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The Improbable Life of Mary Chase

“Healing laughter is in order… The world has need of it.”  –Mary Chase

Mary Chase lived a raucous, improbable life. Born Mary McDonough in Denver in 1906, she joked that her family’s home “was not quite on the wrong side of the tracks, but the noise of the trains reached it.” Growing up in poverty instilled in Mary a disdain for social hierarchy, and taught her compassion for eccentrics and unfortunates. Two painful events in her youth solidified this philosophy. After police shot and wounded her teenage brother for stealing candy from a gumball machine, local families ostracized Mary as socially undesirable. Later, in college, she was rejected when she tried to rush an exclusive sorority. From these events, Chase learned that wealth and social status did not correlate to kindness.

In 1925, having finished college at age 18, Mary joined the Rocky Mountain News and became a well-respected daredevil journalist who never backed away from an exciting lead. There she met Bob Chase; they wed in 1928. In 1931, Mary quit journalism to become the playwright she always intended to be. At the height of the Depression, the Chases had three sons, whom they raised on a newspaperman’s salary and freelance jobs that suited Chase’s rebellious personality: she wrote weekly radio programs for the Teamsters, handled publicity for the National Youth League, and formed a chapter of the American Newspaper Guild. She also was involved in labor disputes; bedecked in the large hats that she favored, Chase struck a fiery presence on the picket line.

Her first play, Me, Third, was a hit with Denver audiences, so Chase sent the script to director Antoinette Perry (Denver native and Tony Awards namesake) and producer Brock Pemberton. They agreed to produce the show. Chase borrowed money to make the trip to New York. Retitled Now You’ve Done It, she saw her first Broadway opening in 1937. Audiences “[laughed] their heads off,” but critics panned the piece. It closed after 43 performances.

Chase returned to Denver badly in debt, her confidence wounded. She lamented, it was “a terrific blow. I don’t think I would have tried it again if Mr. Chase hadn’t said to me, ‘Write another play immediately. When a pilot crashes, they make him take up another plane before he leaves the field.’” She wrote several plays, sold a script for $2500, and paid down their bills. One comedy, A Slip of a Girl, toured army camps, which committed Chase to making people laugh during solemn times. Describing her early career, she said: “After years of study I had had one failure on Broadway, one play done by the films, and two published… My friends regarded my playwriting as harmless amusement.”

Everything would change with Harvey.

Witnessing the heartbroken movements of her neighbor, a widow who lost her only son in World War II, Chase wondered, “Could I ever possibly write anything which might make that woman laugh again?” It took Chase three months to hatch the idea of Harvey, until “one morning when I was only half awake, I saw a big white rabbit following a psychiatrist.” The play took two years to complete; said Chase, “none of it came easy.”

Asserting that “the laughs are deep and rooted in truth,” she sent Harvey to Perry and Pemberton. Chase used her $500 advance to travel New York City before the Broadway opening. At previews, she wore a borrowed dress and shoes with holes in the soles, and carried a note from Bob: “Don’t be unhappy if the play does not succeed. You still have your husband and your three boys and they all love you.” Audiences and critics adored the show. Harvey would run for 1,775 performances, win the 1945 Pulitzer Prize, tour extensively, and be made into a film.

Chase’s abrupt change of fortune unmoored her. She noted, “The things you see by the flares of sudden fame are shattering and terrifying: the glittering eye of Greed, the distorted faces of her sisters Envy and Malice. These witches always come to the feast. They chill your heart and leave you alone in the world.” One momentous change was economic—she was instantly rich. More shocking was Chase’s ascendency into the high society that previously snubbed her. She said, “I found lies everywhere. I was still the same person I had always been, yet everyone had changed in their attitude toward me.” Chase became depressed; she suffered from “a sort of soul sickness…that plows up every bit of contentment that you ever had.”

“I was afraid for awhile that I had shot everything with Harvey,” she noted, especially when her next play closed after only eight performances. The promise of laughter helped return her focus. She wrote several more plays, and even saw New York City honor her with “Mary Chase Alley.” Still, her career recollections were bittersweet: “I never regretted Harvey, but I shouldn’t have spent as many years as I did trying to surpass it.”

On October 20, 1981, Chase died of a heart attack, survived by her husband, three sons, and eleven grandchildren. Bob died in 1990, and the two are buried in Lakewood, Colorado’s Crown Hill Cemetery. They chose their plot specifically: their headstone is overlooked by Harvey—not the rabbit, but the marker of a Mr. and Mrs. Harvey of Jefferson County. The famous pooka remains their not-quite-visible protector.

Chase wrote to bring her audiences joy. To her, humor was sacred and necessary. Shortly before her death, Chase reiterated the importance of compassion and hilarity: “If I have any message at all for young writers it is this: Healing laughter is in order. A writer either weeps or praises. Look up and praise. The world has need of it.” This continues to resonate, as does Harvey’s simple, yet powerful message. Through his radical kindness, Elwood creates a beautiful world, one where everyone is a potential friend and where everyone is valued. We would do well to adopt such an attitude today. ■

Posted on May 10, 2017 in Productions

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