he will sacrifice that friendship for the sake of the very one who is conspiring against him.
Dowd doesn’t seem to have been on a quest for the spiritual. Nevertheless, the childlike heart within him attracts the attention of the mischievous Harvey. He’s not an evangelist—for Christianity, or for the Celtic mythology a pooka represents. He’s just a welcoming, inclusive fellow who somehow manages to make friends of all sorts in all sorts of places. As Elwood tells a magazine salesman over the phone (swiftly making yet another friend out of a total stranger), he spends a lot of time at Charlie’s Place or Eddie’s Bar. Why did Chase choose a bar as Elwood’s headquarters? Perhaps I’m reading too much into the play, but a bar, like a church, is where the wounded go:
They tell us about the big terrible things they’ve 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.
In these booths, over these glasses, Elwood introduces people to his invisible friend who is “bigger and grander than anything they offer me.” They’re impressed, says Elwood, but they seldom come back. Elwood’s no pastor, but his monologue evokes the sadness a preacher feels over those who, while attracted to the Unseen, are ultimately repulsed by its demands. Believers and unbelievers alike can’t help but feel the poignancy of a great gift—in this case, a return to childlike wonder—spurned.
Cornered at last by the prideful and the blind, it looks as if Elwood will have to pay a terrible price for their sins. For those who haven’t seen the play or the film, I don’t wish to spoil the ending. I’ll just say what I said to my small children, anxious about the fate of a beloved character, “Just watch. Everything will be okay.”
As I’ve contended elsewhere, there’s only one story—that is, one story worth telling over and over: A man fell into a hole; this is how he got out. In the case of Harvey, you might say the “hole” people fell into was a rabbit hole. Here, it’s not simply a rabbit pulling them out, but the wonder and grace of the Unseen.
Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and actor living in Xenia, Ohio. He feels honored and privileged to play Elwood in the Xenia Community Theatre production of Harvey.
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