Following Harvey Down the Rabbit-Hole

Harvey is a six-foot three-and-a-half-inch-tall rabbit who is only visible to his best friend, Elwood P. Dowd, a man who once considered himself smart, who is now content with merely being pleasant. Throughout the play “Harvey,” the characters are constantly contemplating Harvey’s existence. Mary Chase leave clues, Easter eggs if you will, hidden among her characters lines. Harvey is classified as a “Pooka” but the audience remains somewhat lost as to what that is exactly. I believe that Harvey the Pooka is real and that he made the choice to reveal himself to Elwood. Harvey, like many magical creatures reveals himself when a person is ready and willing to accept him. Elwood is a dreamy character but he isn’t out of touch with reality, he merely chooses to construct his own. I will follow his example by constructing my own idea of what a “paper” is. Can a paper really be about imaginary friends? I think it is most appropriate, considering the subject matter. Our denial or acceptance of the existence of “imaginary friends” speak volumes about our conceptions of “imagination” and “reality.”

“Harvey,” is a play titled after a character that has no lines and does not technically “appear” at all. He doesn’t jump out of a hat at the audience but his presence is certainly felt. Don’t think of magicians with black top hats or smoking caterpillars when you read “Harvey.” Harvey is a shape shifter in the form of a rabbit; he’s not necessarily for the kiddies. Instead, think of the Domovoi, an aspect of pagan Russian culture that has survived to the present day. Domovoi are creatures that live at the threshold of the home as a protector from evil. These “Temperamental Brownies” are not inherently good or bad, Domovoi protect but they can also punish or tease humans, if they deserve it. Similarly, the Pooka is a mythological creature that is still respected and feared in certain cultures.

Mary Chase invites us to poke at Harvey’s origins, teasing us with an encyclopedia entry about Pooka. Chase is just inviting us to compare Harvey to the definition Wilson reads from the encyclopedia:

P-o-o-k-a. From old Celtic mythology. A fairy spirit in animal form. Always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one at his own caprice. A wise but mischievous creature. Very fond of rum-pots, crack-pots…

There are very few concrete sources concerning Pooka, rather its characteristics can be compiled from a variety of small snippets and an entry from my personal copy of the “Encyclopedia of Mythological Creatures” that I usually keep on my nightstand. The Pooka is a shape shifter that is able to take on a variety of animal forms, in many traditions the spirit was respected for its wisdom. Pooka are found in Celtic mythology, the surname Dowd is also Irish in origin. They are selective of who they reveal themselves to, at times they are only visible to one person. Elwood explains Harvey’s eccentricity to Betty “If Harvey happens to take a liking to people he expresses himself quite definitely. If he’s not particularly interested, he sits there like an empty chair or an empty space on the floor.” Harvey not only appears to Elwood but also seems to play several pranks throughout the play. Pooka could be considered trickster figures, creatures that are often regarded as wise and helpful. Harvey the rabbit is exceptionally intelligent and agreeable.

Harvey seems to have bizarre powers over space and time as mentioned by Elwood. It is clear that Elwood believes in Harvey’s existence but one could argue that he created Harvey in his mind. Chase negates this theory but alluding to other characters experiences and impressions of Harvey, like when he addressed Wilson in the text of the encyclopedia. While there is no definitive answer, after a while one could start believing that Harvey actually does exist.

“Harvey” centers around Elwood’s family trying to get him committed to the sanitarium because they fear his “delusions” are the result of him going insane. Veta is mistakenly taken for crazy instead because even she begins to talk about Harvey as if he is real. Veta’s daughter, Myrtle is convinced throughout the play that her uncle is losing his grasp of reality but near the end of the play, her mother is quick to tell her that it “is not [her] uncle’s fault.” She wonders why Harvey had to, “speak to him in the first place? With the town full of people, why did he have to bother Elwood?” It sounds as though Veta thinks Harvey may have chosen Elwood, instead of thinking Elwood made Harvey up. Perhaps after “being around” Harvey so much, he started to rub off on her. In fact, Veta actually admits to seeing Harvey a few times.

Harvey is mysterious but he is certainly not malevolent. Elwood refers to him as “Harvey the Pooka” who can “stop clocks,” but Harvey is, and asked Elwood what his favorite name was. When Elwood tells him it’s “Harvey,” he responds, “What a coincidence! My name happens to be Harvey.” Harvey introduced himself to Elwood because he noticed his kindness. Harvey serves as a good luck charm for Elwood, keeping him from danger as long as he stays positive, which he always does. Pooka are often capable of human speech, and while we never hear Harvey speak, Elwood imparts his messages. Harvey’s messages are usually that of friendship and good manners. Imagined or not, Harvey is a good-natured spirit.

“Harvey” relies heavily on imagination, from the actor’s efforts to “imagine” talking to a six-foot tall rabbit, to the audience, imagining what Harvey looks like. The word “Imagination” means about as much to most people as the word “Sprinkles.” Many think that imagination is “nice” but it’s only icing on the cake. It isn’t crucial, it’s not even necessary. Modern people take imagination for granted. We are all capable of “imagining” in the general sense of the word. That is, being able to visualize something in your head and having the ability to change or manipulate that image in your mind. Imagination, more than anything else, sets human beings apart from other creatures. As a species, we have the power to construct societies often based on little more than an idea. The truth is our minds are powerful and we are capable of constructing much of our own reality. Negative people are more prone to negative occurrences; the affects of mental illnesses like schizophrenia are often the result of powerful mind delusions. Our minds store more memories than we could ever retrieve and still people doubt the capabilities of the human mind. There are cultures where “myths” like that of Harvey the Pooka are more than fairytales, people in these societies rely upon more than their sense of sight, and they are generally more in tune to nature and themselves as a result.

Elwood’s ability to believe in Harvey was a huge factor in the forging of their friendship. Harvey, like anyone else must have also noticed Elwood’s positive character traits. He is a character we should want to emulate. He is friendly, polite, and loyal to his family and friends. He is even willing to put his family over his own interest when he agrees to receive an injection that would “make him normal.” Luckily, his family realized in time, that Elwood was fine the way he was and that Harvey was a “large” part of Elwood’s happiness.

Elwood gives us a bit of advice his mother gave him, that we have to choose, to be smart or pleasant. We are forced to function based on knowledge or emotions, and we are told these two things do not or will not mix. I would go further to say we have the choice to live by “reality” or “imagination” or somewhere in between. Harvey chose Elwood because Elwood chose not to live by what he sees, but rather what he knows and can sense about a person, even if that person happens to be a six-foot tall mostly invisible rabbit.


4 Responses to “Following Harvey Down the Rabbit-Hole”

  1. 1 Jerry

    “Harvey” is special no matter if it’s on the stage or screen. it’s one of my all time favorites. but you have to be able to imagine an invisible 6 foot tall white rabbit, a Pooka if you will, and his effect on Elwood P Dowd. It’s too bad that everyone doesn’t have a “Harvey”, just think what effect he would have on the people around him>

    Like

  2. 2 UNTgrl

    BG, just watched Harvey for the first time a couple days ago… loved it, and loved reading your analysis/explanation/insight. Thanks for this. Helped me look at some things in a different perspective, a refreshing one. :-)

    Like

  3. Thank you so much! Good luck at your audition :D Harvey is a great play! I loved doing theatre when I was in high school and put in a few years at the community playhouse as well. I’m just glad to know this was helpful to someone else :)

    Like

  4. 4 Harvey

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis of the play. Getting here was no accident. I never heard of this play but now I am getting ready to audition for it and wanted to learn as much as I can about it. I’ll do a bit more online research but I don’t think I’ll find anything much better than this. :-)

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